Having a common name in a post-Dunbar’s number world

I’m not sure I believe the model outlined in Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. I’m not even sure about the specific details of Dunbar’s number. But, the overall insight, that the vast majority of human history has been defined by small groups with people you see again and again had an impact on our psychology seems robust.

The connotations of the very word “stranger” are complex but generally lean to the negative. And I think that makes sense. One of the tasks of cultural norms and values is to figure out a way that strangers can be interacted with in non-zero sum relationships.

All of this is to preface a banal assertion about interaction in day-to-day life if you are a middle-class professional. I get a lot of emails from people with common names, and it’s a non-trivial cognitive load to figure out if I should pay attention or not. Names like “David”, “John”, and “Omar” are so common that I’ve actually ignored people I shouldn’t because I didn’t realize it was that David or Omar. I’ve almost even responded to the wrong person when two people with the same first name are emailing me at the same time.

In a premodern village or a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribe, having a common name on a population-wide scale wasn’t a big deal. The people you would address by name regularly was far less than 100 over a year. But in today’s world, some people have to interface with ten different strangers per day, along with all the “regulars.”

If I was a parent considering names, this would be something that I would take into account. It’s probably not optimal to have a very rare name, because people might misspell it or misremember it, though it will be salient. But having a very common name can also be annoying, to the point where many people with common names now go by their middle name or a nickname. Rather, a familiar but not-so-common name is probably optimal.

To give an example, the name “Dennis” is not too common for people my age (as opposed to “David”). If I get an email from a “Dennis” there is only one or two people it could be.

19 thoughts on “Having a common name in a post-Dunbar’s number world

  1. My wife and I consciously gave our two sons names that are uncommon but not rare or weird or hard to spell and also unlikely to suddenly enter the zeitgeist and go from rare to ubiquitous by the time they reach school (we succeeded, their names didn’t surge).

    We have friends that gave their kids what seemed like uncommon names but somehow managed to be incredibly common by the time the kids reached grade school. Not sure how that even works, they’re not names from pop culture or celebrity.

  2. a lot of ‘rare’ names become common through some-sort of social cohort effects. as young parents we’ve noticed the pattern with our kids’ friends. e.g., how did “parker” become so common in our social set??? parker lewis can’t lose wasn’t that big of a deal and it ended in the 1990s.

  3. I changed my annoyingly common name (top ten for most of my decade of birth) to an uncommon one for this very reason.

    Another factor is the instant friendliness and faux lack of hierarchy in modern life. My father who has a reasonably common name for his birth year (in the 1940s) never had much trouble because we have an uncommon surname and in his professional environment, as an employer, he was Mr. Surname.

  4. Names go into and out of fashion. My wife and I know eight or nine women named Sarah, all of whom are around 40-45 years old. Meanwhile, my kids have to add surname initials to distinguish between all the Zoes at their school.

  5. For a fun and relevant website, google “How Many of Me.” I’d link, but I suspect I get pushed to a spam bin.

    I’ve done some research on the purging of voter registration rolls, and found the How Many of Me site useful for grounding my assumptions about how common various names might be.

    How Many of Me suggests there are 1,646 Razib in the US, 57,018 Khans, but only 1 Razib Khan.

  6. I’m taking to naming my children traditional and very rare Somali names which are very archaic – like Cagaff, Ayanle, and Meyle, and Ladhan.

    The proliferation of Arabic names in post-civil war Somali society are all picked similarly from a small set of names, as now any average Somali Gen Z or Millennial male is either an Abdi- or Mohamed. Whereas our grandfathers and everything before our fathers names more commonly old Somali names which are now practically extinct bc of the post-war religiosity that has overtaken Somali society as a whole, and in turn completely overturned our naming practices overnight.

    But the reverse of this loss of individuality due to the increasing share of a set of heavily popular and re-occurring names displacing more unique and less common names in many parts of our current world – trying to get such a unique and stand out name which leads to names so ridiculous those children only stand for the most part to lose at the misfortune of having such names, to be reduced to being the analogous (and perhaps literal) clowns at the front of the class.

    Names like Stacy, DeShawn, and Jose also seem to be rather unfortunate names – as do Abdi- and Mohamed – due to the fact that their (once) extremely common occurrence in specific demographics leads to such names becoming the “average Joe” for such demographics, and in turn their worst (and sometimes good) stereotypes being strongly associated with such names, and as such, effecting the perception of individuals with such names (unless you look phenotypically completely unassociated with such a group).

  7. “It’s probably not optimal to have a very rare name, because people might misspell it or misremember it, though it will be salient. But having a very common name can also be annoying, to the point where many people with common names now go by their middle name or a nickname. Rather, a familiar but not-so-common name is probably optimal”

    Thats how trends for names come up on a regular base, because like a herd parents follow that rule and their are fashionable rare but known names, until they might become too common in a couple of years.

    The very common names from the preceding trends, but even more so weird, unusual and “too fashionable” names being most common among less intelligent and rather lower level parents.

    Middle and higher class people usually follow the described trend mostly based on traditional names.

    Only a few very high level or “alternative” parents decide to give very rare names with an actual meaning which dont sound stupid.

