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Looking Back: BabyNameWizard.com, 2004-2021

December 2, 2021 laurawattenberg 63 Comments

Looking Back: BabyNameWizard.com, 2004-2021

December 2, 2021 LauraWattenberg 63 Comments
Old screenshot of BabyNameWizard.com


This week, my old website BabyNameWizard.com was shut down by its new owners. I’d like to take this moment to remember the site, what it accomplished, and what it meant in my life.


It was November 2004. My new book The Baby Name Wizard was just months from publication, and I had built a simple website with a blog to promote the book. My husband Martin helped me brainstorm apps we could build for the site to help bring some attention to the book release. We experimented with different ways to present name popularity data and settled on something we thought was fun. It was a stacked graph of historical popularity, with a twist. As you typed letters of a name, the graph updated in real time. So in addition to a graph of, say, the name Krista, you could see the surge of all Kr- names in the 1970s.

This was cool stuff back then. Name popularity graphs weren’t yet common, and most that existed charted popularity rankings (a huge mistake). But it was the animation and the ability to explore past trends that made this new app irresistible. Martin did a lot of clever and subtle things to help the ever-changing graph render smoothly, even with the limitations of browsers and bandwidth of the time. I loved it.

NameVoyager graph of names starting with BR

We named the app the “NameVoyager” and launched it on BabyNameWizard.com the day my book was published, February 8 2005. Within two months, a million people had used it. No advertising, no Twitter or Instagram. Just people discovering the fascination of name trends, and telling their friends or writing articles about it. And, happily, getting curious about the Baby Name Wizard book.

As it happened, the book needed the visibility. Back in 2005, Barnes & Noble was the 800-pound gorilla of the book world. Not only could the chain’s purchasing decisions make or break book sales, but it had taken to issuing its own titles and cutting out publishers. After my publisher circulated the first blurb about the upcoming Baby Name Wizard, Barnes & Noble came out with a baby name book of its own. A book with a blurb and tagline oddly reminiscent of mine, with the exact same dimensions and cover price. B&N then put in a bare minimum order for The Baby Name Wizard, which could have spelled doom.

But when the flood of NameVoyager users showed interest in the book, Barnes & Noble turned around and put in a big order. The NameVoyager saved the book, and once parents started reading the book it developed its own momentum. Three revised versions later, over 300,000 copies have been sold.

The popularity of the NameVoyager also drew people to my weekly blog on names. A community of name enthusiasts grew in the comment section of my posts, with discussions sometimes extending to hundreds of comments. I came to recognize frequent posters and look forward to their insights and distinctive voices.

Site 2.0
The success of the NameVoyager and blog planted the seed of a more ambitious vision. I joined forces with Jennie Baird, a friend and talented new-media executive, and we set out to build the ultimate baby name site. We designed more tools, like a “Name Matchmaker” recommendation engine and an interactive popularity map. We launched a forum and invited some of the wonderful name enthusiasts from the blog discussions to be moderators. And at the heart of the site was a broad, limitless name reference, the Namipedia.

Old screenshow of BabyNameWizard.com

We wanted users who looked up a name at BNW to learn about it from all angles. Where did the name come from? How popular was it, now and in the past, near and far? What did people who heard the name think of it? What other names did parents who chose this name like? What were the the experiences of people who bore the name? And how about nicknames, and pronunciations, and variants, and famous examples? Every name tells a story, and we wanted the entries in our Namipedia to capture those complete stories.

We started with a database of about 6,000 names with some basic expert-sourced information. Then we invited the world in to add names, knowledge and perspectives.

We knew it was risky. Spam, offensive content and all-around mischief were inevitable. We quickly learned that no blocklist of “bad words” could compete with the imagination of young troublemakers who came up with inventions like the name Cheeseface. One day I laughed at a particularly clever bit of mischief: a submission of the baby name “Smurf” with the commentary “I have synesthesia, so this name sounds blue to me.” I mentioned it over dinner that evening, and my 10-year-old daughter admitted that she and her best friend were the secret Smurf authors.

