Last week, I was exploring the ever-popular U.S. baby names data set and noticed a peculiar trend: The number of unique baby names has continued to rise dramatically for the last ~130 years — with the exception of the past few years, of course.
This observation could of course be explained by an increasing number of babies being born as time goes on. To account for that possibility, I plotted the unique number of baby names per 100,000 babies born.
The 1880s had the most uniquely named babies, whereas the following generations saw a marked decline in distinctive baby names until the 1960s. It’s possible that WWI followed by the Great Depression followed by WWII caused Americans to care less about giving their baby a distinctive name and more about keeping food on the table until next week. Whatever was the cause of the Great Baby Name Depression, it resulted in Baby Boomers being the least uniquely named generation in U.S. history.
These charts can lead into a dozen different stories, but today I want to focus on only one story: What caused the upsurge of unique American baby names in the 1970s?
During my search to find an answer, I ran across an interesting Freakonomics piece exploring whether a baby’s name can predict their long-term income. During the discussion of the piece, a possible answer suddenly revealed itself: the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s.
The Black Power movement
Back in the 1960s and 70s — only 50 years ago — African-Americans faced overwhelming discrimination. At the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, a growing sect of African-Americans became disillusioned with the non-violent movement led by MLK and others. These African-Americans decided instead to take a more militant stance on the civil rights movement.
This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power!
– Stokely Carmichael (June 16, 1966)
Prior to this movement, most African-American names closely resembled names used by European-Americans. As a part of the Black Power movement, many African-Americans began to openly embrace and take pride in their heritage and began giving their children uniquely African-American names.
During this time, we began to see the rise of Arabic/Islamic names in the U.S.:
(Note: The above name frequencies could be confounded with the fact that immigration was also on the rise from the 1970s onward; these aren’t exclusively names given to African-American babies.)
African-Americans also began to create their own names, later termed “inventive names.” Prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn became common during this time.
African-Americans even began adopting vocabulary terms as names for their children, a trend which still survives to this day.
The Black Power and pride movement left an unmistakable mark on the U.S. historical record. It’s interesting to note, however, that many of the “uniquely African-American” names that were popular in the 1970s and 80s have fallen out of favor in modern times. Have “uniquely African-American” names gone out of style, or have African-Americans adopted a different naming scheme?
What about after the 1980s?
Do my findings explain the continued rise of distinctive baby names in the 1980s and beyond? Certainly not. Immigration — especially from Hispanic countries — has undoubtedly played a huge role in the baby name landscape. There have also been several other “unique name” movements within the U.S. — for example the recent “-Ayden” movement — that are clearly visible in the historical record. But those are stories for next time.
Want to explore some more baby names on your own? Head on over to the Baby Name Explorer.