New Study Explains Baby Name Trends as Products of Social Networks

The popularity of Shaquille as a boy baby name peaked in 1993 for an obvious reason: It was Shaq’s rookie year in the NBA. This type of easily explained spike in baby name popularity, however, is the exception and not the rule. The reasons behind the ebb and flow in the baby names parents choose every year are typically opaque, and it’s a mystery that attracted the attention of researchers at Carnegie Mellon. Why do names fall in and out of fashion? What explains the rise of ‘Noah’ and ‘Liam’ and the fall of others? The researchers set out to study the unexplainable mysteries of what makes a baby name.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to understand changing baby name trends. Using data from the Social Security Administration, which has kept track of the most popular baby names since at least 1880, they developed a mathematical model that captures the conflicting desires parents feel to pick a name that both stands out and fits in.

They found that if these two factors were the only ones at play, the same name would be the most popular every year. Since that’s not the case, a destabilizing factor must be at play.

The researchers considered social networks, such as neighbors, colleagues, and clubs, as a potential factor driving the churn in baby names. The research bore out this hypothesis, as they found that different kinds of networks produced similar anti-equilibrium effects.

Case in point: the recent opposite popularity trends of girls named Emma and Emily. Between 1996 and 2007, more parents named their baby girls Emily than any other name. In 2008, Emma dethroned it, and the Austenian moniker has remained in the top three every year since while has Emily slid, falling to 18th place in 2020.

The researchers believe that Emily became less popular as it became too ubiquitous. Emma was a similar, but a socially acceptable name that nevertheless made it much more likely that their kid wouldn’t have to append their last initial to their name once they reached kindergarten. No Emma B.’s, D’, and K.’s here — just one Emma.

Of course, now that Emma has dominated for the past two decades, including six years as the most popular female name in the U.S., it’s a prime candidate for a similar decrease in popularity as more parents rediscover Emily or move on to another name entirely.

For parents with a kid on the way, this model points to a few different baby-naming paths: an accepted name that’s popular and likely to drop off, and an accepted name that’s less popular and likely to rise, or a non-accepted name (in American society that might mean a name from another culture, a TV show like Game of Thrones, or one that’s simply made up) that will stand out, with the positive and negative implications of that non-conformity.