May 13th, 2008

carole lombard 02
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So, what's in a name?

The other day, the Social Security Administration released its list of the most popular baby names for 2007. The top 10 girls' names are Emily, Isabella, Emma, Ava, Madison, Sophia, Olivia, Abigail, Hannah and Elizabeth. The top 10 for boys are Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, Christopher, Anthony, William, Matthew and Andrew.

We bring this up because at the site (, you can track the popularity of a given baby name, based upon Social Security records, dating back to 1879 -- provided it's in the top 1,000 for each gender. The SSA adds this caveat: "Names are restricted to cases where the year of birth, sex, State of birth (50 States and District of Columbia) are on record, and where the given name is at least 2 characters long. Many people born before 1937 never applied for a Social Security card, so their names are not included in our data. For others who did apply, our records may not show the place of birth, and again their names are not included in our data."

So, using the SSA's data, guess what first name I researched?

That's right -- Carole, as in Lombard. Here's what I learned:

* Carole was in the top 1,000 of girls' names every year from 1913 to 1977, but it hasn't shown up since. In '77, it was ranked 931st, five notches below its '76 ranking.

* Carole annually ranked in the top 100 every year from 1934 to 1946. As you might expect, its highest ranking came in 1942, when it placed 35th, certainly as a memorial tribute. (Singer-songwriter Carole King, born Carole Klein, was a 1942 baby.)

* One wonders what kind of impact Lombard gave the name when she permanently added an "e" to Carol in 1930. That year, Carole ranked 319th; in 1931, it vaulted to 212th. In 1932, it ascended to 151st, beginning a 22-year stretch where it ranked in the top 200. In addition, Carole rated in the top 300 from 1931 to 1965, in the top 400 from 1929 to 1968, and in the top 500 from 1924 to 1970.

I also checked Carol, no "e," just for comparison. In no year was Carole a more popular name than Carol; the latter was a top 10 perennial from 1936 to 1950 (peaking at 4th in 1941), and was in the top 20 annually between 1933 and 1958. It also made the top 100 every year from 1928 to 1971. However, last year, Carol did not crack the top 1,000...the first time that's happened since 1883.

As a point of reference, I also checked the first and middle names Carole Lombard was given at birth 100 years ago this October.

* Jane has been on the list every year since its inception, and though its popularity has declined in recent years, it's always remained in the top 500. (Its lowest ranking was 476th in 2006; it rose 50 rungs last year.) Conversely, Jane has never been exceedingly popular, as its highest rank was only 35th in 1946, part of a four-year stretch where it placed in the top 40. One wonders how much Miss Russell had to do with it.

* Alice has also been part of the list each year from the start, and in fact has always been among the top 450. However, for decades, it was a hugely popular girl's name (probably spurred on by Lewis Carroll's books), reaching the top 20 every year until 1929, and another decade after that in the top 30. But then the name must have swallowed from a bottle labeled "drink me," because its popularity has gradually been shrinking: falling out of the top 30 in 1939, the top 40 in 1945, the top 50 in 1949, the top 100 in 1957. It left the top 200 for good in 1972, the top 300 in 1979. From 1994 to 2005, it couldn't crack the top 400. But the name is growing (in popularity) again -- 385th in 2006, 346th in 2007. Curiouser and curiouser! (Below is Fiona Fullerton as an oversized Alice from the British musical "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland," made in 1972, when the name ranked 231st.)

Incidentally, in 1908 Jane was the 130th most popular girls' name, while Alice ranked ninth.

The Social Security chart is fascinating, and worth checking out. See how your name rates.
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