What’s behind the name game?

We’ve all seen the effect “Twilight” has had on America’s teenage girls.

But did the popular book and film series influence America’s parents too?

That’s what the media would have you believe. Recently, several news outlets have credited “Twilight” for popularizing the names Isabella and Jacob, which were both among BabyCenter’s top five most popular baby names this year.

I was skeptical of this claim, mainly because I’m hesitant to credit “Twilight” with anything. But a deeper look at the data reveals a common misconception people have with baby naming.

In general, people view cultural change, such as a name becoming popular, as the meaningful result of an external cause. So when Mason jumped from the 12th most popular boys’ name last year to 3rd this year, MSNBC quickly attributed it to a Kardashian sister who chose the name for her baby.

Celebrities have less of an influence on baby naming than you might imagine, however. Take one of the most iconic monikers: Marilyn. Most people credit Marilyn Monroe for the name’s popularity in the 1950s.

But Marilyn had started to shoot up the charts a couple of decades earlier, and was in fact already a popular name when Monroe, formerly Norma Jeane Baker, adopted it in 1946. In fact, the name had reached its peak popularity in the 1930s, and continued to fall out of popularity after Monroe became famous.

“People recall an instance or two in which a name is made famous by a celebrity and the same name is given to a lot of babies, and assume that the first phenomenon caused the second,” psychologist Steven Pinker writes in his book “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.”

Only in rare cases do public figures have a direct influence on baby naming, like in the 1930s when — for obvious reasons — Herbert’s popularity dropped while Franklin’s rose. Usually, the opposite is true: a name shoots up in popularity, and someone with that name becomes famous.

As Pinker explains, when parents are selecting a name for their baby, they generally aim to pick one that is distinctive, but not too distinctive. This results in thousands of parents choosing the same moderately unusual name, causing the name to become incredibly popular. New parents react by avoiding the now-popular name, and the cycle repeats.

According to Pinker’s book, the most important factor when it comes to baby naming may actually be sound patterns. Sounds come in and out of fashion just like anything else, so popular names could simply be riding the wave of a popular sound.

The surge of Mason wasn’t the result of a Kardashian sister — it was the natural by-product of the rise of other boys’ names that end in . (Aiden, Brayden, Caden, Jayden, Benjamin, Jackson, Logan, Ryan and Ethan all cracked the top-20 as well.)

S-final names tend to be indicative of older women, which is why you don’t see many people named Gladys, Lois, Doris, Frances or Agnes outside of a nursing home.

So contrary to popular belief, celebrities aren’t the ones setting these trends. As it turns out, society influences the celebrities.

Mark Abadi is a senior linguistics major from Charlotte. Contact him at: markiabadi@gmail.com

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