Study of the frequency (popularity) of given names potentially offers important insights into information economics, communication, and personalization. Personal given names offer several advantages for studying an information economy. On a daily basis, for most types of information, and in much of human communications, “who” and “to whom” are key questions. Personal names matter in normal human activity, they are a crucial aspect of personal identity and dignity, and they have deep cultural significance. Moreover, from an operational perspective, personal names have been collected extensively and over a long period of time in the process of public administration. A given name, which forms part of a contemporary personal name, is generally given to a person shortly after birth, and given names are seldom changed. Given names thus provide a means for disciplined, quantitative study of information economies across major social, economic, and technological changes.
The development of knowledge about the distribution of given names potentially can develop rapidly through an open, scientific, collaborative process among persons interested in scholarly work in this field. The computational challenge of analyzing large datasets and the communication challenge of effectively sharing data and results have limited research in this relatively neglected field. The development of technology has now largely overcome such barriers.
This site provides analysis, tools, and data to spur further work on given names. This site is maintained by Douglas Galbi, who is primarily interested in communications industry developments and public policy. Contributions, comments, and suggestions are welcomed at galbithink at galbithink.org.
To contribute to understanding of information economies of daily life, this paper explores over the past millennium given names of a large number of persons. Analysts have long both condemned and praised mass media as a source of common culture, national unity, or shared symbolic experiences. Names, however, indicate a large decline in shared symbolic experience over the past two centuries, a decline that the growth of mass media does not appear to have affected significantly. Study of names also shows that action and personal relationships, along with time horizon, are central aspects of effective communication across a large population. The observed preference for personalization over the past two centuries and the importance of action and personal relationships to effective communication are aspects of information economies that are likely to have continuing significance for industry developments, economic statistics, and public policy.
The frequency distribution of personal given names offers important evidence about the information economy. This paper presents data on the popularity of the most frequent personal given names (first names) in England and Wales over the past millennium. The popularity of a name is its frequency relative to the total name instances sampled. The data show that the popularity distribution of names, like the popularity of other symbols and artifacts associated with the information economy, can be helpfully viewed as a power law. Moreover, the data on name popularity suggest that historically distinctive changes in the information economy occurred in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution.
Code and data:
GINAP – code to standardize given names and correct common problems in name samples. Such standardization is an important step in analysis of given names.
Popular given names, US 1801 to 1999 – a collection of sets of standardized female and male names by decade, with counts of occurrences for names with more than 10 occurrances in the samples.
Samples of names from England before 1800 – name samples from a diverse set of sources, with raw and standardized names available.
Popularity of the name Mary over the past 800 years. For discussion of related sixteenth-century English history, Shakespeare family history, and Maria and Olivia in Twelfth Night, see Sense in Communication (Secttion IV, pp. 82-112).
Sample of cotton workers in Manchester, 1818-19 – relatively rich dataset used to study the development of the early factory workforce. Also a source of personal names.