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Baby names in frontier states are more unique

Baby names: The same values that pushed adventurous individuals into new territories as our country was being populated may still show up in the names their descendants give to babies, a new study finds.

By Jeanna BrynerLiveScience Managing Editor / February 25, 2011

In more recently established states, such as Washington and Oregon, parents tend to choose less common baby names, while parents in "older" areas, such as the original 13 states, go for more popular names.

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Babies born in newer U.S. states have more distinctive names compared with their counterparts in older regions such as New England, a new study finds.

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It turns out, the same values that pushed adventurous individuals into new territories as our country was being populated may still show up in the names their descendants give to babies, a new study finds.

In more recently established states, such as Washington and Oregon, parents tend to choose less common baby names, while parents in "older" areas, such as the original 13 states, go for more popular names.

Frontiers typically have fewer established institutions or infrastructure, and often occupy harsh environments. Early pioneers couldn't rely on others for help in such sparsely populated areas.

These factors "select for people who are high in individualism and foster and reward individualistic values such as uniqueness and self-reliance," said lead researcher Michael Varnum of the University of Michigan. "This leads to regional cultures which perpetuate these values, which in turn shape behavioral practices, such as baby naming." [Most Popular Baby Names in History]

Psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, who studies baby naming, applauds Varnum's study on frontiers and unique baby names, which is detailed in the February 2011 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"It's a really fascinating illustration of the impact of regional culture on naming choices," said Twenge, author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" (Free Press, April 2009).

"Even though other people who came later may not have been so individualistic, that culture was set up," Twenge told LiveScience. "That legacy of the frontier is going to live on, and that shows up in baby names."

What names say about culture

The names we choose for our children do often reflect parents' values. "It's a very heartfelt choice and a noncommercial choice of what's important to us," said Laura Wattenberg, author of the book "The Baby Name Wizard" (Three Rivers Press, 2005) and creator of the website BabyNameWizard.com.

Wattenberg's recent research showed that the meaning conveyed by a baby's name (what it tells others about the parents' tastes and background) has surged over the last 25 years as baby names have become more diverse and numerous.

"I'm convinced they're absolutely right in the core data that there's no question that the American frontier is a naming wonderland," Wattenberg told LiveScience. "Sarah Palin, even though she talks about traditional values, she's a perfect representative of frontier naming." Her kids are named Track, Willow, Trig, Bristol and Piper.

Even so, it's not simple to draw a causal connection between the character of a particular state and the naming conventions there. "Leaping from that to the idea that it represents the spirit of independence, I think there are a lot of other factors you need to consider when drawing that conclusion," Wattenberg said.

Baby names moving west

In the new study, Varnum and his University of Michigan colleague Shinobu Kitayama compared the commonness of popular baby names between relatively recently settled regions of the United States and older areas. The team used 2007 baby-name data collected by the Social Security Administration.

In New England states, more babies were given the most popular boys' and girls' names than they were in frontier states – those in the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest.

Statistical analyses showed the longer ago a state had achieved statehood, the more likely it was to have a higher percentage of people with one of the top 10 most popular baby names. The results held even after the researchers accounted for other factors that might impact baby-name choices, including population density, ethnicity of a state and median income.

The following is the study's ranked list of U.S. states where prevalence of common names is lowest (with No. 1 being the most individualistic), based on percentage of babies who had one of the top 10 most popular names of that year.

Boys' names:

  1. Hawaii
  2. Wyoming
  3. Louisiana
  4. Idaho
  5. Oklahoma
  6. Montana
  7. Colorado
  8. Nebraska
  9. Washington
  10. Oregon

Girls' names

  1. Hawaii
  2. New Mexico
  3. Mississippi
  4. Nevada
  5. Georgia
  6. Wyoming
  7. Arizona
  8. Alaska
  9. Maryland
  10. South Carolina

In contrast, these are the states where common names are most prevalent (with No. 1 being the least individualistic):

Boys' names

  1. New Hampshire
  2. Rhode Island
  3. Connecticut
  4. New Jersey
  5. Massachusetts
  6. West Virginia
  7. Maine
  8. New York
  9. Tennessee
  10. Kentucky

Girls' names

  1. Maine
  2. Vermont
  3. New Hampshire
  4. Rhode Island
  5. West Virginia
  6. North Dakota
  7. Massachusetts
  8. Connecticut
  9. Kentucky
  10. Iowa

The researchers found a similar naming phenomenon in Canada, where the country's eastern regions (which were settled earlier) — such as Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec — had a higher percentage of babies given popular names than the western, more recently settled regions, including Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

However, the link was much stronger for boys' names than for girls', and after the researchers accounted for population density, the effect of eastern or western region on girls' names was negligible.

International study

To see if the same phenomenon held across entire nations, the team looked at baby-name data from 2007 for nine European countries (Austria, Denmark, England, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Spain and Sweden), and four frontier countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States).

A similar pattern was found on this front as well, with the newer countries generally sporting more diverse names. In addition, countries that scored higher on an "individualism index" also had fewer babies who were given the most popular names at the time, compared with the countries that scored low on individualism.

But Wattenberg cautioned that the same factors may not be at work since some countries have rules for what parents can name their babies.

For instance, Denmark has a baby-naming rule list translated as the List over Personal Names. If a desired name is not on the list, a family can submit a written application to get consent from the Personal Names Committee under the auspices of the Danish Language Council. Names that aren't considered "personal names," including nicknames and "names, which can be feared to be a burden to the bearer," cannot expect to be approved, the committee states on its website.

Sweden, Hungary, Norway and other countries also have baby-naming laws.

"The idea of attributing a difference to some basic character when in fact, in one case, there are legal limits and in another case there aren't – they are not fundamentally comparable," Wattenberg told LiveScience.

Wattenberg said while she wasn't criticizing the study, she was pointing out that there could be other reasons behind some of the findings, particularly the international ones. For instance, she has found maternal age impacts baby names, where moms from urban, more affluent areas tend to choose more traditional names, which correlates with them waiting until they're older to have children. [Today's American Moms Older, More Educated]

More unique baby names now

Twenge said she saw a connection between her own work and the regional and demographic patterns in names found by Varnum.

Rather than looking at the popularity of common names across regions, Twenge studied the trend over time. It turns out, compared with decades ago, parents these days are choosing more unusual names for kids, which could suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism.

Twenge's latest research, detailed in the January 2010 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, revealed that about 40 percent of boys received one of the 10 most common names in the 1880s, while now fewer than 10 percent do. For girls, the percentage of those with a name in the top 10 dropped from 25 percent in about 1945 to 8 percent in 2007.

You can follow LiveScience managing editor Jeanna Bryner on Twitter @jeannabryner.

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