Baby names and growing entropy

In recent years, the percentage of people who give their babies popular names has dropped. In other words, the range of baby names has increased and more people are seeking unique names. One baby name expert explains why sociologists have taken an interest in this trend:

“The more diverse naming styles become, the more we are going to read into somebody’s name,” Wattenberg said. She analyzed baby name statistics from the U.S. Social Security Administration to calculate a measure called Shannon entropy from the field of information theory. This measure is used to describe the information contained in a message – in this case, how much is communicated by the choice of a name…

Wattenberg calculated a sharp rise in name entropy over time. She found that this measure of the information carried by names has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (The measure is independent of the number of babies born.)…

“Sociologists love names,” Wattenberg said. “They’re practically the only case of a choice with broad fashion patterns that there’s no commercial influence on. There’s no company out there spending millions to convince you Brayden is a perfect name for your son.” (Studies have shown that movies, celebrities and other cultural trends do have an impact on the popularity of certain names.)

To understand how the meaning communicated through names has evolved, Wattenberg suggests thinking about an office with a dress code requiring all employees to wear gray or blue suits to work every day. Seeing a man dressed in a blue suit in such an environment would tell you very little about that man’s taste or personality.

Compare that to an office with no dress code. Here employees’ sartorial choices vary widely, so the outfit worn by anyone in that office could tell you a fair bit about that person as an individual. In this case, the same blue suit might reveal significant clues about its wearer.

The same goes for names. In an era where there are a lot more choices available, each choice carries more weight.

This sounds like an interesting analysis. And it sounds like Wattenberg is on to something – sociologists in the last few decades are very interested in how people make decisions that involve symbols, values, and meanings. In a name, parents have a fairly unconstrained choice.

While this is interesting, I want to know more:

1. Even if parents have a lot of choice in choosing names, why have they, as a whole, shifted toward a wider range of names? The article suggests it is indicative of individualism – but why choose to be more individualistic with baby names? How has this happened?

2. Do these new names affect the children’s lives? If parents are giving kids more unique names, are there any consequences to this?

3. Have other countries experienced similar trends? Or is this individualistic trend an American phenomenon?

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