Most Popular Names: How "The List" Was Born

by the Wizard   2009-09-22 13:00:41 (edited 2009-09-22 13:13)

The following blog entry is reprinted with permission from the web site, a leading web site about baby names. I am also including a scan of an article that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, on January 8, 1999.

MOST POPULAR NAMES: How "The List" Was Born

We're honored to have Michael Shackleford, the inventor of the Social Security baby name popularity list, as today's nameberry guest blogger. Shackleford played a pivotal role in the history of American baby naming by constructing the first national count of the Top 1000 names. Shackleford, who can now be found at the Wizard of Odds, talks about the hows and whys behind his ground-breaking work.

The most frequent question I get about my baby name popularity lists is why I started making them. To give some context to why, my name is Michael, and I was born in 1965. At that time, and for every year from 1961 to 1998, Michael was the most popular boys name in the United States. When I was in elementary school, there were always one or two other Michaels in the same class. When the teacher called on "Michael," we all had to ask, "Which one" At my first job, in a fast food place at Knott's Berry Farm, there was a big board with everybody's name and daily cash register errors. When I was hired, there was already a Mike Smiley on the list. So I had to become Mike Sh. After that, everybody would whisper, "We better be quiet, Mike Shhhhh is here." To this day, every time somebody calls out "Mike" in public, I have to turn around and investigate. Usually, I'm not the intended recipient and end up looking like I came in second place in a popularity contest, when the other Michael is warmly identified. Over the years it have become very annoying. Almost as annoying as when people try to guess the spelling of my last name, and start out S-C-H, but that's a story for another day.

In 1992, I took a job with the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore. My main duty was to estimate the effect to the trust funds given a hypothetical change in Social Security law. For example, I worked on many proposals to change the Social Security earnings test and taxation formula, both of which changed while I was there. To make such calculations, I used samplings of Social Security records, calculating the monthly payment under the current law and the proposed changed, took the difference, and adjusted for the sample size. I had lots of interesting data at my fingertips to make such calculations. One of the more interesting files was a 1% sampling of Social Security card applications.

Five years later, in 1997, my wife was expecting our first child. Naturally, I was not about to give my child a popular name, but I had no idea what the popular names were any longer. Keeping up to date was not easy at the time, especially for girl names, which go up and down in popularity much faster than boy names. It was only my intent to stay out of the top 25 or so. Many people incorrectly assume I take the extreme position of advocating a name nobody has heard of. No, a normal name is fine with me, just as it is not too trendy or conformist.

To determine what the most popular names were at the time, I wrote a simple program to sort the Social Security card data first by year of birth, then by gender, and then by first name. It takes a while to go through a tape of millions of records, but after about an hour the results came in. What I got back was a huge document of first name popularity lists by going back to the 1880's. I believe my eyes at that moment were the first to ever see an accurate nationwide sampling of given names.

It was too good to keep to myself; I thought the whole country would want to see this. Conveniently, this was the time the Internet was becoming popular. I already knew HTML pretty well and had a now-defunct home page. So, I put up some simple popularity lists and called it ?Mike?s Baby Name Page.? Through no effort on my part, the page became popular, and newspapers and magazines often quoted me. On January 8, 1999, I was very proud when my name was mentioned in a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times titled, "Jose Moves Into Top Spot in Name Game," about my discovery that the most popular name for boys born in California in 1998 was Jose. Peter Jennings also mentioned it that evening on the news.

To make the whole project look more legitimate, it was decided I should take down my shoddy baby name page, write up the results in an official ?Actuarial Note,? and post it on the SSA web site. This I did. Normally, Actuarial Notes are pretty obscure and don?t get much attention. However, I was told that mine was in the top ten most requested pages at the SSA domain. To accommodate the many requests, I made updates annually, as new data came in.

In 2000, I left government work to set out in the field of self-employment in the area of casino game analysis and consulting. The hardest part was leaving the baby names behind. I felt it was an enormous public service, but nobody seemed interested in taking it over. Coincidentally, it was another Michael who reluctantly agreed to take over, after much begging on my part.

Thankfully, the people with the SSA web site see that the public loves the baby name lists. They have done a great job automating the lists, making it easy to search on a specific year or name. It is really quite easy to cull the lists, but presenting them in a user-friendly manner is another matter. Every year on Mother's Day, the SSA web site is updated with the most popular names of the previous year.

Now it is 2009, and the only times I thought much about baby names were when our second and third children were born in 2002 and 2006. My own name has become an asterisk in the history of the study of baby names. Once in a while a reporter will find me and ask me a few questions about it. I always inquire about the names of my kids' friends and classmates, to give a human face to the process of choosing a name. Sometimes I wonder how many children's names I have affected since 1997. Whatever the answer, I?m proud for what I started, and I appreciate Pamela Redmond Satran asking me to write about it for Pamela has written several books on baby names, and has always kindly acknowledged my place in baby name history. Thanks Pamela for remembering me.

Michael Shackleford has a degree in math/economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, class of 1988. In 1995 he completed his last actuary exam and has been an Associate of the Society of Actuaries ever since. From 1992 to 2000 he was employed by the Social Security Administration in the Office of the Chief Actuary, largely doing short-term cost estimates on congressional legislation. In 2000 Michael turned his attention to the field of gambling where he currently works as a gaming mathematician and writer. He runs a web site on gambling, Wizard of Odds, and serves as a consultant largely for new game developers. In addition he is the author of the book Gambling 102. Currently Michael resides in Las Vegas with his wife and three children.