What’s in a Name?

Stanley Lieberson wrestled with the problem of causation throughout his prodigious research career, but nowhere more ingeniously than in A Matter of Taste.

In the latest installment of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Harvey Molotch revisits Stanley Lieberson’s A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change, which Lieberson developed as a CASBS fellow.

I once took a theater class taught by my friend Bernie (legal name: Bernard Beck), sociologist extraordinaire at Northwestern University. He once asked the students to walk single file in a circle as an exercise. We were instructed to imitate the walk of the person immediately in front of us. Each imitator imitating the next imitator set up, as it turns out, an unending sequence of adjustments. It yielded a never-quite-stable structure, a “group walk,” we might say, that was ever-shifting. Each time the person in front of me changed, I also adjusted. And, so, I presume, the person behind me mimicked what I had just done. It went on like this—round and round. Bernie was boss, but each of us changed what the Bernie Walk would be. It was akin to the kids’ game of telephone but in choreography. Everyone followed the same instruction, but the result was unpredictable change.

Each time the world changes through internal dynamics—whether people are imitating each other or, indeed, trying to be different—we have an instance of endogeny. In sociology, as in most other social sciences, endogeny tends to play second fiddle to exogeny, in which outside forces—political regime, pestilence, corporations—are thought to move history. But this simplification risks obscuring the more subtle interplay between the two concepts. As a sociologist in Bernie’s class, I saw the power of endogeny coming to life (hark!).

Stanley Lieberson wrestled with the problem of causation—endogeneity versus exogeneity—throughout his prodigious research career, with landmark studies on class, race, linguistics, geography, statistics and methods (phew). But nowhere did he work through the endogeny/exogeny issue with such persistence as he did in A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change. Published in 2000, the book is a blast of conceptual and empirical brilliance. In an ingenious move, Lieberson studies the first names people give their children. Conventional wisdom tells us that parents decide on their own what to name a child. No ad agencies push one name over another; no government commission or corporate behemoth determines who will be Jack, or who will be Jill. But patterns in naming still emerge. Just how, and in just what way, is Lieberson’s puzzle to solve—not that he cares about names; he cares about why we choose what we choose, and why those choices shift over time.

Lieberson’s book models a way of settling the exogeny versus endogeneity question, by pointing out how, in operating together, each has force. Although the book was “well received,” as they say in the publishing world, the endogeny versus exogeny debates managed to carry on as though Lieberson had not made his contribution (he died in 2018). Google Scholar counts 548 citations for the book—yes, not bad at all. But a different Lieberson book, the excellent but more conventional A Piece of the Pie, has almost four times that number.

What can be learned from the fact that the book isn’t more of a success? Let’s start with the title, A Matter of Taste. “Taste” carries an implied “mere” in front of it, and an association with the fleeting, the decorative, and the trivial. But for Lieberson, “taste” means collective preference: no small matter. Taste inflects everything—our economic and political choices; matters of privilege, policy, and war; and all the rest. We must not be fooled. This book is a gift to social science; put it up there with Émile Durkheim’s Suicide.

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me suggest that taste is a place to take a stand. It shows us how cultural particularities have “a life of their own.”

While both exogeny and endogeny may be in play, endogenous effects—and this is a Lieberson standby—are persistently mistaken for exogenous. Take the case of Marilyn Monroe, née Norma Jeane. She was given the stage name Marilyn, which is often credited with launching not only her career but the name’s popularity as a top choice for girls. Lieberson’s closer look reveals what was going on underneath the surface: Mary, the root of Marilyn, was a top pick between 1906 and 1969. It gave rise to numerous spin-offs, as is often the case for girls’ names. Mary got combined with other standbys, such as Anne, Louise, Jean, Jane, Beth, Ellen, and others. Marilyn became the most famous variant; its popularity peaked about the time when Marilyn Monroe’s did. But the star did not make the name—it was more the other way around. In renaming Norma Jeane, 20th Century Fox was actually “riding the curve” (Lieberson’s graph-like terminology) of Marilyn as a top-choice girl first name. Ironically, says Lieberson, it was chosen at a time when the name’s popularity was beginning to fade. So, Hollywood gets wrongly credited with the name’s success—another case of mistaken endogeneity.

Other effects are exogenous—and make no mistake about it. In pre–Civil War America, owners assigned names to their slaves—ordinarily not bothering with surnames. Slaves became “Dick,” “Will,” “Peg,” or “Bet,” diminutive versions of white first names of the time. (These names were also given to farm animals.) But during the civil rights era, many Black Americans took up Afrocentric names, both for themselves and their children.

Incomplete information always haunts choice. As they ponder a name, parents don’t know what other parents are up to. This sets the stage for things to go awry. In 1906, Clarence was one of the top 20 boys’ names (in California), but soon after, it entered permanent decline. Who knew? Not the parents who picked Clarence, thinking it would stay around. Also vulnerable to slip-up are the parents who want an unusual name. In 1994, Liam would have seemed a good choice, being in 360th place among US boys’ names. The same kind of parent would have to go elsewhere in 2018, after Liam skyrocketed, out of the blue, to the number one spot. Here’s the endogenous kick: the grounds of choice continuously change. People do not know the present, much less the future. So, whether the goal is to be in the avant-garde or the herd, error—endogenous error—occurs.

Some of the mishaps happen as a group phenomenon. American Jews, in the late ’20s, avidly chose WASP names for their children, especially for the boys. They took up Seymour (“Sy”), Sheldon (“Shel”), Stanley (“Stan”), and Morton (“Morty”)—ironically, all names that became stereotypically Jewish. But WASPs, seeing these names become “too Jewish,” abandoned them. Their assimilation value spoiled. Jews then gave them up as well. In following the sequence, Lieberson sees exogenous forces at work, including antisemitism, but shows how closely linked those forces are to changing dynamics within a group. Again, it’s not exogeny or endogeny: it’s both.

Doing this kind of unraveling is no simple task. Some patterns, even empirically grounded ones, reveal nothing. Like the upsurge of Liam, things come together from chance, happenstance, and diverse strands; they frustrate theories, projections, and rules of thumb. Lieberson does not tell us how to recognize what comes from without or from within. But we can draw out the lesson from this rigorous book: find good data and continuously subject both endogeny and exogeny to the test of reason and evidence. Along the way, he pleads, don’t give short shrift to the endogenous. Endogeneity has “the building blocks” for all the rest. Whether in social science or real life, cause can be from without or within.

Lieberson is wary of going beyond his names’ data. But others of us will look for how his thinking can grapple with the severities now pressing down—from Trumpism, climate denial, and racism. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me suggest that taste is a place to take a stand. It shows us how cultural particularities have “a life of their own.” Trends feed on themselves, from idiosyncratic ones, like a slight waddle in a walk, to world-changing inclinations, like hatred of the Huns (or Blacks, or Jews, or Tutsis, or Croats). World War I was a world of sentiments and nobody’s exogenous scheme. Nor was the death of the boy named Romeo or the girl named Juliette. Being open to the forceful reality of life’s entrainments can inform awareness of how fates, tragic ones in particular, can be avoided.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured image: Five nurses each holding a baby. National Library of Medicine / Wikimedia