What Baby Names Tell Us About Ethnic and Gender Trends
Our name tells a story about us. It can determine our career. It can influence how smoothly we navigate through life or, alternatively, how hard it can be for us to get ahead (1,4).
Over the last 70 years, for example, researchers have tried to gauge the effect of having an unusual name on a person. It is thought that our identity is partly shaped by the way we are treated by other people - a concept psychologists call the "looking-glass self" (2) - and our name, therefore, has the potential to color our interactions with society (3,4). More recent studies present a mixed picture (1,3,4), showing children with unusual names may learn to control impulses because they may be teased and then get used to people repeatedly asking them about their name. Some scholars have explained that children with unusual names actually benefit from that experience by learning to control their emotions or their impulses (1,3,4).
View our interactive dashboard
Explore baby names in a multi-cultural society.
Various names are popular among different social classes, and these groups have different opportunities and goals (1). The name we give our baby can stem from traditional, regional, historical or religious sources (5). In addition, a child's name can also hint at what his or her parents’ expectations are for their children within the particular society in which they live. Therefore, it is very interesting to explore baby names in a multi-cultural society like New York City, which has distinct ethnic groups: White, Hispanic, Black, and Asian. Baby names in a multi-cultural society reflect the sociological process of integration or segregation between minority ethnic groups and the majority ethnic group (in New York City’s case, the White ethnic group) (5). Also, it is enlightening to reflect upon the popularity of male and female baby names during this period of progression in gender equality (6).
This report sheds light on the following questions:
- Do parents of different ethnic groups choose specific ethnic names for their children or do they prefer more ethnically neutral names for their descendants? Which minority ethnic group - Hispanic, Black or Asian - chooses neutral names for their children and to what extent does the majority ethnic group, the White ethnic group, choose distinct names for their children?
- To what extent are the children’s names in New York City mostly ethnically specific or ethnically neutral?
- Which are the names that are given equally between White, Hispanic, Black and Asian ethnic groups (ethnically neutral names), and which are mostly given to children of a specific ethnic group; White, Hispanic, Black or Asian (ethnically specific names)? The ethnically neutral and specific names can indicate to what extent social integration or segregation is taking place among the next generation raised in New York City.
- Do parents choose specifically female or male names, or do they prefer unisex names for children of each gender? Does gender equality start with children’s names? Is it a popular trend to give unisex names?
- Which are the names that are mostly gender neutral or the most gender specific? Which are the names that were given almost equally to both males and females? These measurements can indicate to what extent names are unisex.
To answer these questions, we analyzed a data set from Kaggle that included 1,571 names of 164,965 female babies, and 1,417 names of 207,569 male babies born in New York City between 2011 and 2016 (7). The dataset included the ethnic group of each baby.
- Ethnically specific male names: Baby names given to males in one ethnic group only
- (White, Hispanic, Black or Asian).
- Ethnically specific female names: Baby names given to females in one ethnic group
- only (White, Hispanic, Black or Asian).
- Ethnically neutral male names: Baby names that were chosen for males in two or more ethnic groups.
- Ethnically neutral female names: Baby names that were chosen for females in two or more ethnic groups.
- Gender-specific names: Baby names given only in one gender group (male or female).
- Gender neutral names: Baby names given to both female and male babies.
Gender Neutral and Specific Name Index
In order to understand if a name was gender neutral or specific, we created a neutrality index (8,9) and defined this index as:
1 – (PMale 2 +PFemale2 ),
where P Male is the proportion of male baby names in all the population of babies with the same name. The gender-neutral baby names index can range from 0.00, when a baby male (or female) name has appeared only in one given gender group (Gender specific names), to .50, when a baby name has appeared equally in both gender groups (Gender neutral names where 50% of the given name is female, and 50% of the same name is male).
Ethnically Neutral and Specific Name Index
In order to understand if a name was ethnically neutral or specific, we created a neutrality index (8,9) and defined this index as:
1 – (PWhite Male 2 +PHispanic Male 2 +PBlack Male 2 +PAsian Male 2 ),
where P White Male is the proportion of White male baby names in the whole group of babies with the same name. The ethnically neutral baby name index can range from 0.00, when a male (or female) name was given in one ethnic group (Ethnically specific names), to 0.75, when a male name appeared equally in each one of the 4 ethnic groups (Ethnically neutral names, 25% in each one of the ethnic groups). This ethnically specific name index was computed for males and females.
Most Popular Male Baby Names
In New York City during the researched years, the top 5 most popular names for males were Jacob, Ethan (more than 3,000 names), Matthew, David, and Liam (2500-2750 names). (See Graph 1.1).
