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How to find out how common you really are.

The Name Game


You don't hear it so much anymore — probably because there are so many come-heres around now — but it used to be that when a Virginian met somebody he or she didn't know, sooner or later the conversation would work its way around to perhaps the most important question of all: "Who are your people?" It was a quaint and slightly less intrusive-sounding way of asking "What's your pedigree?" Nowadays, that sort of question is reserved for dog and horse breeders. But Old Virginians asked it for the same reason breeders still do: They wanted to know what kind of stock you came from. A generation or two ago, names meant a lot because there just weren't that many around, and an Old Virginian with a long memory would inevitably be able to connect it all up: "I knew some Taliaferros who lived up in Urbanna. Are y'all related?" If your name is Taliaferro — which, by the way, is pronounced as if it were spelled Tolliver — chances are an Old Virginian might still be able to connect you with another Taliaferro among their circle. Why? Because in the whole of the United States, only .001 percent of the population has Taliaferro for a last name. Taliaferro is only the 8,341st most common name in the U.S. The odds are on the Old Virginian's side. I know this because I've spent entirely too much time playing on a Web site established by the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. You can find it at Enter a last name or a first name and click on SEARCH, and the site will give you three nuggets of information, two of which are interesting. (The third nugget seems to me to be fairly useless, but your mileage —especially if you're a statistics buff — may vary.) For example, if you enter the last name Moore, you'll find that it ranked ninth in terms of frequency in the 1990 U.S. census data. You'll also see that the surname Moore is claimed by 0.312 percent of the population sample. For what it's worth, you'll also discover that 5.312 percent of the sample population is covered by Moore plus the eight names occurring more frequently than Moore. Don't know why anybody would want to know that last bit, but it's there. It used to be that I knew everybody in the Richmond phone book named Dale. They were all related to me. That's not the case today. The Census Bureau site tells me that Dale ranked 957th in the U.S. Clearly, there are a lot more of us now. And my first name, Donald, ranks 15th. It's no fun discovering you're common — even if it's only your name in question. I'm in good company, though. Gilmore (as in our governor) ranks 538th and Bush (as in ... well, you know) ranks 304th. Suddenly, Dale doesn't look so bad. Until, that is, you check out Gore, Cheney and Lieberman. They're far rarer, ranking 1,111th, 2,346th and 4,571st, respectively. Just for fun, I checked to see how people with the last name of Richmond and Norfolk ranked. The Richmonds beat out the Norfolks by a country mile. Richmond is the 765th most common last name, while Norfolk is the 28,561st. It's also interesting to note that Hitler doesn't even show up while Hussein comes in at 22,190th. So what were the most common names in the United States in 1990? In order, they were Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore and Taylor. Hey, my grandmother was a Williams. I wonder how many of them are my people. The Census Bureau site would also come in handy if you're naming a baby and want to check out what's rare and what's ordinary. For men, in 1990, the top 10 names were James, John, Robert, Michael, William, David, Richard, Charles, Joseph and Thomas. For women, the top 10 were Mary, Patricia, Linda, Barbara, Elizabeth, Jennifer, Maria, Susan, Margaret and Dorothy. For the record: There were no Muffies or Muffys, but Buffy came in at 2,040th. This fascinating Web site is maintained by Laura K. Yax of the Population Division. Laura, according to her own site, was the 22nd most popular name for women. Yax, on the other hand, came in at 59,005. Now there's a surname even an Old Virginian would have trouble connecting

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