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January 2015

Would you rather have a rare or common name? Mine has been both.

Hillary_Clinton_Bill_Chelsea_on_parade
No, that's not me with US President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Inauguration Day, January 20, 1997. (White House photo)

Every year, the Social Security Administration and other authorities release rankings of popular names. Most of the attention goes to the highly ranked names: Noah and Sophia were tops in 2013, the last SSA list released. Last week, however, the City Room blog of the New York Times highlighted some of New York City’s least popular names. Names given to just a handful of Big Apple babies in 2013 include Sincere (19 boys) and Nashley (10 girls).

Those Sinceres and Nashleys could just have weird names their whole lives. But there’s an alternative. As unlikely as it may seem, those names could get caught up in the lifecycle of popular baby names, in which newly coined names get uptake among a few and then explode into public consciousness, rising high in the rankings before falling off precipitously. I think it was the Freakonomics folks who first found that the early adopters in this cycle tend to be elite, but by the time the name reaches its peak popularity, people in the elite groups (as measured by wealth, education, or celebrity) are no longer using it. As Steve Levitt said on the Freakonomics podcast:

One of the most predictable patterns when it comes to names is that almost every name that becomes popular starts out as a high-class name, or a high-education name. So in these California data we had, we could see the education level of the parents. And even the names that eventually become the quote “trashiest” kinds of names, so the Tiffanys and the Brittanys, and—I’ll probably get myself in trouble—and the Caitlyns and things like that start at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of 20 or 30 or 40 years they migrate their way down, becoming more and more popular among the less-educated set. And as names become popular among the less educated, the higher-educated parents absolutely abandon these names and don’t want anything to do with them.

Many prospective parents stress about whether they should give their kid an unusual name or a common one, but the Freakonomics analysis points to a third possibility: It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to inadvertently give your kid an unusual name that later becomes common. As it happens, my parents did just that for me (and then, as it turns out, repeated the trick for my brother). Originally, Chelsea was a place name meaning “chalk port”—most famously among the neighborhoods of New York, Boston, and London (London’s Chelsea also giving its name to the (in)famous football team). When Chelsea was (rarely) used for people, it was given to boys—there is a conductor named Chelsea Tipton II who is older than me, and whose father was presumably also named Chelsea. It’s hard to know why Chelsea took off for girls. Some trace it to Judy Collins’s beloved song Chelsea Morning. That’s the reason given by the Clintons for giving their daughter the name, I believe. (She’s younger than I am, by the way—a fact that is weirdly important to me, since it means I had the name first. My father tells me that it’s an important fact to him, too.)

Chelsea popularity graph
A graph of my name's popularity from BabyNameWizard.com

When I was born, the name Chelsea was vanishingly rare, but it was already getting caught up in the popularity cycle, though my parents didn’t know that. My parents (in the well-educated demographic, as predicted by Levitt) had never known anyone with the name. In fact, they had never even heard of it until they read a report in the newspaper about a hockey player (a sort of celebrity, also as predicted) with a daughter named Chelsea. As far as my parents were concerned, it wasn’t a totally unique name—in that they hadn’t invented it—but it was one that would make me special.

The bad thing about having a rare name was that hardly anyone where I grew up knew how to pronounce it by looking at it. (Mostly I got Chel-SEE-ah.) That was a minor hardship, but I never wished for a more phonetic spelling, like Chelsey. Fortunately, people didn’t make fun of it, and they often told me that my name was beautiful, so I loved it. I also felt special for being the only one who had it. So it was jarring when Bill Clinton ran for office and his daughter was named, of all things, Chelsea. Then the worst started happening: Everybody who met me would say, “Oh, Chelsea, like Chelsea Clinton!” (Funnily enough, people still do this, especially abroad, but I’ve come to enjoy it and use it as a launching point for conversation.) A hair braider at a Renaissance festival, upon learning my name, commented on my curly blond hair and proximity to DC and asked if Chelsea Clinton was my sister. After a moment’s further consideration, she retracted the question, but I couldn’t unhear it. I was no longer the special Chelsea; Chelsea Clinton was. That people could now pronounce my name didn’t make up for that painful truth.

Soon, however, Chelsea Clinton and I found ourselves sharing our name not just with each other, but also with a horde of Chelseas, Chelsies, and Chelcis more than 10 years our junior. The popularity of the name peaked in 1992, the year Clinton was elected, at number 15 on the SSA charts. (Based on the trend prior to 1992, I think Chelsea may have grown popular even without the Clintons’ influence, but that certainly helped.) I started hearing my name everywhere, especially near playgrounds. All of a sudden, my unique name was a fad. I even feared that some people would label it with Levitt’s ugly word from the quote above, “trashy.” As a teenager and young adult who actively didn’t participate in fads and aspired to have good taste, I was bummed.

Then, just as the models predict, Chelsea’s popularity plummeted. People got sick of the name, and they moved on to something fresher. In 2013, it ranked number 271 (just 611 Chelseas born in the United States), and one prediction algorithm declares “it will decline as a baby name every year from now through 2027.”

So Chelsea will become a relatively uncommon name once more. But the consequences of Chelsea’s moment in the sun will live on. For example, since the name’s popularity was so concentrated in time, I assume that most people who see my name without my face (which they do a lot, since I’m a writer) assume that I’m 10 to 15 years younger than I am—part of the Chelsea boom. (My mother points out that I may not mind this in a few years.) It may also be that, as I and the other Chelseas age, the name is going to start to seem like a middle-aged lady’s name and then an old lady’s name (like I thought of the names Betty and Barbara in my childhood). I once saw a description of the name Chelsea that called it “timeless”; that’s unfortunately about as far from the truth as it could be.

Names are central to identity, and I found the shifting fortunes of my name disorienting at a sensitive time. So you can probably guess that, if I were to give advice on naming a baby today, I would suggest avoiding a name that’s riding the name cycle. But that may be harder than it would seem, even with all the data and algorithms available. After all, we don’t know if Nashley and Sincere are just getting traction in New York, or if they will remain a few kids’ oddball names. Plus, there are lots of unforeseeable factors that can instantly affect the popularity of specific names, like the name of the next president’s child (um, Chelsea?) or, on the other hand, of the next serial killer.

Fortunately, we can all take solace in the Freakonomicists’ conclusion, based on the numbers, that one’s name does not have any bearing on one’s success. So if people do make untrue assumptions about me based on my name, it doesn’t matter one bit in the end. I will succeed and fail at life based on other factors, some of which I can control and some of which I can’t, and so will all the world’s children. That’s reassuring.

So while I’ll probably be forever coming to terms with fact of all the other interloper Chelseas in the world, I’ve never been tempted to change my name. Learning to share it has been part of the process of growing up, finding my place in the world, and becoming a responsible resident of Planet Earth. After all, there are more than 7 billion of us here. None of us is all that special, and we’re gonna have to share most everything.