Patrick Tehan, MCT

Baby names get red/blue switcheroo

  • Star Tribune
  • May 25, 2012 - 3:45 PM

What's in a baby name? Jacob and Sophia may be the nation's most popular baby names, as recently reported by the Social Security Administration. But there's also a red state/blue state divide in naming tendencies, and surprise -- it's the red states that favor less conventional names, such as Brayden and Aubree, and the blue states that skew toward such standards as John and Elizabeth.

"People's naming styles seem to be the opposite of their values," said Laura Wattenburg, author of "The Baby Name Wizard." "In communities where the stated values are based on Christian traditions and more traditional sex roles, you will find fewer baby names that are Christian-based and more that are androgynous. But classic New Testament names like Peter ... are more typical of those who tend to lean left politically."

Go figure.

When it comes to naming babies, style trumps politics.

"Ironically, Kennedy is a really popular name for girls in the red states," she said. "So, however, is Reagan."

But the difference, in Wattenberg's opinion, has more to do with age than politics.

"Women in red states tend to get married younger," she said. "You're much more likely to name your baby something that's in fashion or stands out if you're 19 than you are if you're 30."

According to the Census Bureau, the top five states with the highest median age of marriage are all blue states (District of Columbia, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts), and the five with the lowest median age of marriage are all red states (Kansas, Utah, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Idaho).

Fad names are often sparked by celebrities, or what they name their own newborns. We might shudder to think a Kardashian could influence what new parents are calling their bundles of joy, but Mason, the name of Kourtney Kardashian's son, is second on the list -- although it's the girls' list. And Britney Spears may be partially responsible for the "Jayden" craze, but Will and Jada Pinkett Smith started that one by naming their son Jaden.

Celebrities who fall out of favor can influence the list in reverse.

"London is the new Paris," said Bruce Lansky, author of "100,000-plus Baby Names," published by Meadowbrook Press in Minnetonka. "Paris Hilton polluted her first name for others, just like Britney Spears did."

While many parents don't want their child to be one of seven Davids or Marys in their class, unusual names and creative spellings aren't always an asset. Several studies have shown that employers are often biased toward more conventional names and against odd ones.

"Studies show that having an unusual name isn't the problem, but certain names have socioeconomic markers that people read into and assume you are from a disadvantaged background," she said.

Names didn't seem to hold back Barack Obama or Condoleezza Rice. Both names are unusual, but there's a key difference in perception, Wattenberg said: Obama's name comes off as foreign, but not necessarily lower-class, while Rice's first name is one of those socioeconomic "markers" that leads to assumptions about education and income.

After examining the entire list of 100 names, Lansky noted a couple of other trends.

"Hispanic names are dropping [down the list]," he said. "Juan is down from 75 to 89, which indicates Latinos are Americanizing their kids' names more."

The other trend, while not exactly new, shows no sign of abating -- the gender gap.

"We tend to choose boys' names that imply strength and good character, like Jacob or Noah," he said, "But the most popular girls' names are those that imply beauty and glamour, like Ava and Isabella."

His advice to parents? "Choose versatile names that can evolve with you throughout your life," he said. "You want a name with lots of pull-apart options. William can be Will, Willie, Bill, Billy or Liam."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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