Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Whatever happened to Mildred, Ernest and Cyril?

Stumbled across this classic George Carlin bit, where the late genius comic ridicules names like Todd, Cody, Kyle and Tucker, while lamenting a world with fewer guys named Eddie, Vinnie and Tony.

Every year the Social Security Administration releases the list of the most popular baby names. On their website, you can analyze name data going back to 1880, a time when Harry, Walter and Minnie ruled. Spending time on there is like wandering around the Baseball or Basketball Reference sites. A quick 10-minute trip can turn into an hour-long journey.

Selfishly, I first wanted to know where Shawn ranked. I didn't want it to be too popular; I didn't want to be a commoner. In 2009, it was the 210th most popular name for boys, down from 195 in 2008. Shawn didn't appear in the Top 1,000 rankings until 1947, when it appeared at 922. In 1964, it finally broke into the Top 100, coming in at No. 88 (the audio version of this blog post will be read by Casey Kasem or, failing that, Rick Dees). Its best ranking ever came in 1973, when it was 27th. In 1975, the year I was born, it was 31st. The name has been dropping in popularity ever since. In 1975, Shawn was also the 254th most-popular name for a girl. In college a friend tried setting me up with a girl named Shawn. I begged off, fearing that an eventual marriage - if, you know, it reached that point after a few dates - would lead to a household with two people named Shawn Fury. This leads to ridicule, which I know because our school's old band instructor was named Kim Lau, as was his wife. Kids mocked this, though the reasons why this was so funny remain a bit unclear.

Sean is a more popular spelling than Shawn, as it was ranked 97 in 2009. I remain forever grateful that my parents chose the correct way to spell my name.

The first data comes from 1880, when John and Mary topped the charts. Today they are ranked 26 and 102, respectively. John held the top spot from 1880 through 1923, a dynastic run that dwarfs anything accomplished by Russell's Celtics or Wooden's Bruins. It didn't fall out of the Top 5 until 1973, a remarkable streak. It's never returned. Obviously, Baby Boomers fell slightly out of love with the name and it's never recovered.

My grandpa's name was Cyril, one of those old-sounding names that seems unimaginable for a kid today. Picture some 8-year-old named Cyril running around a youth soccer field today. Imagine his mom yelling, "Cyril, you're going home with the Johnsons, we'll pick you up later." Hard to do. If you know a Cyril today, chances are he was alive during the first World War.

Grandpa was born in 1913, when Cyril was ranked 302. Cyril never broke the Top 200 and since 1966 it's never even been in the Top 1,000. My mom's name is Cecelia, and she does spell it with the middle e (like her grandma did, whom she was named after), though everyone calls her Cees. Cecelia - with an e - is a pretty rare name, coming in at 738 in 2009. Cecilia - with an i - was at 265. I might be biased but I like it with an e, even though three generations of Simon and Garfunkel fans - and Saint Cecilia - are convinced it should be with an i. Great song, wrong spelling. And Cees - which, as I wrote, is what everyone calls my mom; most people probably don't even know it's short for Cecelia - has, according to the SSA website, not been "in the top 1000 names for any year of birth in the last 130 years." Now that's a name with a sense of uniqueness.

Know many Mildreds? Probably not. And if you do, it's likely because of visits to a nursing home or touching newspaper stories about a couple's 75th wedding anniversary. As recently as 1945, it was in the Top 100. She's been out of the Top 1,000 since 1984. Unless a retro-name craze hits the country, she will surely never return.

The months are interesting. Between 1976 and 1979, January cracked the Top 1,000 each year. But it never did before '76 and never since '79. This makes no sense to me. What occurred in 1976 that made people want to name their daughter January, and what happened to make that desire disappear after a four-year stretch? April's been around since 1939, peaking at 23 in 1979 (a big year for the months). But now it's down to 353. May, there's another old name, one you'll probably only see in Remember When columns that date back to the 19th century. May was the 95th most popular name in 1901 but hasn't been in the Top 1,000 since 1982.

A name to keep any eye on: June. As recently as 1941, June ranked 90th. Then it plummeted out of the Top 1,000 from 1987 through 2007. But June came back in 2008, placing 867. And in 2009, it was 662. So in two years, it inexplicably jumped at least 338 spots. It seems like it's a name that would appeal to people. Simple, conjures up images of warmth and sunshine. Could June break the Top 500 in 2010? The Romans were apparently more popular in the 19th century, as August was in the Top 100 for 12 years. It fell into the 900s in the 1980s, but has bumped up to 433.

Jayden ranked No. 8 in 2009, which can perhaps partially be blamed on Britney Spears giving her second child that name, inspiring others with her wise life choices. It didn't make the Top 1,000 until 1994 and even then it was 851. It took off in popularity at the same time as the Internet. Was there some type of online campaign to name children Jayden? Every year since it improved position. It seems inevitable that it will someday hold the top spot, a remarkable ascension for a somewhat ludicrous name.

The No. 2 name for boys - Ethan - has also had a startling rise. It was no higher than 263 until 1989. But it's now been in the Top 5 since 2004. That at least makes sense, I know an Ethan. I do not know any Jayden's or August's. Isabella reigns for the girls. In 1989, Isabella wasn't in the Top 1,000. Twenty years later, No. 1. I need a sociologist to comment on what all this means.

My wife likes to say she's a unique person and when it comes to her name, she's definitely correct. Louise hasn't been in the Top 1,000 since 1991. Like many names that are no longer as popular, Louise started falling in the 1940s - it ranked 99th in 1948. Even the Greatest Generation apparently thought their names sounded old - when they started naming their children, Cyril, Millie and Ernest began disappearing from birth certificates.

In the battle of seasons, Autumn rules, coming in at 81, well ahead of Summer at 175. As for Spring and Winter, they only made appearances in the 1970s. Spring cracked the Top 1,000 between 1975 and 1979, while Winter made it in 1978 and '79. Odd. Why those two years? Were fears about a nuclear winter so prevalent during the Cold War then that the word stuck in people's heads when naming their daughters?

And as for George Carlin and his dislike of Todds around th,e world, the late comic might have had an impact on some people. Todd was the 454th most popular boys name in 2001, when Carlin ranted about the name in his Complaints and Grievances concert. Today, just a decade later, it's at 892 and seems on its way out of the Top 1000. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but maybe not. Maybe Carlin bullied some people into forgoing Todd.

Carlin died in 2008. Too bad he's no longer around, because we need someone to take on Jayden.

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