The Impact
For all of the risk and all of the monitoring it necessitated, the openness of the Namipedia was a triumph. Contributions from users around the world grew the database to tens of thousands of names with a wealth of insights. Some frequent submitters focused on their specific areas of expertise, like names from medieval literature or from indigenous languages of Mexico. Every batch of new names I reviewed taught me something new.

At its peak, BabyNameWizard.com regularly drew 2 million users a month. Just as important to me, it was, I truly believe, the single best information source about baby names that has ever been. BNW was even named one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2009, along with the likes of Twitter and Amazon.

On a personal level, the site gave me a platform to talk about names in a way I seldom saw elsewhere. I believe that names are an essential window on our changing culture, values and dreams. I appreciated that BNW readers listened, and that some—from xkcd author Randall Monroe to New York Times columnist David Brooks—wrote about and amplified my message. I also had the chance to correspond with many parents about their own naming experiences, and even to connect outside the site with some of the wonderful volunteer moderators, who became a community of their own.

But as the site grew the internet was changing, technologically, socially and economically. By 2014 BNW needed to be rebuilt with newer technology, and to join forces with a larger network for economies of scale. Jennie and I decided to sell our business to the parenting network CafeMom.

I joined CafeMom to continue managing BNW content, while the company pursued grand plans for a redesign. Sadly, the redesign never happened. CafeMom ran into struggles of its own, and ultimately sold its network of websites to a company called RockYou. Suffice it to say that I have had nothing to do with BabyNameWizard.com for a few years now. Meanwhile the site that I sold in 2014 because it was already overdue for an overhaul remained frozen in time, slowly decaying.

Until this week. Whoever now owns BNW has officially pulled the plug. It’s a bittersweet moment. After years without staffing or updates, the site had become a fossil. It was time for it to go; I’m only sorry that so much valuable content from so many voices was lost with it.

RIP, BabyNameWizard.com, and thank you. And for those of you who may miss the BNW community: welcome to Namerology.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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63 Comments

  • A Silver Spork December 2, 2021 at 4:08 am

    Awww, I’m sorry, what a bummer. Rest in peace, you glorious trove of information and community. I spent hundreds of hours reading the blog and poking around with the various tools. A good quarter of the characters in my writing have names that came from BNW, and it’s going to be a lot harder to find good names without it.

  • Boy mom December 2, 2021 at 4:35 am

    Wow. I’m speechless and sad. I read your BNW blog for years before I had my son in 2017 and used the site extensively that year. Even though it was outdated, I’m pregnant now and still using the information and enjoy reading old blog posts. I’ve been on the BNW site weekly for the last 3 months and I still don’t have the right name. I am truly going to feel the loss of that resource!

  • Nicwo December 2, 2021 at 6:08 am

    What a legacy!! Started regularly viewing the BNW in 2006, three children to name later and a wonder of unbias insight to micro-and national cultures in commentary… If your book or asks come up on Pinterest and elsewhere, I let Pinners know where to find you as author. And the websites are like a window of news that isn’t rhetoric or agenda promos, just real insight and I thank you!

  • SJ C December 2, 2021 at 12:12 pm

    What a waste! I have been following you for years, if rarely commenting and I bought many copies of your book when my friends were having babies.

    I always found the name voyager an amazing tool for making sure that names for characters in writing were appropriate for their time. Hate to think it’s just dead and no longer with us.

  • Elizabeth December 2, 2021 at 2:35 pm

    I hope that users googling Baby Name Wizard will find this entry and become regular readers of Namerology. Thanks for your work, Laura. It has enriched my life.

  • Emmeline December 2, 2021 at 3:26 pm

    I came late to the site (maybe 2015?) but loved it so much. I miss the tools, particularly the Name Voyager, and I really miss the forum.

  • Natalie December 2, 2021 at 5:39 pm

    What?! Such a shame that the site was neglected by its later owners. They didn’t understand what they had.

    Baby Name Wizard and the NameVoyager were ICONIC. I visited so many times to play around with the tools. Your blog always had new and interesting ways to analyze the data, a refreshing break from most of the vapid “new hottest baby names” content out there.

