Friday, September 05, 2003

Hillary is Most Poisoned Baby Name in History

According to data published by the Social Security Administration, the name Hillary is the most severely poisoned baby name in history. Hillary had been steadily climbing the baby name charts since the 1960s, when it first graced the Top 1000, becoming the 136th most common name for baby girls in 1992. But the name sharply reversed course in 1993, smashing several longstanding records for name contamination in its plunge from the Top 1000 girl names last year.

The title for the most rapid case of name contamination had been held by Ebenezer and then Adolph, names that were shunned by parents after they became associated with Dickens's miserly banker and the Nazi dictator Hitler. But while Ebenezer and Adolph each took over 30 years to fall from the Top 1000 after they were negatively associated with their prominent name sakes, Hillary dropped off the charts in just 10 years, upsetting the prior records in less than 30% of the time. Besides this achievement, Hillary also set records for largest drop in a single year (295 places in 1994), two years (420 places in 1993-1994) and ten years (>864 from 1993 to 2002). These titles taken together constitute the grand slam of name poisoning.

Rankings of Hillary and names of comparable popularity in 1992

The table linked above shows the rankings for the 20 girl names that sandwiched Hillary in 1992. Over the subsequent ten years, some of the names increased in popularity, some declined, and others remained stable. Krystal, the runner-up to Hillary, dropped 231 places to 359, only 26% of Hillary's incredible 864+ plunge. (Please note that the SSA database only lists the top 1000 names, so we don't know Hillary's 2002 rank, only that it wasn't in the top 1000).

Only one other name that was in the Top 200 in 1992 ranked lower than 500 in 2002 (Colleen, which tumbled from 192 to 540). This 348 point drop wasn't even within 500 places of Hillary's untouchable 864+ freefall. The worst that any name ranked among those in the Top 250 in 1992, excepting Hillary, was Barbara, which landed at 560, a drop of 325 places. But unlike Hillary, which had been growing in popularity for the 30 years prior to 1992, the trajectories of Colleen and Barbara had been pointed southward since their heydays in the 1950s and 60s.

By contrast, the largest one-year drop of another tarnished name from the same period, Monica, was 53 places in 1999; the two-year drop was 73 (1998 - 1999). Monica's dip was short-lived as well, ending with an uptick in popularity in 2002. (Comparison of Monica and Hillary).

Against the formidable competition of Ebenezer and Adolph, two poisoned names that had stood the test of time, Hillary fell so quickly as to defy attempts to find parallels. It as if a sprinter clocked the 100 meter dash in 4 seconds, or a golfer completed a round 35 strokes below par. No matter how fantastic those comparisons might sound, they match the blistering speed with which Hillary won the opprobrium of American parents.

It is beyond the scope of this study to speculate as to the factors that propelled Hillary to this astonishing feat. It is hoped that sociologists will research this unprecedented case of name poisoning.

UPDATE: Several people have suggested that I should have combined Hillary and Hilary in my analysis. They are right. Most sociologists do not consider an alternate spelling to be a different name, especially for purposes of name contamination. Adolph and Adolf are a case in point; Hitler poisoned them both. The reason I didn't combine the Hillary's was that it would have required re-calculating hundreds of other names to reproduce an alternative listing of the top baby names. Not having the resources to undertake that effort, I limited my study to the rankings from the Social Security Administration. Hopefully professional sociologists with superior software and, most importantly, research assistants, will show the results with spelling variations combined.

METHODOLOGY: Just as batting averages compare only those with a minimum number of at-bats, I only considered names that were in the top 200. If the threshhold is set at 250, then the alternative spelling Hilary, which was ranked 241 in 1990, would have beaten Hillary for three of the four name poisoning records: biggest one year drop (1993), two year drop (1993-94), and quickest to fall off the charts. The upward inertia of the more popular double-L spelling resisted -- albeit poorly -- the name poisoning. The runt spelling died with the first dose. But because naming experts consider Hillary and Hilary to be the same name anyway, they are truly teammates in triumph.


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