Thursday, July 2, 2009

Names and generations

If you've familiarized yourself with the Strauss & Howe cycle, you know that there are four different archetypes of generations that repeat every 80 years or so (with an exception around the time of the Civil War in which there was no Civic/Hero generation). For those who study trends in baby names you probably notice that when a name gets really popular and is not a classic (this applies more often to girl's names than boy's names since boys are more likely to be named after their fathers than girls after their mothers but can still apply with some of the more trendy boy's names), it usually does not come back in popularity for at least 100 years or so. Both are "four-generation" cycles, but the reason that the archetype cycle is shorter than the name cycle is probably because of a number of factors.

One is what governs the length of generations in each cycle. With the archetype cycle the length is determined by the approximate length of each phase of life (i.e. Childhood, Early Adulthood, Mid-life, Elderhood, Late Elderhood) which in modern times is roughly 20 years. The name cycle is likely based on the average age of reproduction, which in the current times is a little over 25 years. The name cycle thus runs at 100 years (or a little more than that) compared to the S&H cycle (which a person's parents [in most cases] can come from either the preceding generation to the child's or the one before that).

Another factor is that the S&H cycle is largely dependent on how much power a person has on society; his/her influence is smaller during childhood and once one gets so old that he/she must be dependent on others as compared to the other three phases of life. Whereas a name is (usually) with a person from birth until death (and thus 80 years may be long enough for a fresh start on generational attitudes, but a name will still have an "old person" feel to it).

There are a few exceptions to names coming back early, like Audrey (which has recently become more popular but last peaked in the 1920s) and Laura (which ranked high in the 1880s but was up high again by the 1960s, mentioned in a past blog post on The Baby Name Wizard [links are at the bottom of this blog post]); on the other hand these names never became exceptionally dated which might have helped them return sooner. At the other extreme sometimes names do not come back for even longer than this cycle predicts, such as Mabel (which was most popular in the 1880s and 1890s but has yet to return to even the top 1,000).

Links about Strauss and Howe's information:

The Social Security Administration's name popularity site (has the top 1,000 names for each year and decade back to 1880):

Laura Wattenberg's The Baby Name Wizard site (her NameVoyager program is especially useful for visualizing the popularity of names over time and is based on the SSA stats):

Nameberry (the site run by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz, co-authors of numerous baby naming books):

Behind the Name (great side for finding out the etymologies on names):

1 comment:

  1. It would seem that in general names which fall out of the cycle, or are delayed in coming back, have some sort of negative or very strong connotation.

    Take Mabel - a lot of people identify Mabel as a name for a cow. I can't find one source where this might have stemmed from, but there is a Mabel the cow in some versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, and according to a quick Google search there are a lot of people naming their cows Mabel. Then again, not too long ago Daisy was strongly associated with our bovine friends, too, and now it has had a massive resurgence (at least here in the UK).

    Other examples include Adolf, which would be primed for a vintage resurgence in Germany along with choices like Arthur and Felix currently popular there, if it hadn't been made taboo by Hitler. Actually, due to all of the German immigrants it was ranking at #196 in the US in the 1900s, so perhaps it would have made a comeback there, too.

    Big Bertha, and Sesame Street names such as Elmo and Kermit (which according to the 100 year rule should be beginning to come back, but aren't showing any signs of resurgence), also fit the mold.