New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks writes in today's paper about trends in baby naming ("Goodbye, George and John"). Brooks seems to have recently discovered the work of Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard and The Baby Name Wizard Blog and one of the most thoughtful and analytical authorities on the subject of baby-name trends. (If you haven't checked out her mesmerizing Baby Name Voyager, do so now. And here's a blog post I wrote last year about Wattenberg's work.)
In the 1950s, some surge of naming testosterone produced a lot of swaggering male names ending in the letter K: Jack, Mark and Frank, not to mention Rock, Dirk and Buck. But over the past few decades, K has moved to the front of names: Kyle, Kaitlyn and Kayla. “If any letter defines modern American name style, K is it,” Wattenberg notes.
The most astonishing change concerns the ending of boys’ names. In 1880, most boys’ names ended in the letters E, N, D and S. In 1956, the chart of final letters looked pretty much the same, with more names ending in Y. Today’s chart looks nothing like the charts of the past century. In 2006, a huge (and I mean huge) percentage of boys’ names ended in the letter N. Or as Wattenberg put it, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is a baby-naming revolution.”
Naming fashion doesn’t just move a little. It swings back and forth. People who haven’t spent a nanosecond thinking about the letter K get swept up in a social contagion and suddenly they’ve got a Keisha and a Kody. They may think they’re making an individual statement, but in fact their choices are shaped by the networks around them.
(Access to the column is restricted to Times Select subscribers; if you want to read the rest, send me an email.) Update: All Times content is now free for everyone.
There are parallel trends in corporate and product naming, where, as with baby names, the rate of trend turnover is accelerating. Lately, many of my clients have requested names with "K" sounds. None of them can explain their preference; maybe they all have children named Kasey and Kyra. Or maybe want the impact of the plosive K sound to symbolize the forcefulness of their enterprises.
It wasn't always that way with K. According to a Wikipedia entry on inherently funny words, "In Neil Simon's play The Sunshine Boys, a character says, "Words with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny." And in a 1936 New Yorker article, H. L. Mencken made a similar argument for K words: "K, for some occult reason, has always appealed to the oafish risibles of the American plain people, and its presence in the names of many ... places has helped to make them joke towns ... for example, Kankakee, Kalamazoo, Hoboken, Hohokus, Yonkers, Squeedunk, 'Stinktown' and Brooklyn."
And let's not forget Mel Blanc's recitation, on the old Jack Benny TV show, "Train leaving on Track 5 for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuuuu-ca-mon-gaaa!" which always got a huge laugh. A well-timed pause between the first two syllables emphasized the K sounds and somehow made them even funnier.