A name’s eye view of an American turning point
Is there a “before” and “after” moment in modern American history? A time when the trajectory changed, when we started living and thinking differently? Based on baby name statistics, that time was the late 1960s with an epicenter of 1968.
I came to that conclusion by looking at the pace of change in American baby naming. I knew, broadly, that change had accelerated in the modern era of creative names. But when did it speed up, and by how much? I decided to look at change in the total distribution of baby names in the US over time, using a measure called Hellinger distance. I calculated a distance score for each year vs. five years prior, a time span long enough to reflect meaningful change.
I expected to see a continual rise in the pace of change over time. What I found instead was a dramatic illustration of the turbulence of the late 1960s and how it transformed our culture. Take a look at the rate of change in American baby names over the past century.
I’ve highlighted the massive acceleration that began in 1966 and peaked in 1968-73, the single greatest five-year period of change in American names.
1968 is remembered as one of the most tumultuous, combustible years of the 20th Century. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Protests raged over the Vietnam war as the Tet Offensive turned public opinion. Two Black Olympic athletes were expelled from Team USA after raising their fists on the victory podium. At the Democratic National Convention, police turned against protesters in a violent riot.
We’ve all seen the lasting societal effects of that time, in issues as profound as race and gender, war and peace. Yet the baby name statistics speak to the effects in a different way. This change wasn’t a matter of public policy or mass movements. It was the result of millions of individual parents approaching the intimate act of naming a baby in a new way. Thinking in a new way; dreaming of the future in a new way; imagining a different life for their children.
The change wasn’t just quantitative, as seen in the chart. It was also qualitative. Parents started to name differently. A closer comparison of the names of 1968 and 1973 helps show the nature of that shift. I’ve calculated the names that rose and fell the fastest over the period, color-coding to highlight some notable categories.
Red = Distinctly African-American or Latino/Latina names
Orange = Old Testament/Hebrew Bible names
Blue = New Testament Bible names
Green = English monarch names
Amidst the fleeting pop culture trends (goodbye Tammy, hello Carly), some major themes emerge. The rising lists are studded with new race-specific names like Lakeisha, Kareem and Ebony—names chosen almost exclusively by African-American parents. You simply won’t find such names in earlier eras. Until the 1960s, white and Black names were mostly drawn from the same pool.
Among more traditional English names, Old Testament names rose the most. From the perspective of the 21st Century, this may look like a current of traditionalism. Yet Old Testament Bible names lie outside the heart of English Christian naming tradition. In the year 1900, not a single Old Testament name ranked in the top 30 for American boys (compared to 9 out of 30 today). Their rise from 1968-73 represented a modern, style-driven naming impulse.
The falling names, meanwhile, are heavy on the New Testament and British royalty. Which is to say, the core classic names of English language and history. Names like John and Mary represent continuity and uniformity in names and in culture.
Most importantly, Americans haven’t named their babies the same way since. We’re still living in the world that 1968 launched. Half a century later, the rejection of continuity and uniformity in favor of novelty and individual identity defines our name culture.
While the pace of change has ebbed and flowed since the ‘70s, it has remained much faster than the previous baseline. The turnover is fueled by increasing divergence of tastes. Name choices are diverging between groups of all kinds and among individuals within groups. Baby name statistics show us all moving further and further apart with a determination to stake out new, unique territory.
The new era has brought a flowering of pride, variety, personality and freedom. It has also, perhaps inevitably, brought a loss of the mutual trust and solidarity that come from common ground. We see the two effects throughout our society, in ways that range from inspirational to depressing. And as always, you can see the story written in the record of baby names.