Baby names change with the winds of fashion and new research suggests the faster they get popular, the faster they get lame.
Take Tricia. Back in the 1950s, almost nobody named their baby girls Tricia. By the 1970s, the name had skyrocketed to the 144th most popular girl’s name and then just as quickly, Tricia fell back into disuse. It’s no longer in the top 1,000 names for girls. Literally hundreds of other names have followed similar trajectories.
It turns out that a name’s sad tumble into obscurity is tightly correlated with the speed of its rise. And that principle — what goes up quickly, must come down quickly — could be applicable to a broader set of memes.
“We don’t think this is just a names thing,” said Jonah Berger, a University of Pennsylvania marketing professor, and author of the study, which appears Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We think this is a broader phenomenon that happens in all kinds of identity-relevant domains where people care about what something means not just what it does.”
Berger’s paper follows earlier work by Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, who used name databases as a way of analyzing the “pure mechanisms” involved in social and cultural fashion shifts. Lieberson argues that there’s no intrinsic value to the whims of fashion, be they hem lines or names starting with ‘J.’
“These are shifts where a new taste develops and it gradually expands and expands and expands. Because it is a fashion it eventually falls away and gets replaced by something else,” Lieberson told Wired.com. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
The properties of the system arise just from the internal mechanics of popularity, a phenomenon that Lieberson calls “the ratchet effect.” New fashions rarely change wildly. They build on previous fashions, slowly changing through time. By this incremental process, new names become popular or skirts get shorter (or longer).
Berger’s addition is that the size of the increments matters, too, not just the absolute popularity of a name or fashion. Names that built up slowly through time also experienced greater overall success. The faddishness of fads, in other words, has been quantified.
“Things that catch on really quickly might end up less popular overall because they have a shorter life cycle,” Berger said.For infinite fun playing with baby names, head to Baby Name Wizard, the data-heavy baby name site developed by Laura Wattenberg. Try the NameVoyager. You won’t be sorry (unless it causes you to miss a deadline).