    Glad to see the new site, best of luck!

  • Elizabeth December 2, 2021 at 6:08 pm

    Well, this sucks. I was fascinated by names and naming as a kid, but BabyNameWizard was the first thing that helped me transition it into an adult interest. My condolences.

    But out of curiosity, do you have the right to republish the essays that first ran on BNW? The internet is poorer without your reflections on Le-a, Samantha, and all the rest.

    • M December 3, 2021 at 9:37 pm

      I was also wondering about the essays themselves. There were many that explored American cultural prejudices and biases that are relevant today.

  • Namerology
    Namerology December 2, 2021 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks to all who have asked about BNW content! I’m hoping to add a NameVoyager alternative to the tools section here at Namerology soon. In addition to the expectant parents, fiction writers and name enthusiasts who miss it, I’ve also heard from computer science professors who depended on NameVoyager demonstrations for classes on data visualization.

    (To add insult to injury, the anodyne site that the old BNW address now redirects to features static graphs of…wait for it…name *rankings*. )

    • Dominique December 22, 2021 at 5:44 am

      I would love to see the “sibling names” feature brought back if you create similar tools. I’m a fiction writer and would use that tool extensively for character names.

    • Bruno Dumas February 17, 2022 at 10:40 am

      Hi, I’m part of those CS professors 🙂 BNW was a great pedagogical resource, especially for showing that a visualisation created for a specific goal could be used for others. Tamara Munzner referenced the site in her fantastic book : “Munzner, T., 2014. Visualization analysis and design. CRC press.”

  • Mariposa December 2, 2021 at 10:34 pm

    Thank you, Laura. Loved the site and the forums ever since I was a college student. Never ended up having children, but spent many happy hours planning and researching name meanings.

  • GilaB December 3, 2021 at 3:47 am

    Oh, no! I loved the Name Voyager, still consulted it when name questions came up, and had been sad it wasn’t being updated. But this is much worse.

  • Emmeline December 3, 2021 at 6:43 am

    That really is too bad! There was nothing like the original version 15 years ago, and there still is nothing like the 2.0 version, even today. Like so many others, I still visited it from time to time to play and research and dream, even though it was no longer updated.
    Thanks for creating it, and for the good times we had on it.

  • Katjsh December 3, 2021 at 7:41 am

    I found this tonight in my middle of the night musings, I just used the site 2 weeks ago to generate a list of short girls names to help my mom name a new puppy. I’ve been a fan since the beginning just not around too much the last few years.
    -Katjsh

  • YD December 3, 2021 at 10:37 pm

    RIP BNW 🙁

    I’ve been using it to come up with fun alliterative names for my math/CS problems, and I don’t know what I’ll be doing next semester without it. I guess my students will have to deal with boring Alices and Bobs…

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg December 4, 2021 at 12:35 am

      OK, I now officially have to come up with a new name grapher in time for the spring semester. 🙂

      • Nora Jaye February 12, 2022 at 4:07 pm

        PLEASE!

        I’m so sad it’s gone. My kids were named before it came out, but I’m a name geek and always felt the tools were a gift of the internet age.

        Somehow I missed the essays – do you retain rights to them, I hope?

  • Abir December 4, 2021 at 6:32 am

    Crushed to hear this news. In its 17 years of existence your website inspired in me a deep interest in how we choose names and the patterns these choices make over decades and centuries. I had just gone to quickly check out how popular the name Magnolia has been (it had been on my mind) only to see that the NameVoyager is gone. It will be missed. Thank you for creating these tools we grew to love and for fostering this community of like minded individuals.

  • Sharalyns December 4, 2021 at 6:50 pm

    I tried to go the the Name Matchmaker on Thursday just to discover that all my bookmarks and everything are just gone. I’m so, so sad. Thank you for the years of helping out though!

  • Monica Jo December 5, 2021 at 9:19 am

    So sad to hear this. I’ve had a weird interest in names since I was little, even though I never ended up having kids to name. I hope you’ll reach out to all of your fans for support in some kind of restoration of what we’ve lost.

