Wolfram|Alpha and Naming Babies


My wife and I are patiently awaiting the birth of our daughter, which has been affecting my number of recent posts. It could happen now at any time.

Like all parents, we spent quite a bit of time (and argument) coming up with names for our children. Our two year old son was easy, he was named after my father-in-law, which happened to also be a name common in my Pennsylvania Dutch family- Jacob. No sweat. When we found out my wife was pregnant nine months ago, we went through the process again. We found out that the baby was a girl, and my side of the family had nothing. Nothing that a 21st century parent would consider, that is. So we went ethnic. My wife is Danish, and we picked an old Danish name- Maren.

A lot of parents don’t, and didn’t, do it this way as evident from a recent blog post by the Wolfram|Alpha team. It was an inspiring post for me, and led me to do a few historical experiments that might be useful in an American History classroom. The post pointed out one of Wolfram’s neat features, the ability to graph and get statistics for the frequency of given names since 1890 in the United States. Their example highlights the male given name “Roosevelt.” As you can imagine, the number of lucky young fellows granted the name spiked during and following the presidencies of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (I was surprised to see that the Teddy spike was almost twice the size as the FDR spike). The cousin’s first names also show positive correlations.

So, what other interesting things could students do with this? It would be great for introducing new units, by trying out a few given names for key unit figures. We’re of course restricted to the period 1890 to about 2008, and it should be noted that the “spikes” I referring to are often really a very small percentage of all given names chosen by parents.

I’ve noticed both positive and negative correlations. If you stick to 20th century presidents without common given names, Dwight and Lyndon show positive correlations. Eisenhower’s name has a World War II spike, followed by a spike during and after his presidency. Ike, however, did not seem to catch on. Johnson has a short spike correlating with his VP candidacy in 1960, which was  greatly overshadowed by a spike during his re-election campaign (and the Civil Rights Acts) but then drastically falling during the mire of Vietnam.

What about first ladies? Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton clearly win, with only slight bumps for Mamie Eisenhower, Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover. Pat Nixon (her real name was Thelma) and Eleanor Roosevelt fare better. Wolfram|Alpha is understandably confused by Lady Bird (Claudia) Johnson and Rosalynn Carter (Eleanor). Edith Roosevelt seems to have a positive correlation. More importantly her middle name, Kermit, also the name of her son who inherited Teddy’s sense of adventure, has an impressive spike and possibly a negative correlation during the heyday of a certain green frog puppet.

How about a few international leaders? No surprise- negative correlation for Adolph. I was very surprised by the effect of Winston Churchill on American parents.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X show positive results, with Malcolm showing a spike (no pun intended) around the release of Malcolm X in theatres.

More interesting results: old celebrities Errol Flynn and Rudolph Valentino and newer celebrities Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears.

When I drift from my original educational purpose, it’s probably time to stop writing. Let me know any interesting historical finds on your end (I’ll update this post- especially if you tweet me some of your finds!)

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Jun 16th by admin

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