Some parents name their babies after celebrities, others, for revered ancestors. But enjoyable weather can influence a parent’s choice as well, an analysis of hundreds of millions of baby names in the United States has shown. Names such as April and Autumn show up more in states where those times of year are most beautiful, the new study concludes.
The new study persuades Ruth Mace, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College London (UCL) who was not involved in the work, that “we sometimes take in our environment and reflect it in our children’s names.”
It’s long been known that family, economic, social, and cultural factors can influence given names. My sisters and I are named after my grandmother, an aunt, and a movie star. Other names are chosen for status or even for practical reasons. “It is important for a parent to be willing to repeat that name, that sound, at least 1000 times per day, and still be able to like it,” advises Paolo Barucca, a UCL physicist who was not involved in the work but has examined parents’ reasoning for baby names.
Evolutionary ecologists Raymond Huey of the University of Washington, Seattle, and Donald Miles of Ohio University, Athens, have spent their careers learning how the physical environment, particularly temperature, influences the behavior, physiology, and other aspects of the lives of animals, particularly lizards. They wondered whether the environment might influence a uniquely human behavior: naming a baby.
They turned to a public database of the U.S. Social Security Administration that lists, by year and state of birth, the names of all babies and the number of times each name was used. In total, Huey and Miles had 350 million names from 1910 through 2021 for their analysis.
Noting that girls are sometimes named after spring months but rarely other months, they hypothesized that April, May, and June are popular because in English literature, these months are associated with new life. If so, then parents should give these girls the name of the month when springlike weather first appears, they reasoned. In Alabama and Texas, the last frost comes in mid- to late March, whereas Massachusetts and New York experience frosts until May or later. When the researchers looked state by state, the name April was more popular in the South than farther north, they reported on 25 November in Evolutionary Human Sciences. June was the most common month-based name in the North.
But the trend in which babies were named April and June didn’t hold up between the 1960s and 2000. That’s because boom-and-bust cycles in the popularity of specific names complicate the findings, the researchers say. From 1910 until 1950, June was the country’s most popular month name. Then April began to rise in popularity, and from the 1960s until 2000, April was the predominant month name. At the peak of popularity, 96% of girls with month names were called April, and that moniker was the 33rd most popular name overall. Subsequently, April waned a little in southern states but much more so in northern states.
During the second half of the 20th century, cultural influences may have washed out evidence of a climatic influence, Barucca says. The reason: In 1966, the folk band Simon & Garfunkel released a popular song called April Come She Will.
Huey and Miles also uncovered a connection between the seasons and the name Autumn. Last year, that name was the 66th most popular name in the United States for girls. In general, though, it is most popular in the Northeast and other places with lots of deciduous trees, probably because of the beautiful fall foliage there, Huey and Miles report. That’s a “somewhat unexpected but a lovely finding,” Mace says.
To examine season names more broadly, the duo analyzed name databases from other English-speaking parts of the world. As in the United States, in Canada, Autumn is the most common season name. But in Northern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where fall is less dramatic, Summer outranks Autumn, they found.
Even though the result may seem like “an amusing little factoid about human behavior,” it “shows how deeply biology pervades all activities of modern humans,” says James Brown, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Many people overestimate the importance of logic, economics, and technology in shaping our behavior and ignore the role of biology, he says. To have it shown to be important, at least in one specific behavior, “may be an important message.”
And, Mace says, “[It’s] interesting to speculate our great-grandchildren may have names like January and February as global warming races along” and warm weather comes earlier in the year.