  • Isaac December 5, 2021 at 6:12 pm

    The Baby Name Wizard Website is still available on the Wayback Machine, where the site is still pretty functional and Laura’s old blog posts all appear to be still available! The forum is also readable but I can’t tell how far back it goes.

    The Name Finder tools don’t seem to be functional unfortunately.

    The Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/*/babynamewizard.com

  • Marina December 5, 2021 at 9:33 pm

    Ah, what a shame. I had wondered what had happened. They really didn’t know what they had, did they? Your writing and data tools had a big influence on my career direction. I still think you’re the gold standard of data. Onwards and upwards.

  • Marisa December 5, 2021 at 10:36 pm

    How heartbreaking! I loved the Name Voyager tool! It was so handy for coming up with names fir my own kids and recommendations in forums.

  • Amy3 December 6, 2021 at 1:07 am

    I’m so sorry, Laura. I was a pretty active member of the BNW community for a while and have such fond memories of what a wonderful, smart group of people your commenters were. I’m glad you’re still writing here as your take on names continues to be fresh and insightful.

  • DaniM December 6, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    What a bummer. I referred many friends to BNW and specifically the Name Matchmaker. I even used the Matchmaker to correctly guess a friend’s baby’s name! I’ll miss that tool especially.

  • Laurel MacKenzie December 6, 2021 at 3:09 pm

    I’m so sorry to see BNW go. My now-husband turned me onto it when I was in my first year of graduate school in linguistics. It sparked an interest in names that I think had always been lying dormant in me. When I went on the academic job market in 2012, I was required as part of one of my interviews to propose some new courses to the hiring department. A flash of inspiration came to me one morning while brushing my teeth: a freshman seminar on the linguistics of names. Learning the basics of data analysis by tracking name patterns quantitatively — and connecting changes in name trends to how languages change more generally — would be a central component of the course. Long story short, I got the job, taught the course for several years, and wrote up my experiences in a paper for the journal Language, where the BNW gets a few citations: https://doi.org/10.1353/lan.2018.0068.

    Around the same time, another linguist was doing a similar thing in her own teaching and wrote about it here: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-4202064

    Thank you, Laura, for years of entertainment and academic inquiry!

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg December 6, 2021 at 6:46 pm

      Laurel, that’s amazing! Thank you so much for sharing the story, it means a lot to know that people really caught what we were trying to do with BNW.

    • Des January 14, 2022 at 6:07 am

      I am so heartbroken. I wish I had taken screenshots of the information on my daughter’s name.

      What a huge loss.

  • Jinny December 7, 2021 at 1:25 am

    You’re very right about fiction writers missing it… this one, at least! I’ve been using BNW for years, for dozens of characters in various stories, and was heartbroken when I tried to do so today and found that it had been taken down. It seems like such an inconsequential thing, since I’m not naming real people, but I don’t know how I’m going to work with any other site to find the names I need. The data on there was incomparable… anyways, thank you for everything! I’m glad I finally know who was behind the site, even if this frantic Google search was only induced by realizing what I had taken for granted.

  • LauraWattenberg
    LauraWattenberg December 7, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    To the expectant parents and fiction writers left scrambling for names: do feel free to drop me a line at https://namerology.com/contact/
    I have some custom name tools and resources of my own that I use for writing the book, and for naming emergencies. 🙂

  • Zephyr December 7, 2021 at 4:43 pm

    I also loved BNW, and had been curious as to the lack of updates in recent years. It all makes sense now! Thanks for updating us about your new site. 🙂

  • Maya Corrigan December 7, 2021 at 9:33 pm

    Laura, I’m a fiction writer (mysteries) who checked your site whenever I started a new book. I’m doing that now and was surprised and saddened to find the site gone. I and a number of my writer friends believe that a character comes alive only when we find the right name. Best of luck in your future endeavors.

  • Emily December 7, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    This is a huge loss! I have never stopped using the name matchmaker and other tools, and the forum was a wonderful community that helped me name my daughter. Laura, thank you for everything that BNW has given us!

