Baby Names

Conspicuous Consumption: Baby Names

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 4, 2013    •    976 Views

Yesterday, I met a 4-year old whose name was Ciela. Her grandmother told me the name, meaning sky or heaven, was selected after a family visit to Spain.

According to 3 University of Chicago researchers, Ciela’s parents wanted to convey a message. Signaling their “cultural capital” to the world, Ciela’s parents are saying that they are educated, creative and cosmopolitan.

If, on the other hand, the little girl’s name was Elizabeth, those researchers would have said her parents were signaling their “economic capital.” Affluent and established, the family is conveying their comfort with simplicity and familiarity.

Looking at names data from California, the Chicago researchers concluded that baby names can reflect a parent’s political bias. Parents who are more liberal could demonstrate their cultural superiority with uncommon names that have obscure significance. For example, they might name their children Franny and Zooey because of J.D. Salinger. They also will select names with a more “feminine feel” and softer sounding letters. However, when conservative parents send their “economic signal,” they use more masculine sounding traditional names with harder consonants and/or fewer syllables.

The perfect example is 4 of (US Vice Presidential Republican candidate) Sarah Palin’s children: Bristol, Piper, Trigg, Track.

By contrast, think of the Obama girls: Sasha and Malia.

In his Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen explains that the upper class signals its power by living extravagantly. Calling expensive purchases conspicuous consumption, he says their primary purpose is a social message. Similarly, the authors of the University of Chicago study believe that baby naming is conspicuous consumption.

Here are some examples:


  • Lola
  • Ruby
  • Mia
  • Eliana
  • Thea

(Doesn’t Ciela perfectly fit with the liberal list?)


  • Casey
  • McKenzie
  • Jordan
  • Taylor
  • Sarah


Sources and Resources:  Hat tip to Freakonomics for their “How Much Does Your Name Matter?” podcast. Covering much more than the University of Chicago study, Dubner and Leavitt also discussed how names affect our ability to get jobs.

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