Today, the Social Security Administration released its official list of last year's most popular baby names. The No. 1 names are the same as 2009: Jacob for boys, Isabella for girls. That doesn't mean naming style was standing still, though. The real action happens lower down the list, where names rise fast and, in most cases, fall even faster.
What makes a name come or go? Naming a child is—or feels like it should be—a uniquely personal decision. And yet each name on the top 10 list represents the collective wisdom of a whole generation of parents. In other arenas of fashion, we know we're subject to commercial pressures. Clothing trends, for instance, are coordinated assaults on public taste. The colors you'll want to wear this fall were determined years in advance by professional colorists on behalf of manufacturers and retailers. But nobody advertises baby names. No one stood to pocket a dime when you named your daughter Isabella. You just felt, personally, that Isabella was the best possible name for your child. You and 22,730 other people.
Media exposure plays a part in naming decisions, but the influence of celebrity names is not as straightforward as it might appear. A minor reality TV personality like Talan Torriero (Laguna Beach) or Jaslene Gonzalez (America's Next Top Model) can win more namesakes than a Taylor Swift. It makes surprisingly little difference whether the person or character in question is likable, let alone a role model. A demonic child like The Omen's Damien or The Exorcist's Regan can inspire more namesakes than a swoon-worthy hero like Twilight's Edward. This year's top naming style-maker was Maci Bookout, an unwed teenage mother from the reality show Teen Mom—Maci was the fastest rising girl's name, and Bentley, her son's name, rose fastest for boys. (Remember the Freakonomics theory that names trickle down the economic ladder? In fact, the hottest name trends are consistently populist affairs.)
So a naming phenomenon—a name that spontaneously captures the hearts of thousands of parents—can't be chalked up to a single celebrity's status. Instead, it usually arises from a mix of powerful factors, including historical naming patterns and phonology. As a case study, let's take a close look at Khloe, the fastest rising name of the past five years. In 2005, Khloe was just an oddball spelling of the fashionable name Chloe. It didn't even crack the list of America's top 1000 names for baby girls. Last year, however, Khloe was No. 42 on the SSA's list of girls' names, bestowed on 5,369 babies. That's more than Katherine, Rachel, or Brian, and a 21-fold increase in just five years. What made thousands of American parents seize on the name Khloe?
The short answer, once again, is reality TV, that most reliable source for today's fastest rising names. Khloe Kardashian is part of America's most ubiquitous reality TV family, and over the past four years she has co-starred in four different TV series. But here's the rub: Khloe's two sisters, Kim and Kourtney, have enjoyed just as much publicity but haven't had the same meteoric effect on baby names. The number of babies named Kourtney only doubled over the past five years, and the number of Kims and Kimberlys actually fell.
So again: Why Khloe? The first place to look is generational trends. Parents today want names that feel fresh. Kimberly was one of the hottest names of the 1960s and '70s, and so by the time Kim Kardashian hit our TV screens, the popularity of that name had already fallen dramatically. Kourtney and Courtney didn't peak until the '90s—so they were a little less stale, but still well past their zenith. Chloe, though, was still on the upswing. Its popularity was rising every year, leaving the name well-balanced between fresh and familiar. And it provided an opportunity for creative spelling. Starting the name with a "K" gave it new appeal for parents with creative, contemporary tastes in names. (K is the consonant of choice for these namers, the types who choose Kamren over Cameron.)