Most Popular Female Baby Names
The top 5 female names were Emma, Olivia, Emily, Mia, and Sophia (more than 2000 names) (See Graph 1.2).
Baby Names in a Multi-cultural Society
The choice of baby names within ethnic groups hints that parents from distinct ethnic groups would prefer their descendants to integrate socially into the mainstream population rather than have them identify specifically and exclusively in their ethnic groups. 80% of the male baby names and 77% of the female baby names were ethnically neutral baby names (names have appeared in two or more ethnic groups (see Graph 2). Only 20% of the male baby names and 23% of the female baby names were specific in a given ethnic group. The findings also reveal that Black and Asian parents have a stronger intention to choose ethnically neutral female baby names than Hispanic parents. 88% of Asian male babies and 89% of the Black male babies, compared to 80% of Hispanic male babies, were given ethnically neutral male baby names. Indeed, most White parents (72%) choose neutral names for their male babies. However, 28% of their baby names were specific to a White ethnic group. We found the same trends for female baby names, except for the Asian ethnic group which chose more neutral names (88%) for their female babies than Black and Hispanic ethnic groups (82%-83%).
Popular ethnically neutral baby names that crossed ethnic groups (each appeared at least once in a given ethnic group):
The top 5 most popular ethnically neutral male baby names that appeared (at least for one baby) in all ethnic groups - White, Hispanic, Black and Asian - were Jacob, Ethan, Matthew, David, Liam, and Michael.
For female baby names, the top 5 most popular ethnically neutral names that appeared (at least for one baby) in all ethnic groups were Emma, Olivia, Emily, Mia, and Sophia (See Graph 2.2).
Table A: Most Ethnically Neutral Male Baby Names (on a scale of 0-0.75, where 0.75 = very ethnically neutral male names)
Each name has a different distribution across ethnic groups. We computed the ethnic neutrality and specificity index for each one of the male and female baby names. Table A presents the most ethnically neutral male baby names (on a scale of 0-0.75, where 0.75 = very ethnically neutral male names), and Table B presents the most ethnically neutral female baby names (on a scale of 0-0.50, when 0.50 = very ethnically neutral female names).
The most ethnically neutral male baby names are Richard, Marcus, and Nathan (neutrality index 0.75-0.74). Following those are Ethan, Aiden, Caleb, Timothy, and Nathaniel (Table A).
Table B: Most Ethnically Neutral Female Baby Names (on a scale of 0-0.75, when 0.75 = very ethnically neutral female names)
On the other hand, the most ethnically neutral female baby names are Aria, Michelle, Chloe, and Isabelle (index 0.75-0.73) (Table B).
The Age of Gender Equality
Most parents choose gender-specific names for their babies. 98% of female baby names were specifically feminine, and 95% of the male baby names were specifically masculine. However, we found seeds of "gender-revolution" in some baby names. 2% of the baby girls’ names and 5% of the baby boys’ names were unisex (See Graph 3.0). The most popular babies' names that appeared at least once amongst boys and girls were; Angel, Avery, Riley, and Ariel. However, Alexis, Tenzin, and Milan are baby names which were almost chosen equally for baby boys and girls (see Graph 3.1). Also, Quinn (39% boys vs. 61% girls), Avery (33% boys vs. 77% girls), and Ariel (30% boys vs. 70% girls) are names given to both boys and girls.
Graph 3.0: Gender-Specific Names vs. Gender Neutral Names for Both Males and Females
Graph 3.1: Popular Unisex Baby Names
To discover the most gender-neutral names, we calculated a gender-specific baby name index (see variables, Table C), and found that Alexis, Tenzin, and Milan are the most gender-neutral baby names, chosen almost equally for baby boys and baby girls. After these, Quinn, Avery, Ariel, and Charlie (index 0.48-0.4) are names quite popular for both boys and girls.
Table C: Most Gender Neutral Baby Names (on a scale of 0-0.5, when 0.5= very gender neutral)
Important Insights from the Dataset
Of the 372,534 babies born in New York City between 2011 and 2016, 56% of them were male, and 44% of them were female (Graph 4.0).
The top 5 most popular names for males in New York City between 2011 and 2016 were Jacob, Ethan (more than 3,000 names), Matthew, David, and Liam (2500-2750 names). For female baby names, the top 5 most popular names, were Emma, Olivia, Emily, Mia, and Sophia (more than 2000 names) (See Graphs 1.1, 1.2 on pages 4 and 5).