  • Terri Todosey December 9, 2021 at 2:15 am

    Sad as I am a writer and used your site to research name meanings. Check out ‘Myth’ by Todosey page 13 for a bit of babynamewizard.com nostalgia.

  • Kimberlite
    Kimberlite December 11, 2021 at 3:34 am

    I’m so sad to learn this! I continued to use the Name Voyager after the website stopped being updated. I will miss those tools!

  • JS December 12, 2021 at 10:35 pm

    I’m so sad about this! I used the name voyager several times per year. Of course just as I can finally use it to look up names for my own baby it is taken down. Is there any way to revive it?!

  • Adrienne December 13, 2021 at 6:09 am

    I’m so so sad. I’ve loved looking up names since I was a kid but somehow did not discover bnw until earlier this year. I immediately felt it was superior to all other baby name websites that I’ve ever been on. A couple days ago I wanted to use the name matchmaker and kept being redirected to a site I didn’t recognize. Tragic that I just missed being able to use it one last time by a few days! I truly hope there is some way to bring it or some of its tools back.

  • Rachel December 15, 2021 at 9:48 pm

    Like all the other posters, I am sad about this! I was glad to be reminded of the Wayback Machine, and still used the archived site today. I do hope that all the knowledge and tools from the Name Voyager etc. come back in a new and better version some day!

  • Bethany December 16, 2021 at 7:55 am

    Your website has brought me so much joy over the span of all my pregnancies and helped me find names I cherish for both of my daughters and for several of my nephews & nieces. I especially loved hearing others experiences of the name – the nicknames, misspellings & associations. No one else has ever considered a search engine that takes into account the number of syllables or certain sounds you are drawn to in a name. Thank you for the wealth of information that you provided in the important task of giving our children their first identity. As I hunt for the next perfect name for baby #3 I mourn the loss of this website but am so deeply grateful for your efforts!

  • Annika January 1, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    I LOVED your website and used it a lot while I was pregnant back in 2010 and 2013. It was the best one I came across and had so many cool features. Now I am expecting again and was searching for your site, was redirected to the new site, and then ultimately found this article in a web search. I’m so sorry that it is gone. Thank you for all the hard work you put into it! It is missed.

  • Zoe January 6, 2022 at 1:29 am

    I am beside myself with grief for the loss of this website. I have loved the Name Voyager app ever since I learned about it during an info visualization talk in college in…06-07?? I shared it dozens of times with designers/parents/friends for any reason at all. This was a shining bright spot of web design and information design and losing it is a tragedy on many levels. Thank you so much for building it and sharing it with us.

  • Audra Grace Quinn January 6, 2022 at 2:12 am

    I was so sad when I saw it was gone! Just found out I’m pregnant and share your obsession with names. Thank you for sharing this lovely retrospective and context. And kudos for creating such an incredibly useful, cool and collaborative tool! I hope it can come back in some form one day.

  • john kraemer January 9, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    when I worked with large datasets at places like YouTube I’d show colleagues the Baby Name Wizard as an exemplar of interactive data visualization. what a tragic loss for the internet.

  • JB January 11, 2022 at 6:55 pm

    Oh no!! I just did my periodic babynamewizard search to check how Lily was faring these days – a name I loved in 2005, when I first started browsing your site, found a little too trendy when I had my daughter in 2013, and just heard a coworker’s 1 yo is named. Did it stay high? Is it coming back? I’ll never know! 😉

    I loved your site years before I had kids, referenced it a ton when I was picking my kids names, and still periodically come back to look at the data. It was always fun to look up the trends over time and regionally. I’m gonna miss it. . .

  • Leiana January 14, 2022 at 10:46 pm

    It was the best baby name website, period. RIP Baby Name Wizard, you will be sorely missed

  • Rachel January 28, 2022 at 9:48 pm

    I have been a fan of your wonderful baby name wizard since it first appeared and I’m devastated to discover it’s gone – I was just checking in to look at a name. I’ll have to go back to browsing the UK Office For National Statistics spreadsheets instead but they are not the same…

  • Louise February 8, 2022 at 12:03 pm

    I’m so sorry they killed your site Laura, it was absolutely vital to me when I was exploring names for my child and has also come in handy many years subsequent for my writing and for that of my author friends to use the “Find Siblings” feature.
    I would love to see something of that type appear somewhere else in the world!

