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Aug-29-2012

Stump the Librarian: Baby Names and Hurricanes

[If you follow us on Twitter or Facebook, you know that every Wednesday we play a little game called Stump the Librarian. You send us your tough questions, and we'll research the answer. If a question warrants a more detailed answer, we'll post it here on the blog.]

Today’s highlighted question came in via Twitter:

To answer this question, we can use the Social Security Administration’s Baby Name Index, which ranks the relative popularity of names provided to the SSA on a year-by-year basis. I took a sampling of Category 5 hurricanes that affected the western hemisphere, and examined their ranks for a 7-year period stretching 3 years before and after the year of the hurricane. For 2005′s Hurricane Katrina, for example, I looked at the name ranking from 2002 to 2008, whereas I examined 1989 to 1995 for 1992′s Hurricane Andrew.

I’ve plotted the relative changes in this graph. The higher the ranking, the fewer babies are given that particular name in a given year.

What’s interesting here is how gender seems to affect the Hurricane Effect.

In general, girl’s names lose popularity in the years following a hurricane. This is most notable for the name Katrina, who was gradually gaining in rank until 2005. In the years following Hurricane Katrina’s disastrous landfall, fewer and fewer people gave the name to their children, and Katrina fell from 2005′s peak of 246, all the way down to 716 in 2008, and fell off the top 1000 entirely last year. We can see similar albeit less dramatic trends with Hurricanes Isabel (2003), Gabrielle (2001), and Camille (1969).

For the two boy’s names that I sampled, the effect is far less pronounced. Andrew has been a top-20 name for over 30 years. The effect of 1992′s namesake hurricane existed – it went from the 5th most popular name in 1992 to the 10th most popular a year later – but it never dropped as prodigiously as some of the other names.
Hurricane Dean, which caused over a billion dollars worth of damage in the Caribbean in 2007, actually saw its name grow more popular in the years after the hurricane hit. Further research would be necessary to prove this, but it would appear that only hurricanes that hit the U.S. have an affect on American baby names.

Many thanks to @aka_mojojojo for the question. Do you want to Stump the Librarian? Leave us a comment with your question and we’ll do our best to answer.

Posted by Toby (former employee) | Posted under Research
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  1. Heather said,

    Here’s another interesting interpretation of the impact of storm names on baby names. It was written a month before Katrina, so she doesn’t take that storm into account, but the author’s assertion is that names in common use will decrease after a storm, but less common names will increase simply because of increased awareness of the name. A few of the comments show reaction to having or having considered Katrina as a name if you scroll down too.
    http://www.babynamewizard.com/archives/2005/7/of-storms-and-style

  2. Toby said,

    I wonder where the author of the post got the actual numbers. My work with the SSA’s site only lists the ranking on that list, which is admittedly a relative position. The difference between 1 and 2 could be 1 instance, while the difference between 2 and 3 could be a thousand instances. (You could make the same argument for Amazon rankings.)

    Take the name Alicia, mentioned in that blog post. It ranked #41 in 1983, went to #40 in ’84, and dropped again to 45 in the next couple of years. Hard to tell what that actually represents without the numbers. It’s possible that the actual numbers could change the trajectory on the chart.

    Thanks for sharing this, Heather! It’s interesting to see some additional data examining this question.

  3. pam weinberg said,

    I don’t know about “people” names, but one of my friends got kittens after these hurricanes and named them Katrina and Ivan. (I have to tell you, though, that they had property in Gulf Shores, Alabama at the time which may have influenced their decisions!)

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