Name Theory: The SSA Popular Baby Names and the Writer

Namers were calling last week Name Week, as they were hyped with anticipation of the Social Security Administration’s announcement of the 2011 Popular Baby Names statistics on Friday. That anticipation was extended into a jittery stand-off when the announcement was delayed until Monday, and then the blogging began in earnest.

Every big baby naming site wrote at least one (or 10) blog(s) about the names, and every baby and parenting site, along with every major news organization, also weighed in with their take.

I have no take.

Or little take.

I love names, and naming, and babies; however, while I’m a namer, I’m not as cued into every facet of name-nerdom as others are. I’ll leave the analysis to them—and I’ll enjoy reading it.

My particular focus is on finding names for fictional characters. So I thought I should weigh in on that aspect of the SSA’s announcement.

The Social Security Administrations Popular Baby Names website is a wealth of knowledge for professional namers. It can help you discover naming trends, popular sounds, and give you a flavor for the modern zeitgeist of naming.

And it’s exactly that—the spirit of the times—that is so valuable to writers who aim to name characters. No matter what kind of story is being written, the characters’ names should give a feeling for the spirit of the times both in which the story is written and in which the story is set.

In terms of setting, you will want to choose a name that was in use at the time your character was “born” and which may fit how that character relates to the world around them (a girl born in 1985 could be yet another Jessica or the more quirky Esther). The SSA lists can give you a feeling for what kind of names were popular in a given year from 1880 to 2011, from which you can choose characters’ names so that you ensure they will be accurate. And if your character was born in a particular state (or region), you can even search for the top 100 names by state from 1960 on.

In terms of the year the story is being written, you may additionally want to consider how that name will sound to modern ears. A peek at the 2011 names will show that more boys’ names begin in Ja- than any other combination, so naming your historical romance Hero Jabez will sound more fresh and appealing to modern ears than the more “popular” Chester would, while still being an accurate choice for the times.

No matter how you may choose to use the SSA lists, it is fun to peruse the lists—if only to learn that Serenity is far out-pacing Serena. (I, personally, blame Joss Whedon.)

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