  • Laura February 13, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    The end of babynamewizard is a real loss. I don’t know what the new owners were thinking: the new site doesn’t offer anything nearly as useful. All the best!

  • Kris February 19, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    I just found this blog post. I didn’t realize the site had shut down and I was having a heck of a time trying to find it online. I loved searching thru the names and seeing the naming trends and meanings. Many years ago, it was one of the first places I found a page dedicated to my name and was spelled correctly and not just listed as a variation. Its unbelievable timing that I am knee deep in fertility treatments and finally got brave enough to really start researching names — I had avoided the site and searching for months cause I’m way too superstitious and thought picking names might be bad luck. I have since decided I think it’ll help me stay positive and bring me good luck. Thankfully, I have your book and I’ve found this site so I’m making peace with BNW being part of my up to now daydreaming about a future family – I was in college when I found the site sometime between 2004-2008 (??) when I was supposed to be studying and was instead trying to find the end of the internet. Now I’m late 30s and trying to make the dream happen so I’m so glad you built the original site and I’m so happy you are continuing to make a place online where name enthusiasts can all gather and explore. Thanks Laura!

  • Amanda February 21, 2022 at 4:54 am

    I used babynamewizard for years in my American history class to talk about ideas around gender. I just found out about its death as my students this spring started posting weird things. I am so sad! No clue what to fill the hole with!

    It’s a little drop in a big bucket, but you opened the eyes of at least 500 college freshmen from rural Missouri

  • Clemencedane February 23, 2022 at 3:00 am

    That’s crazy! It was possibly the coolest website of all time. I went there all the time. I don’t know why they would shut it down. It got 2 million views a month? Why not leave it up? ARGGGH. It was my go-to for any name discussion and anytime I heard an unusual name. What a waste!

  • César Galán March 29, 2022 at 10:43 am

    It’s a shame. I am a professor of design. Ever since I found Baby Wizard I have used it in my classes. The classes are communication, data and information for the project. It was attractive, with interesting visualizations, dynamic and above all fun to use. Names in Colombia, names in Spanish, have various relationships with proper names in English. RIP Babywizard. Those of us who enjoyed it will miss it. Thanks Laura.

  • Nate April 3, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks so much for your work; I’m really going to miss it, especially Name Voyager. I’m transgender, and I have an interest in the names people choose for themselves as adults or teens. I used to use the Name Voyager to see if a chosen name was “young”, or to check supposedly gender-neutral names’ respective popularity among boys and girls.

  • Julia April 13, 2022 at 1:41 am

    I’m so sad to hear that BNW and the Name Voyager tool are no more. I first found your book when we were naming our kids in 2007 and 2010, and both our first-name picks came from your book. I’m an applied linguist who works with international students, and I also often referred adult students to the site who wanted to choose an English name for use in the US: there was so much good information about name connotation and associations that couldn’t be found elsewhere. It was just such a fantastic set of resources, and I’m very sorry to see it go. I’m so glad I found this site and relieved that the book still exists: I think we’ll buy a few copies to keep on hand to use to advise students who are choosing names.

  • Melissa April 13, 2022 at 3:03 am

    This is legitimately making me really sad. All 5 of my sons were named using the Baby Name Wizard website. My husband and I had a lot of parameters for the kind of names we liked. We really appreciated being able to narrow down the searches with starting letters, number of syllables, rarity, etc. The sibling name cloud was great too. Though it created some really funny moments when one of my siblings would look up one of my son’s name and then excitedly tell me that this baby name website says that kids names Kelton have siblings named Taevin and Zarek! I know the site says that sweetie. I put it in there!
    We’re done having babies. I don’t know what we’d have done trying to pick out a name without BNW as a tool.

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