How Can the Marketplace Gauge Fashions? Consider What To Name the Baby

The New York Times, "Economic Scene" , May 23, 2002

Whatever happened to Lisa, Mary, Karen, Susan and Kimberly?

On top in the 1960's, they've been shoved aside by Emily, Madison, Hannah, Ashley and Alexis. Those were the most popular names for American girls born in 2001, according to data released last week by the Social Security Administration.

As for Michael, David, John, James and Robert -- the top five for boys in the 1960's -- only Michael remains. The others have been replaced by Jacob, Matthew, Joshua, and Christopher. (The lists are at

Nobody runs ads to persuade parents to choose Emily or Joshua for their newborns. No magazine editors dictate that Ryan is the new Michael.

But names still shift according to fashion. Once-popular names seem tired and out of date, new ones exciting. Old-fashioned names, like Emily, take on the allure of vintage clothing. Style revivals happen in names, too.

Contrary to what many critics of markets believe (and many fashion industry executives wish), fashion isn't a predictable commercial phenomenon driven by manipulation and advertising. Fashion -- the process by which form seems exhausted and then refreshed, without regard to functional improvements -- exists even in completely noncommercial "markets."

In A Matter of Taste (Yale University Press, 2000), Stanley Lieberson, a Harvard sociologist, analyzes how tastes in names shift. In the process, he sheds light on how fashion works.

Economists usually assume that tastes don't change. To explain shifts in demand, they look for changing relative prices. That approach imposes disciplinary rigor -- "tastes changed" could too easily explain just about anything -- but it makes accounting for fashion hard.

Professor Lieberson offers an explanation even an economist can accept. The taste for names or sounds may change, but those changes reflect underlying preferences for novelty, conformity and divergence.

Name choices, like clothing choices, reflect the desire to be different, but not too different. The ideal balance varies, and new fashions begin with innovators who want to stand out. If the innovations have the right aesthetic appeal, they spread to people who aren't as nonconformist.

"There must have been some people starting off with Madison," Professor Lieberson said in an interview. "That type of person is no longer naming their kid Madison."

Parents who today pick Madison for their daughter's name, he said, "would not have given the same name, the same sounds, earlier because it was a weird name."

Indeed, Madison didn't show up on the lists until the 1980's, when it was the decade's 539th most popular name. Three of last year's top 20 girls' names -- Madison (No. 2), Taylor (No. 12), and Brianna (No. 18) -- weren't in the top 1,000 in the 1960's. (Taylor was 865th for boys.)

Like designers who experiment with new ideas, parents have to choose babies' names without knowing exactly what other parents are choosing. The result is a complex, often surprising, dynamic.

Parents frequently find that the name they "just liked" is suddenly common, expressing aesthetic preferences. Professor Lieberson became interested in names after he and his wife named their first daughter Rebecca, only to find there were little Beckys everywhere.

Like hemlines, names don't bounce around randomly. Newly popular names tend to build on what has gone before, exploring the aesthetic possibilities of certain styles. "People are in effect branching off an existing set of tastes," Professor Lieberson says.

Beginning in the late 1960's, for instance, names beginning with La became popular for African-American girls. The first to hit the top 50, Latonya, was a play on the existing name Tonya. Latanya and Latasha similarly built on older names. "But then the La's developed a life of their own," Professor Lieberson notes, leading to brand-new names like Latoya and Latrice.

Although some ethnic names remain distinctive, those differences tend to dissipate over time. Today's list of top boys' names shows the influence of Latino immigrants -- Jose is No. 30, Luis No. 44, Carlos No. 55, Jesus No. 66 -- and the 1960's list reflects earlier Irish and Italian immigrants (and the influence of Catholic saints' names more generally). Over a relatively short period, however, immigrant families begin to select names from the general pool.

Professor Lieberson cites data from Illinois matching mothers' ethnicity with popular names. From 1985 to 1988, Jose was the fifth-most-popular boys' name among Mexican-American mothers. But it followed Michael, Daniel, David and Anthony.

Contrary to common assumptions about how fashion works, names don't simply trickle down from high-income, well-educated parents to lower-income, less-educated parents. Newly popular names tend to catch on with everyone at about the same time, and they spread both up and down.

Whether names or clothes, fashion reflects the primacy of individual taste over inherited custom. The freer people feel to choose names they like, rather than names of relatives or saints, the faster names go through cycles. Boys' names, which tend to be more influenced by custom, change slower.

The turnover, Professor Lieberson says, "is much faster now than it used to be," and a smaller proportion of all names are concentrated among the most popular. So there's a constant need for new names, as formerly unusual ones become too common.

"It will become apparent in a few years that there are tons of Madisons, and people will act accordingly," he says.

Maybe Saige (No. 939) or Ximena (No. 894) will be the next Madison. Or maybe Virginia, No. 391 today but No. 7 in the 1920's, is due for a revival.