Are immigrants really the reason for America’s new baby name culture?
There is no more “normal” in American names. The typical American baby now receives a name that is relatively uncommon and concentrated in specific communities. Why?
According to a recent Washington Post article, the rise of unique names is due to of a flood of non-white immigrants. The article quotes the author of a study on naming patterns from 1880-2017:
“That obviously has to do with an influx of immigrants and names from other cultures coming in,” He said.
Translation: In many cases, “unique” means non-White.
This “obvious” conclusion is not only false, but dangerous. It promotes the myth of a traditional, constant white American culture being overrun by an invasive other. Meanwhile actual baby name statistics tell the story of a culture being revolutionized from within.
The irony is that the full Washington Post article focuses compassionately on immigrant name experiences. But it starts with this spurious claim, asserting as truth the very assumptions about true American identity that it seeks to combat.
I don’t want to blame the expert they quoted, because she’s not actually an expert at all. While the article leads us to assume she’s a sociologist or linguist, she is in fact just a student who did a cool high school research project on name trends. In my opinion, the journalist did her a disservice by asking her to draw sociohistorical conclusions beyond the scope of her project.
Is it Immigrants?
Stop for a moment and consider the basic claim: that the explosion of name diversity from 1880-2017 is the result of “an influx of immigrants.” Is that plausible?
According to the Migration Policy institute, the percentage of immigrants in the U.S. population peaked in 1890. The all-time low period was the late 1960s-early 1970s—the very turning point when change in American naming accelerated and the diverse naming era began.
Name diversity simply does not correlate with immigration. Certainly, 21st-century immigrants are more likely to use baby names from their culture of origin than 19th-century immigrants were. However, that is more a reflection of the changes in American name culture than its cause.
The Drive toward Diversity
Starting in the late ‘60s, American parents started prioritizing individuality and freshness in name choices. They embraced, invented and, yes, imported new names in ever greater numbers.
In many cases, the imports were just about style. The ‘70s wave of Michelles and Danielles had little to do with French immigration. Some name trends, though, were motivated by connection with a cultural heritage. The ‘70s rise of Afrocentric names is a prominent example, and often noted as a sign of social change. But Americans of every ethnicity started digging deeper into family heritage and have continued to do so.
For example, the popularity of Swedish names in Minnesota has surged in the 21st Century, generations after Swedish immigration to the region ebbed. A Minnesota baby is far more likely to be named Henrik or Bjorn today than a century ago. Such home-grown name diversity reduces the pressure on immigrant families to choose assimilated names. And even this kind of American-born name diversity is just the tip of the iceberg.
Unique Naming, for Real
An American girl today is more likely to be named Reagan than Mary. Top baby names in West Virginia include Maverick, Paisley, Waylon, Willow and Grayson. 50 different spellings of Riley now register in U.S. baby name stats. None of this has anything to do with non-white immigrants.
If you want to know why traditional names are really declining and unique names are the rise, I have a dead-simple explanation: American parents want unique names.
Parents today actively seek names that feel distinctive. White, American-born parents are no exception. In fact, by my calculations rural white communities have abandoned traditional names more completely than any other sector of society.
Falsely attributing this social change to immigrants matters, because naming differences are used to divide us. Names too often serve as proxies for racial and ethnic prejudice. What’s more, the people who are most uncomfortable with social change tend to be the most ready to find scapegoats who look or sound different from them. So let’s be clear: American’s baby-name revolution was born in the USA.