Graph 4.0: Babies born in New York City 2011-2016 by Gender (372,534 Babies)
Males and Females Born by Ethnic Groups
From 207,459 male babies born in NYC during 2011-2016, 36% of them were White, 34% Hispanic, 15% Black and 14% Asian (See Graph 4.1). A similar distribution was found for females. From 164,965 female babies, 41% were White, 32% Hispanic, 14% Black, and 13% Asian. (See Graph 4.2).
Graph 4.1: Male Babies by Ethnicity (207,459 babies, NYC 2011-2016)
Graph 4.2: Female Babies by Ethnicity (164,965 babies, NYC 2011-2016)
The top 5 most popular ethnically neutral names for males that appeared (at least once) in all ethnic groups - White, Hispanic, Black and Asian - were Jacob, Ethan, Matthew, David, Liam, and Michael. (See Graph 5.0). The most ethnically specific names were Moshe, Chaim, and Yosef for White male babies and Jose, Carlos, and Luis for Hispanic male babies. In addition, the most ethnically specific names were Malachi, Nasir, and Mamadou for Black male babies and Ayaan, Eason, and Tenzin for Asian male babies (See Graph 5.1).
Graph 5.0: Popular Ethnically Neutral Male Names
Graph 2.1: Popular Ethnically Neutral Male Names by Ethnic Group
Graph 5.1: Popular Ethnically Specific Names by Ethnic Group - Males
Ethnically Specific White Male Names
Ethnically Specific Black Male Names
Ethnically Specific Hispanic Male Names
Ethnically Specific Asian Male Names
For female babies, the top 5 most popular ethnically neutral names which appeared (at least once) in all ethnic groups were Emma, Olivia, Emily, Mia, and Sophia (See Graph 6.0). The most ethnically specific names were Chaya, Rivka, and Chana for White female babies and Emely, Leslie, and Andrea for Hispanic female babies. In addition, the most ethnically specific names for Black female babies were Fatoumata, Aminata, and Amiyah and Tenzin, Selina, and Ayesha for Asian female babies (See Graph 6.2).
Graph 6.1: Popular Ethnically Neutral Female Names
Graph 2.2: Popular Ethnically Neutral Female Names by Ethnic Group
Graph 6.2: Popular Ethnically Specific Female Names by Ethnic Group - Females
Ethnically Specific White Female Names
Ethnically Specific Black Female Names
Ethnically Specific Hispanic Female Names
Ethnically Specific Asian Female Names
Our study has shown a fascinating overarching fact. When it comes to baby-naming trends, New Yorkers are very sure about two choices in particular. They want to clearly differentiate the boys and the girls (the most popular names are given either to boys or to girls and generally not to both), but in general, they prefer names that cross cultural boundaries and don’t differentiate by ethnicity.
In an age when gender equality is in the spotlight more than ever before, and with the issue of imposing expectations on boys and girls more widely discussed than ever, it’s surprising to find that more children don’t have names that are unisex. Maybe it’s something that many parents, consciously or unconsciously, just aren’t comfortable with yet. Nevertheless, for those less traditional parents who have entertained the idea of giving their child a gender-neutral name, we’ve identified the most popular.
One of these names is Angel, which is an interesting case in point from an ethnic and cultural perspective. It’s likely that the masculine version is Hispanic, while the feminine version of the name is anglicized. However, regarding the way different communities name their children, the trend is towards names that all groups like and use, although Hispanic parents are a little more inclined to give their children ethnically specific names than Black or Asian parents.
When it comes to baby naming, like New York City itself, it’s one big melting pot. Our results have shown that you can no longer assume someone’s background simply by hearing their name because there is less differentiation between ethnic groups now. The truth is reflected in this research, which shows that the multi-cultural environment of the Big Apple is one in which assimilation and integration between communities is an increasing trend, which contributes to such a vibrant atmosphere in one of the world’s most iconic cities.
View our interactive dashboard
for visualization of the research data
- Cooley, Charles H. (1998) On Self and Social Organization. Ed. Schubert Hans-Joachim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-11509-7. (pp. 20–22)
- Kourtellos, Andros; Marr, Christa; Tan, Chih Ming (2014). "Robust Determinants of Intergenerational Mobility in the Land of Opportunity." Rochester, NY
- Clark, Gregory. (2014). The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.
- Osgood, Robert L. (2005) The history of inclusion in the United States. Gallaudet University Press,
- England, Paula (2010). The Gender Revolution. Gender & Society, Vol. 24 No. 2, April 2010 149-166 DOI: 10.1177/0891243210361475. 2010 Sociologists for Women in Society
- Musterd, S. & Winter, M. D. (1998) Conditions for spatial segregation: some European perspectives, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 22, 665–673.
- Blau, P. M. (1977). Inequality and Heterogeneity. A Primitive Theory of Social Structure. The Free Press. New York