Mark Liberman at the Log has a post on “the changes over time in fashions for given names. It’s obvious that things change — but it’s less obvious whether these changes are cyclic. It makes sense that out-of-fashion names might come back after a generation or two — but does this really happen on a regular basis?” He crunched some data and his answer, rather surprisingly, is no: “Basically, it seems that names come and names go, and sometimes names come and go — but it doesn’t seem to happen very often that names come and go and come again, at least within the 131-year time period covered by this dataset.” It’s sad (to me) to see the popularity of a fine old name like Mary plummeting on his corrected graph during the decades after WWII, though its decline hasn’t been as drastic as that of Minnie (which essentially vanished over the course of the 20th century).
In the comments, Mark Etherton linked to Douglas A. Galbi’s Given Name Frequency Project (“A given name, which forms part of a contemporary personal name, is generally given to a person shortly after birth, and given names are seldom changed. Given names thus provide a means for disciplined, quantitative study of information economies across major social, economic, and technological changes”), which features a paper called “Long-Term Trends in Given Name Frequencies in England and Wales” that I recommend to your attention—it has tables of frequencies going back a thousand years, and the findings are remarkable: “since early in the nineteenth century, the frequency distribution of personal given names in the UK has evolved differently than it did over the previous eight centuries. Simple indicators of this change are the trend in the popularity (frequency relative to the total number of names in the sample) of the most frequent names. The popularity of the most frequent name, the three most frequent names, and the ten most frequent names show no trend from circa 1300 to 1800. Since then all these measures have dropped dramatically….” The conclusion has some interesting thoughts:
Although recent work on personal given names in England has emphasized name-sharing practices for understanding the frequency distribution of given names (Smith-Bannister, 1997), name-sharing practices have little direct relationship to the frequency distribution of names. Naming a significant share of children after parents, or after godparents, are equally consistent with a high or low popularity of the most frequent names. Similarly, having names freely chosen, i.e. chosen in absence of norms giving high value to the name of a person in a specific social position in relation to the person to be named, could produce high or low popularity of the most frequent names. The most that can be said for name-sharing is that a norm of naming after parents creates additional inertia in name popularity. Name popularity and its long-term evolution depend on factors other than name-sharing. The evolution of the name frequency distribution over time is a complicated dynamic system. Such systems can, in some circumstances, be highly sensitive to a particular factor, while in other circumstances, be totally unaffected by that factor. Moreover, boundary conditions, such as a small share of naming done in violation of prevailing norms, can determine the over-all state of the system.
Analysis of long-term trends in personal given names in the UK suggests that significant changes in the information economy occurred in conjunction with the broad social and economic changes called the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution is associated with more rapid growth in population. The population of England in 1800 was about 50% greater than in 1300, while its population in 2000 was about six times greater than in 1800. The Industrial Revolution is also associated with much more rapid growth in income: real economic income per person probably increased by about a factor of four from 1300 to 1800, and by about a factor of 100 from 1800 to 2000. But populations of much different sizes show similar naming patterns …, and it is not clear how the level of income itself would effect naming. The Industrial Revolution also produced major changes in social networks and the social context of personal activity….
At any rate, do check out the name tables.