Economist Stephen Levitt is interested in more than money. Instead, he wants to know how people make decisions: how they decide how much to pay for something, how they describe themselves to potential blind dates, why they decide to lead a life of crime or go into professional sports. And, of course, what to name the baby.
In their new book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Levitt and coauthor Stephen Dubner devote a chapter to the economics of baby names. What names are statistically correlated with educated parents? What names are correlated to socioeconomic status? Why are some names popular and some not? And along the way, they tell a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a baby girl who had been given a name with an exotic pronunciation, shuh-TEED, but an unfortunate spelling, Shithead.
Naming things — companies, products, brands — is a service that a lot of design firms, from Landor to Interbrand to Addison, are well compensated for providing. As such, it's also the only design-related activity that virtually every person on earth feels fully qualified to undertake on their own, for free.
Most clients would be hesitant to offer informed opinions about typefaces. Only ones sure of their own taste provide direction on things like color or form. But everyone has experience with naming, whether a baby or even a goldfish. The fact that it's so easy is what makes it so hard.
The biggest problem, of course, is that new names seldom sound good at first. Advertising executive Ron Holland thought that Xerox was a horrible name for their client's up-and-coming duplicating company. "They'll call it Ex-Rox, the famous Japanese laxative," he told his partner, George Lois. Upon learning in 1986 that the merger of Burroughs and Sperry would result in a new entity called Unisys, Calvin Trillin predicted that the company "will do everything in its power to live up to what the public might expect of a company that sounds like a disease." Today both of those names sound quite natural.
Given that birthing a new name for a business concern is such a traumatic experience, its no surprise some companies decide that nomenclature midwifes are worth every penny. Not that the nomenclaturists agree, of course, at least with each other. As Ruth Shalit wrote in a classic article on Salon.com, the experts at Landor who came up with the name Agilent couldn't have been prouder. "It's funny, because 'Agilent' isn't even a real word," said David Redhill, Landor's global executive director at the time. "So it's pretty hard to get positive and negative impressions with any real basis in experience. But I'm pleased to say that when we unveiled the name last month at an all-company meeting, a thousand employees stood up and gave the name a standing ovation. And we thought, 'We have a good thing here.'" A thousand cheering employees can't be wrong!
Yet Shalit soon discovered that Landor's competitors were less than impressed. "What a crummy name," said Steve Manning of A Hundred Monkeys, a naming specialist firm. "The most namby-pamby, phonetically weak, light-in-its-shoes name in the entire history of naming... It ought to be taken out back and shot," said Rick Bragdon, president of the naming firm Idiom. "Perhaps it would be best if Landor just closed up shop," said Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank. Of course, once you start thinking about names, they all start to sound...well...Idiom? ABC Namebank? A Hundred Monkeys?
You'd think that naming a baby was simpler. Maybe it's only because parents are blissfully unaware of how charged a name can be. In their book, Levitt and Dubner describe a series of "audit studies" that sent out identical resumes to employers with only one difference: one resume would bear a "black" name (DeShawn Williams) and the other a "white" one (Jake Williams). As you might sadly guess, the Jakes always get more interviews than the DeShawns. As a visit to the addictive Baby Name Wizard NameVoyager website will suggest, trends in baby names ebb and flow. But perhaps the trends are not quite as unpredictable as they seem at first glance. Levitt and Dubner, observing that the most popular names tend to start as "high-end" upper-income names (the once-tony "Madison" was the third most popular name for white girls in 2000), project that the most popular girl names in 2015 might be Annika, Clementine and Philippa, and for boys, Asher, Finnigan and Sumner. Agilent, a name I rather like, is nowhere to be found.
There is a rare occasion when naming the product and naming the baby come together. The poet Marianne Moore was once recruited by a pair of ambitious young executives at Ford to come up with a "colossal name" for the company's newest car. She set upon the project with enthusiasm, coming up with names that included the Silver Sword, the Aerundo, the Resilient Bullet, the Mongoose Civique, the Pastelogram, and the Utopian Turtletop. After considering Moore's suggestions and thousands of others, the company settled on a name that coincidentally was the same one that founder Henry Ford had picked for another one of his babies: Edsel. When the car flopped, the name was blamed. Although it could have been worse. Just ask Shithead.