A kindergarten classroom full of Wallys

For the third time this week I’m up early working.  I think it’s the combination of the very early sunrise and the fact that since Wally was born it’s been hard to find an extended period of time to concentrate during the day that have spurred me awake.  Those first few steps out of bed are a little painful, but once I’m up I feel good.  At the end of the day recently my brain has been feeling like a jumble of a thousand pieces—chores to do, emails to return, work projects to keep up with, summertime logistics to figure out.  In the morning, though, with the kids still asleep and the sun not yet up, I feel reconstituted.  (I doubt I’ll ever cease to be amazed at the restorative power of a night’s sleep.)

It won’t be long before Jay starts calling my name from his crib, but before he does I wanted to say a quick something about naming. Yesterday afternoon in the park a mother came up to me and Caroline, drawn by the sight of Wally’s not yet two-week-old feet dangling out of the Baby Bjorn. She asked us his name, and when we told her, she got excited and said that her favorite nephew is named Wally.  Caroline and I smiled and pretended to be excited, too, but we weren’t thrilled.  It’s delusional, of course, to think that our sweet little son would be the only Wally in the world, but still, it’s a delusion we would have been happy to maintain.

Then the news got worse.  The mom told us that when her nephew had entered kindergarten he’d been one of four Wally’s in his class.  “But he lives in New York City,” she added, as if that would make it better.  Next to me I could feel Caroline’s spirits plummet.

We chose Wally after months of deliberation because we liked that it was neither entirely made up (most people, I think, have known a Wally or two) nor particularly popular.  We thought it would help our son be traditional and distinctive at the same time.

And now, maybe, it seems that we were not alone in that thought process.  If Wally matriculates into kindergarten five years from now and finds the room so jammed with kids who share his name that he has to go by “Wally H.,” I’ll take it as more evidence of how embedded we all are in the same cultural trends.  We have a friend who learned this lesson recently while the ink was still drying on his daughter’s birth certificate.  He and his wife had named her “Ella” because they thought it was a beautiful name and because twenty-five years ago when they’d been in elementary school they hadn’t known a single one.  So, they were more than a little crushed when Caroline called up the Social Security Administration rankings of the most popular baby names and showed them that Ella is now the #13 most popular girl’s name in America.

I’m always stunned by how predictable individual actions become when they’re studied at the population level.  On his blog Family Inequality UNC sociologist Phil Cohen recently posted about the falling popularity of the name “Mary.”

In 1961 it was the #1 girl’s name but by 2009 it had fallen out of the top-100.  Cohen found that Mary has been declining in popularity by about 8% a year and based on that he predicted there would be 2,848 Marys born in 2010.  It turned out he was wrong. But only by 22!  The actual number was 2,826.

So, if Wally’s name won’t be what makes him distinctive, maybe we’ll have to start giving him inventive hair cuts.


5 thoughts on “A kindergarten classroom full of Wallys

  1. Interesting story. Not to worry, though. In 2009 there were all of 10 Wallys born in the U.S., according to Social Security. I don’t know the number for 2010, but it’s not in the top 1,000 names. So, if you happen to live in one of the very few pockets of Wallys out there, you could always move. (If some of them are really named Wallace or Walter, there are a few hundred, but still very rare in the grand scheme of things.)

    • Hi Phil. Wally is a pseudonym for Oscar, which is ranked #147. We’d figured that’s unpopular enough to make Oscar one of a kind in his kindergarten class, but the conversation in the park yesterday made me wonder whether it isn’t more common among PLUs than we’d imagined. I’m a big fan of your blog. My wife-who is about to start a post-doc at Michigan in demography- has subscribed to your blog for more than a year and your posts are a frequent topic of conversation in our house.

  2. there are so many jennifers out there, i started going by my middle name, adelaide, in late high school. i’m glad to find out that “zephyr is not in the top 1000 female names for any year of birth in the last 11 years.” of course, if there’s a sudden popularity boom for that name, she can always go with her middle name, lula, which i’m sure is also wildly unpopular 🙂

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