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How Did "Ezra" Get So Popular?

A couple months ago, MIT got a lot of attention for a slick presentation they made at the TED conference. The product was called "the Sixth Sense," and it was sort of like a Minority Report interface for shoppers. Looking for information on the finest brand of toilet paper? Point your gizmo at the pack of Charmin' and let 'er rip. Your sixth sense would stream online information through your daily activities. You'd be able to navigate the world with the help of the hive mind. See for yourself:

Wolphram Alpha, the new search engine that's exciting nerds everywhere, seems like the forerunner to that. It sells itself as "an online service that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data, instead of providing a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer." In other words, it answers rather than links. But it couldn't seem to tell me anything. I asked about the finest brand of toilet paper. It was confused. I asked about the number of uninsured in America. Nothing. So I went back to 1997 and did what any new user of a search engine does. I typed in my name.

And that worked. "Ezra," it seems, is getting a lot more popular. Wolfram hooked me up with a graph:


The big jump happens in the early-90s. But why? I doubt the band Better Than Ezra convinced a lot of parents to go with the name. Is it the rise of Kabbalah? Prescience about my future success? A sudden spike in Ezra Pound's reputation?

By Ezra Klein  |  May 18, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Tech  
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I don't think there's necessarily any explanation. I would assume that trends in naming behave similar to trends in stock prices, because in both cases people aren't just trying to assess the stock/name in question, but also trying to assess how EVERYBODY ELSE is currently assessing that stock/name. Most people are trying to hit the sweet spot for their children where there name will be common enough that it won't mark their child out as too unusual, while at the same time uncommon enough that they won't be (as my dad was) one of 5 people in their grade school class with the same first name. So, naming trends would be susceptible to the same sort of essentially irrational boom/bust cycles as stock prices.

Posted by: CynicalJerk | May 18, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm a bit suspicious of Wolfram's data anyhow. Compare data for "Josh" to data for "Joshua", for example, or "John" to "Jonathan" to "Jonathon". The trend lines are all wildly inconsistent with any sensible reality.

Posted by: davestickler | May 18, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I hate to burst your bubble but a wide assortment of biblical names share similar histories. Look up Jacob, Isaac, or Noah. For some reason, Cain doesn't follow the pattern.

Posted by: jbw4 | May 18, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's Ezra in particular. You're also seeing more Ari's, Aviva's, Talia's, et cetera.

Maybe because anti-semitism is less prevalent, jews are more willing to give their children transparently jewish names? But maybe not, I'm named after my father, who is alive, and he's named after a christian martyr. Don't even get me started on my last name.

Posted by: StephenBank | May 18, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

The other commenter is correct regarding Biblical names (especially old testament names). Type in Noah, Ezekiel, Elijah, Saul, Jonah, Micah, etc. and you will see the same early 90's spike.

Posted by: nylund | May 18, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Of course, pointing out the fact that Old Testament names all spiked in the 90s doesn't actually address the question of WHY they spiked.

Posted by: CynicalJerk | May 18, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Wolfram also still seems to think Tony Blair is the British 'head of state', whilst Gordon Brown is merely a 'politician'.

Posted by: sharpz111 | May 18, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

The choices that are made by Jewish parents will have very little impact on these rankings, given the tiny fraction of the population that is Jewish.

There are less than 6 million Jews in the U.S., and a lot of them are old, not infants.

Posted by: jeffro20 | May 18, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

A cool application for exploring these questions and testing theories about clusters of names gaining popularity at the same time is the Name Voyager at It's a great time waster. In any case, I have read recently, perhaps at Baby Name Wizard, that names starting with vowel sounds have been increasingly popular in the past decade or two--thus, Emily, Emma, Ella, Eva, Ava, as well as Ezra, Oliver, Ethan, Evan, etc. Put any of these names into the website and see similar spikes starting in the 90s. I don't know if there is a reason for that per se or if naming trends can ever really be explained, but it is a phenomenon.

Posted by: emartin4 | May 18, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Nope, not alpha's role.

Google Android lets you look things up by photographing their barcode. THAT'S the gizmo you'll point at your Charmin.

Posted by: evenadog | May 18, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Test of the Washington Post proofreaders: It should be Wolfram Alpha, not Wolphram Alpha.

Posted by: AaronSw | May 18, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

My 4 month old nephew is named Ezra, partly because his parents like the Old Testament sound. I think Old Testament names are popular with Christians as well as Jews. New Testament names are so overused that they don't really have an expressly Christian connotation, so parents going for that have to look to the Old Testament.

Posted by: Safron | May 18, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, my wife named her cat Ezra because she liked Better Than Ezra. And she was, I think 23 at the time.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | May 18, 2009 9:51 PM | Report abuse

My husband has a Polish name with lots of k's and z's. We named our daughter Minka and have Ezra near the top of the list if we ever have a boy, mostly because it would sound good with his name. But I'd be lying if I didn't say you were an inspiration, I loved Pandagon back in the day.

Posted by: rikkijohnson | May 18, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Wolframalpha works very well for computational purposes. I think it may be The Next Big Thing once it gets going. A cool site I follow,

was all on about Wolframalpha a few days ago. I had never heard of it before then. I betcha five years from now WFA will be huge.

Posted by: bicherl | May 20, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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