What's in a name?
Credit: B Calkins, Shutterstock
What makes the perfect baby name? There's no right answer, of course — perhaps you're a traditionalist who prefers John and Mary, or maybe you tend toward the literary: Ahab or Hermione, anyone? Perhaps you're in the market for something a little bit country, in which case Oakley or Harlan might suit.
Whatever your preferences, Laura Wattenberg has you covered. The third edition of Wattenberg's book "The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby," will be on store shelves Tuesday (May 7), and it's pages are packed with some 18,000 names. You won't find plain-Jane name meanings in the book. Instead, Wattenberg provides the kind of information prospective parents really want, including a baby name's popularity over time and the associations people make with each moniker. The book also covers new trends, including parents drawing inspiration from not only movies and television, but increasingly, video games.
LiveScience got in touch with Wattenberg to talk in advance of her book's publication and mere weeks before the Social Security Administration is set to release baby-name rankings for 2012. Read on for what's new in names.
LiveScience: How did you get into the baby-name business?
Wattenberg: It started when my husband and I were looking for a name for our second child. There was a name he really liked that I had a feeling was starting to be really popular. I actually graphed out a trend line showing him that given the current rate of acceleration, that name should be unacceptably popular in about seven years. He should have laughed at me, but instead he said, "Wow. That's really interesting."
What we think of as a baby-name dictionary is not providing us the information that any of us use when we choose a baby name. There's no definition of current usage — when you hear this, what does it mean to you? [The Most Hated Baby Names in America]
LiveScience: What makes "The Baby Name Wizard" different from other baby-name books on the shelves?
Wattenberg: The first thing that leaps out at you is there's a graph with every name. I try to present the name's history both in popularity and what people think about it. I try to paint a picture of who uses the name and what impression it gives as opposed to the derivation in old high German. I pack a lot of data into each name entry.
I don't mean to be anti-etymology! It can be fascinating tracking a name's history, but it's more than where it came from.
LiveScience: It seems like a really data-driven approach to names.
Wattenberg: The trends are real, and I think they're meaningful. Names are kind of a window into our changing culture. If you look at any generation, the baby names that a generation chooses encode parents' hopes and obsessions and lifestyles and dreams. It's really an expression of our values. Especially today when names are so diverse and there's no more "normal" anymore, you're expressing all of those things with the names you choose.
LiveScience: Did you notice any odd trends or surprises when putting together the third edition?
Wattenberg: One is that video games require their own category this time. These video games have become enough of a part of our culture that you start to see names coming out of these games. Which makes sense, because if you go and watch a movie, you watch a character for two hours. If you play a video game, you might embody this character for two years.
The first edition of the book came out in 2005. The names that were at their peak then are starting to look like the names of a passing generation, so I had to add a turn-of-the-century category. Caitlyn would be a good example, or Brandon.
My favorite new feature is the regional style maps. You can really see how names that you might never hear in Oregon are everywhere in Mississippi and vice versa.
LiveScience: Do you have any predictions of what we'll see when the Social Security Administration releases the 2012 list of baby names this month?
Wattenberg: The top of the charts is funny these days, because everything is moving down. There really isn't a name that is rising to take over from Jacob, for instance.
I feel like there's a pair of names that represents the year, a pair of anagram names, Liam and Mila. They're both super-hot names right now, they both have celebrities behind them, but it's really the sound — very light, very smooth, very airy little names. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
LiveScience: Do you have any personal favorite names at the moment?
Wattenberg: Every day a new one. I really try to get into the mindset of each style, because telling parents what I like really doesn't help. They don't live where I live and they're not me. I try to tamp down the personal taste.
LiveScience: You said you got into this at the birth of your second child. Do you think it would have been harder to name your kids had you been a baby-name guru before you had them?
Wattenberg: It would be overwhelming! I can't imagine trying to name my own child right now. At this point, literally every name paints a picture for me. Every name tells a full story. I could write an essay on any name you could give me. Trying to pin one of those on my child would be very difficult.