Hi, Laura. I really appreciate your articles. Names are so fascinating! I disagree that there is no more normal, however. There will always be a “normal,” it’s just that today’s normal is different to the previous. Tomorrow’s will be different to today’s. Normal could be said to be the national top 100 or so names. (Did we grow up with multiple Noahs in our classes and playgrounds? No. But they are as wallpapery as anything today.) Or, normal in the American naming sphere – as a more broad abstraction – could be considered being iconoclastic rather than traditional. Iconoclasm is held up in the mainstream almost as a consecrated virtue, while traditionalism is oft viewed with disdain and labelled “problematic.” But I digress. If nothing else, normal is no longer a synonym for all names traditional. It is the catalog of name aesthetics ad nauseam itself, wherein “classic/traditional” is just another tab to choose from in a cultural landscape where nothing seems to be off-limits. There are still plenty of people who choose this tab – it’s just that it is just that. And that more of a social statement is made, and line in the sand drawn, by those who choose it than perhaps was the case when their mid-century predecessors chose them. I have a five-year-old Tommy. We do live on the East Coast and are Catholic and conservative. We know our share of other Tommys, Peters, Johns, and Michaels in our particular bubble. In these circles, people give less of a pause or double-take with the classics. With that said, it is very much the Noahs, Elijahs, Aidens, and Liams that are the established, overarching “normal” for this moment in time.
Hi Addie, thank you for the fascinating response! I love your take on our new naming culture, but I’m going to push back a little on the idea of “normal.”
If we go with your definition of normal as the top 100 names, from the 1880s through the 1950s the top 100 boys’ names pretty consistently accounted for 38% of all American boys. Today it’s just 18%. That’s a huge shift, not just in which names are popular but in what popular means. Or to put it another way, the “Noahs, Elijahs, Aidens, and Liams” all put together are just a fraction as popular as John alone used to be.
Perhaps there is a new normal, but it’s defined in broad stylistic terms rather than a defined set of normal names that the majority of parents choose from. Critically, that also narrows the definition of “weird” names.
Oh, absolutely. A much larger pool of names is used today than was used even relatively recently when my generation (the millennials) was born. The top names are given to a fraction of gen alpha babies compared to the top names given to boomers, gen x, millennials, and maybe even gen z (though the line of demarcation may be too recent for them to really say). I did a lot of analysis of the data when I was pregnant for someone who just ended up choosing Thomas. Haha.
I read that article too and was not impressed. I would love to know how American modern name diversity affects baby naming practices of immigrants. Immigrants are likely not aware of how diverse baby names are now anyway and are still under pressure to choose names that will fit in with their perception of American names. Even Spanish names, a considerable portion of American naming culture, are moving away from the Juan, Jose, and Luis and instead choosing names that work in two cultures, like Sebastian, Ethan and Julian. I’m guessing this is the dreamers and born in the US Spanish speakers driving this.
Also unique and traditional are not always opposites. The names you listed: Maverick, Waylon and Grayson. I’ve seen them described as old fashioned by people who like them. How do I figure out how naming choices have changed if name styles are so subjective?? I have no answer.
“Immigrants are likely not aware of how diverse baby names are now anyway and are still under pressure to choose names that will fit in with their perception of American names.”
That’s a fantastic point! When I was a kid, I remember that a lot of the Asian-American kids in my school had really old-fashioned sounding names, like “Hubert.” In that sense, immigrant naming could sometimes almost be more conservative (as in, sticking to names that were already in widespread use in the US). And it works in more than one direction, of course; I’ve read that the French names that have become trendy in the US were already considered dated in France.
It’s pretty cruddy to assume that any mention of “immigrants” is secret code for “non-white.”
“It promotes the myth of a traditional, constant white American culture being overrun by an invasive other.”
I don’t think the word “white” is really relevant there. There’s always been a xenophobic element of American society, but in the past the fear of immigrants was directed at groups such as the Irish or Germans.
Laura, you’re really intelligent and thoughtful, so I’m disappointed that you seem to be echoing the trendy and rather cheap idea that if someone holds a conservative position on some political issue, they must be racist.
Holey, if you reread Laura’s post, you will see that the equating of “immigrant” and “non-white” occurs in the original Washington Post article, which Laura is merely quoting.
I did see that, but I think Laura is endorsing the idea. The line I quoted is hers.