Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Baby Names and the 49th Parallel

In his 1990 book, Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his preface:

Knowledge of Canada or the United States is the best way to gain insight into the other North American country. Nations can be understood only in comparative perspective. And the more similar the units being compared, the more possible it should be to isolate the factors responsible for differences between them. Looking intensively at Canada and the United States sheds light on both of them.
In a chapter entitled "The Canadian Identity," Lipset, who is now professor emeritus at George Mason University, notes:
The cultural and structural differences among western countries generally and between Canada and the United States in particular have declined in some respects. The diffusion of values, the comparable economic changes, and the development of rapid transportation and almost instantaneous communication seem to be producing a common western culture. Yet, many traditional national differences persist, some in weaker form, and new ones emerge (an example is the rate of unionization, which is now much higher in Canada than in the United States).
In an effort to test this hypothesis, somehow I got the notion to compare Canadian and American baby names, to see if there was anything discernibly different.

Based on some quick research I did, differences may be eliding and our naming cultures may be converging. If you meet an adult today named Ian or Gordon or Douglas, chances are pretty good that he's Canadian, not American. New generations of Canadians and Americans seem not to carry over the distinctions attached to the names of their parents and grandparents.

This may not be true in the future. I looked up the most popular baby names in the United States and Canada for the year 2003. Here are the top ten names for baby boys and baby girls. Note the substantial overlap, especially for the girls. (Names that appear on both lists are marked with an asterisk [*] and an indication of where they fall on the other list.):

USA Boys

1. Jacob* (Canada #4)
2. Michael
3. Joshua* (Canada #2)
4. Matthew* (Canada #3)
5. Andrew
6. Joseph
7. Ethan* (Canada #1)
8. Daniel
9. Christopher
10. Anthony

Canada Boys

1. Ethan* (USA #7)
2. Joshua* (USA #3)
3. Matthew* (USA #4)
4. Jacob* (USA #1)
5. Ryan
6. Logan
7. Nicholas
8. Tyler
9. Dylan
10. Connor

USA Girls

1. Emily* (Canada #1)
2. Emma* (Canada #2)
3. Madison* (Canada #3)
4. Hannah* (Canada #5)
5. Olivia
6. Abigail
7. Alexis
8. Ashley* (Canada #8)
9. Elizabeth
10. Samantha

Canada Girls

1. Emily* (USA #1)
2. Emma* (USA #2)
3. Madison (USA #3)
4. Sarah
5. Hannah* (USA #4)
6. Sydney
7. Megan
8. Ashley* (USA #8)
9. Taylor
10. Paige
It looks like Canadian and American kindergartens may be practically indistinguishable in a couple of years, at least from the class lists teachers and principals will use.

Whether any conclusions can be drawn from this list (or even a comparison of longer lists, such as the top 50 baby names in each country), I don't know. Perhaps this is just an example of the trivial sort of research that can be done simply because we now have the capacity to do so, through Google and other search engines. (At the time Lipset wrote his book in the 1980s, it probably would have been necessary to travel to Statistics Canada/Statistique Canada in Ottawa for an American researcher to uncover the data for comparison.)

And what does it mean that the ninth-ranked names for girls are "Elizabeth" and "Taylor"? Really, Elizabeth Taylor. Someone is playing a cosmic -- or at least continental -- joke on us, eh?

No comments: