David Brooks: How we name our kids reflects who we are

Roundup: Talking About History

... I didn’t become aware of the true import of names until I read Laura Wattenberg. She has taken her obsession with names — which in other hands could be regarded as an eccentricity — and has transformed it into a window on American society.

On her blog, The Baby Name Wizard, Wattenberg tracks the rise and fall of naming fashions. One of her mega-observations, which isn’t that surprising, is that we are living in the age of the long tail when it comes to naming our kids. In 1880, just 10 names — William, John, Mary, George, etc. — accounted for 20 percent of all babies. Now those 10 names account for just 2 percent of American babies.

Name conformity peaked around World War II. Since then parents have been more and more likely to seek out the unusual. “Across regions, races and classes,” Wattenberg writes, “many thousands of American parents are united by a common bond: their mutual determination to be nothing like each other.”

This observation is merely a jumping-off point. Between 1890 and 1920, as America was urbanizing, parents gave names that were paved with gold, Wattenberg observes. Girls were often named after gems — Amber, Ruby, Jewel and Opal.

In the 1950s, some surge of naming testosterone produced a lot of swaggering male names ending in the letter K: Jack, Mark and Frank, not to mention Rock, Dirk and Buck. But over the past few decades, K has moved to the front of names: Kyle, Kaitlyn and Kayla. “If any letter defines modern American name style, K is it,” Wattenberg notes....

For the past few decades, the White House has been occupied by George, William, George, Ronald, James and Richard. Those pillars are crumbling. Pluralism is here.

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