Voyaging through baby names

Have you seen the Baby Name Wizard’s NameVoyager yet? It’s the product of the prolific and masterful Martin Wattenberg and his wife and baby name consultant Laura Wattenberg (she maintains an entertaining baby name blog). Martin is a scientist/artist at IBM Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were actually lucky enough to have him give a guest lecture at our company about, among other things, the NameVoyager. One of the things he mentioned in his talk was that this work, more than any of the official research he was doing, resonated with people throughout the company, including the folks in the executive suite. This collaborative work between him and his wife helped IBM VPs understand more than anything else before it the value of effective data visualization.

The NameVoyager perfectly encapsulates that golden rule of entertainment: if you want to fascinate your audience, put them in the show. Show me me, and you’ve got me by the eyeballs. Naturally the first thing anyone does with the NameVoyager is try their own name. And then it’s off to the races: spouse name, sibling names, and parent names in short order. Then you start to notice the cultural trends. My favorites are names you might imagine on a woman’s bowling shirt. Betty. Carol. Barbara. Joan. They were all teenagers together in the mid-century, and then they faded from view.

My friend and amateur genealogist Jay Czarnecki recently sent me some of his own observations on the NameVoyager. Here’s what he has to say.

Voyaging Through Baby Names

by Jay Czarnecki

I came across a website that probably appeals to several different audiences. It’s called NameVoyager. With its blue and pink hues, and the fact that its parent site is named BabyNameWizard, it’s clearly geared toward parents-to-be researching the popularity of the name they have in mind for the newest family member. You type in a first name and a graph pops up which shows how many people in the U.S. have or had that name at a given time; the data is drawn from the U.S Social Security Administration records. Web developers will enjoy the nifty Java applet. I see it as a resource for family history research – as an amateur genealogist, I enjoyed seeing the waxing and waning of first names over the decades. This is something that you gradually become aware of as your family research takes you back in time. For example, I remember sitting in the Research Room of the National Archives in front of a microfilm reader scrolling through images of the 1880 Census looking for a great-great-great-grandmother named “Phoebe” and noting how popular the name “Phoebe” was in the 1800’s – there were just loads of them. I don’t think I’ve known one “Phoebe” my whole life. Sure enough, entering “Phoebe” in the NameVoyager shows its decline in popularity in the first half of the 20th century. But it also shows that, in the past decade, “Phoebe” is on the rise again! If you wonder why, try typing in “Chandler.”

I’m sure you could find plenty of other examples of modern broadcast media triggering a surge in a name’s popularity. Of course, some names have not yet made their comeback and perhaps never will. Phoebe’s son was my great-great-grandfather Horatio, a name which NameVoyager says died out well before the turn of the last century. Born in 1848, he was a sailor and fisherman, like his father, who plied the waters around the Jersey Shore in a two-masted schooner. So where did Horatio get his name? The census lists him as being illiterate, so it is very likely his parents were as well, but I can still tell you exactly where. His full name was Horatio Nelson Bailey. I find it intriguing that, despite their illiteracy and the absence of today’s mass media, Horatio’s American parents somehow came to name their child after another man who worked on the water, the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, who was lionized in Britain after his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

2 thoughts on “Voyaging through baby names”

  1. Back after you got everyone at the office hooked on this thing — coincidentally the same time my friend was having a baby — I looked at all the names from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Up, UP, UP! between ’90 and 2000! Sadly, neither “Buffy” nor “Spike” made the list.

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