  8. It might be different by country/culture/ethnicity, but in Germany certain names being strongly associated with class, intelligence and behavioural traits.

    For example, boys with the Name “Kevin” might be severly disadvantaged. Thats because almost no middle and upper class parents chose that name, but many from the lowest strata.
    This might even influence their grades in school and career later in life, because of the associated expectations.

    Obviously to name a child after a movie or popstar is associated with lower intelligence, education and social class here. Dont know if thats true for the US as well, but even among celebrities there seems to be a relation of stupid parents and strange/weird namens.

  9. My wife and I decided to give both of our children somewhat rare, but not exceedingly so, names. My daughter’s was the 210th most popular in 2009, and my son’s the 654th in 2013. We also endeavored to give names which were spelled in a “conventional” manner (I am happy my name is Karl, not Carl, but I’ve hated having to correct people about it my entire life) and easily pronounced phonetically. For example, we both liked the name Rhys for a boy, but I knew it would be hell on him growing up given it’s spelled nothing like it’s pronounced.

    Another thing we tried to avoid was long names which would be shortened into nicknames. Apparently however nicknames have fallen out of fashion in the West – in large part because parents are much more diverse in their naming choices than they were in the past.

    The trend I absolutely hate in names, which is very, very common now, is to give your child a surname for a first name. Names like Mayson, Grayson, Madison, Harper, Hudson, Sawyer, Parker, Quinn, Mackenzie, Cooper, etc. This is a naming trend which originated with “Old Money” originally. Essentially when someone came from a family with both a famous paternal and maternal line, they would often have the surname of their mother’s family as their first name. I think as a result people think it somehow sounds grown up or sophisticated to give their children these names.

  10. My Irish ancestors generally did not have to make choices. The strict rule was first son named for paternal grandfather, second for maternal grandfather, third for father. Similarly first daughter for paternal grandmother, second for maternal grandmother (some families reversed this order i.e. first for maternal grandmother) third for mother, In rare cases this rule was breached, for instance a son born after his father’s death was named for him, whatever his birth order.
    Only with fourth and subsequent sons, or daughters, was a choice made and this was often avoided by naming the child for the saint on whose name day he, or she, was born.
    I’d be interested to know if there were similar customs in any South Asian societies.

  11. I like that How Many of Me website. My last name has only 122 people which means that pretty much first name is unique.

    My son basically cannot be found on the internet because his name is very close to a business. The only way I could find him on a google search was through my mothers funeral. Searching for by city, activities or school turn up nothing.

  12. Karl’s comment prompted me to look at the popularity of my own kids’ names in their birth years — they’re in the 50th-60th range for rank. More popular than I thought.

    Our last name is unique to our family (it was invented in the early 20th century) so no worries about ambiguity. I don’t think there are more than 25-30 people in the world who share it.

  13. @Michael C

    For a very long time, French-Canadians would give every boy the first name Joseph and stick the father’s name somewhere in the list of given names. The kid would end up actually using a second or third middle name in daily life.

    Similarly, all girls would be given the first name Marie, and would use a first or second middle name in daily life.

    These customs only died out within the last 30-40 years or so.

  14. If we’re going to awful non-traditional forenames: Tom, Ben, Sam, Nick, Frank, etc.

    I’m not talking about Thomas, Benjamin, Samuel, Nicholas, Francis, but those of the English Middle Class that consider it acceptable behaviour to give a child a shortened version of a traditional name as their proper name. The sort of names they’d give their dogs.

  15. Matt, that’s some linguistic prescriptivism on steroids. Do explain what makes that unacceptable in terms that someone who doesn’t share your sensibilities at all could sympathize with on some level (so no doggies), if you could, because I’m not getting your point at all. Most of those names you mentioned are the result of linguistic evolution and attempts to fit foreign names into other languages anyway.

    Why not go back to Nikolaos and Fransiscus and keep it real? I think most contemporary English speakers could actually nail down the pronunciation!

  16. I rather like Paco and Pepe myself, but they are contractions of Spanish names. I would have no issue with naming a male child Paco, even though it is a contraction of Francisco (so the Spanish equivalent of the English Frank).

    Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia (real name Francisco Gustavo Sánchez Gomes) explained that he got his stage name from when he was a kid, out playing in the neighbourhood with all of the other kids, with so many Pacos, so many Pepes, etc. So, to distinguish between e.g. all of the Pacos, they would be identified by their mothers; so Paco de Lucia meant Paco the son of Lucia, as opposed to all of the other Pacos.

    Joe Q. – Similarly, I found out from one intern we had that it is very common in Brazil to give females the first name Maria, but no one uses it because everyone is a Maria; they all use their second names, in her case the Portuguese equivalent of Grace. When we met her at the airport, we said “Hi Maria” and she responded “Oh no! Never call me Maria! Everyone is called Maria. You should call me Graça.”

  17. I also don’t really get the point why it is bad to use contracted historical names as “real” names.
    But beside that Matt funnily is really wrong about Frank, which has to be etymologically nearer to the Germanic source than the latinized version Franciscus, and is I guess as old.
    But in Germany Franz a contraction of Franciscus is also a common traditional name…

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