The Science Behind Being A Baby Namer

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Ever wondered who creates the yearly list of the most popular baby names? Or who helps celebrities come up with those wacky kids' names?

Meet the baby name expert -- or baby namer -- whose job is to rank the year's most popular names; compile a list of baby names by gender and their meanings; and help guide parents in their name-selection process.

But don't think it's all about personal whim and popularity. In fact, there is a real science behind this business. It is not opinion-based, but science-based.

Two well-known baby name experts actually had backgrounds in mathematics and computers:

Laura Wattenberg, author of the Baby Name Wizard guide (Broadway, 2005) and creator of babynamewizard.com, was a Ph.D with experience in research and statistical analysis. She says she approached the questions of why certain names were more popular than others and why certain names were local "as a data problem. I spent years building a database of baby names."

And Jennifer Moss, founder of BabyNames.com, was a computer programmer who created a software program that outlined a list of baby names and their meanings, which eventually became an encyclopedia.


How do baby name experts become experts?

For both Wattenberg and Moss, becoming a baby name expert just sort of happened -- almost by accident.

Wattenberg made her career in high tech and computer-related positions at Fortune 500 companies. After her first child was born, Wattenberg was struck by the number of kids that had the same name in her New York City neighborhood. "I was a mom and met a lot of other moms at the park, and I noticed that many of the names were not only the same, but were local and specific to my area."

Because traditional baby name dictionaries didn't explain WHY certain names were so popular, Wattenberg focused on that, and her career was born. What set her book apart was her approach to baby names: She not only listed them, but also added a graph beside each name in her book that is a visual representation of that specific name and its role in our culture.

Wattenberg's approach was holistic and anthropological. After the success of her book, Wattenberg built a website and a blog, which continue to flourish today. She knows she has found her calling in life, and is confident that she will have work for years to come because, "there is always more to say and do because there are always new names. There is a new audience each year with each new generation having babies, and names are everywhere. They are ingrained in every part of our culture."

Moss also became interested in the process of naming babies after becoming a mother. After creating her encyclopedia, she transferred it to her website, www.babynames.com. Once the site went live, Moss says, people kept on writing in requesting help with naming their baby. Now the site enjoys one and a half million unique viewers each month, and is considered to be one of the most authoritative resources for baby names in the world.

The site's success helped Moss move in a more personal direction. "After a number of television and radio appearances, I started a personal consultant business where I interview families and help them resolve their name conflict so that they can select a name for their baby," she said.


The popularity of baby naming

Baby naming really took off in the mid-1990s, thanks to two major developments. First, the Social Security Administration began compiling lists of baby names from birth certificates. The lists effectively became popularity statistics, creating a competition over baby names, says Wattenberg: The public became more aware of what the most favored names were, and a "Jones effect" was created.

But it was the explosion of the Internet that had the biggest impact on the baby naming industry. Suddenly, people had quick and easy access to tons of information -- baby names included. Moss says that her website really helped launch the popularity of her baby name encyclopedia. "We started the BabyName website with a message board and the baby encyclopedia. The message board is what made the site popular because it drew input from other people not in your immediate circle. All of a sudden, parents could get baby name advice from tons of different people."


Surprising facts about the baby naming industry

What most surprised Moss was the fact that people really want to fit in: "They tend to choose names that are really popular. They really want that No. 1 name. I thought that more people would want to be unique."

Also, because of the effects of the Internet and pop culture, trends in baby names have really sped up. The popular names used to change every 10 years, whereas now they change every three to four years. For example, all of the characters from the Twilight series have very old names (Edward, Esme) -- and Moss says that they are definitely gaining in popularity and emerging as "fan favorites." That constant flow of information keeps everything fresh.

One of the biggest trends in baby naming now is to use family names or surnames, such as Jackson or Harrison, as a first name, Moss notes.


How do you get a job as a baby namer?

Wattenberg's advice is simple and is not just applicable to this field: "You have to think about what it is you do best, because there is no single formula for this job."

Moss cautions against thinking that just because you like names, you can do the job. Remember that science is behind the ranking of baby names, the trends of baby names, and the meaning of names. "I spent 10 years in the trenches, doing research before my site went online," she notes.

According to Moss, if you want to become a baby naming expert, you can:

1. Study onomastics (the origins of names) and linguistics.

2. Do a lot of research on your own.

3. Compile and organize all the information you come across.

Above all else, Moss recommends "keeping your day job, because baby naming is a great hobby, but it won't make you rich."

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