What's in a name?

Ever since I first heard about it, I’ve been itching to play around with the name data released by the BC Vital Statistics Agency — a list all of the names that appear on BC’s birth certificates for each of the last hundred years! I was curious to see what I could find out about the popularity and gender distribution of given names, so I decided to dedicate a couple blog posts to exploring it. If you’re interested in playing with the data yourself, you can find them here and here.

To get a feel for how the data looks, let’s plot the historical frequency of some name, which I chose completely at random and not at all to satisfy my personal curiosity. ☺

Frequency of the name "Ross" among newborns over time

As you might have guessed even before you looked at it, the graph has two peaks centered around the baby boom and millenial generations. Before we draw any conclusions about the relative popularity of the particular name, we’ll have to compare it to the overall birth rate (c.f. xkcd 1138).

Total births recorded in the dataset

Although they start off looking pretty similar, the top curve has a much shorter peak during the echo boom. This suggests that my name has gradually been declining in popularity since the 1960s or so, which jibes with my experience: I know exactly one other Ross in my generation, two from my parents’, and none younger than me.

A few other assorted facts about my name:

Next, let’s look at how the most popular names have changed over time. I compiled lists of the most common names in each of four decades: the most recent years in the dataset (2005–2014), my own generation (1985–1994), my parents’ generation (1955–1964), and my grandparents’ generation (1925–1934).

1925–19341955–19641985–19942005–2014
1MarySusanJessicaOlivia
2MargaretKarenAmandaEmma
3DorothySandraSarahEmily
4ShirleyLindaAshleyAva
5PatriciaDeborahJenniferSophia
1925–19341955–19641985–19942005–2014
1JohnDavidMichaelEthan
2WilliamRobertMatthewLiam
3RobertMichaelChristopherJacob
4JamesJohnRyanLucas
5GeorgeJamesKyleBenjamin

It’s interesting to note that, while the most popular female names are completely different from generation to generation, the same is not true for male names. John, James, and Robert all appear in the first two lists, while Michael hops from number three in 1955–64 to number one in 1985–94. It’s not until the current generation that we see an entirely new batch of male names in the top five.

The historical frequency of four chart-topping names

That pattern is not the only reason why I kept the top lists separated by assigned gender. As you can see by comparing the above chart with the one below, the top female names account for a smaller share of total births than the top male names. For example, Susan was the most common female name in 1955–64, but would have been in a virtual tie for seventh in a combined list.

The historical frequency of four more chart-topping names

I’m not sure whether the top-heaviness of male names is because there have been fewer of them historically for parents to choose from, or whether there are additional cultural factors at work, like the primarily-male “Junior” naming convention. Regardless of the reasons, it seems that the effect is decreasing over time, as names for both assigned genders are becoming more evenly distributed.

Proportion of recorded birth certificates bearing one of the top ten male names or top ten female names (respectively blue and pink, sorry)

The next thing I’d like to investigate is how individual names are gendered. You can read about that in part 2.