Last week, I was quite bothered by this chart I produced using the Baby Name Voyager tool.
According to this chart, William has drastically declined in popularity over time. The name was 7 times more popular back in the 1880s compared to the 2010s. And yet, when I hovered over the chart, the rank of William in 2013 was 3. Apparently, William was the 3rd most popular boy name in 2013.
I wrote the nice people at the website and asked if there might be a data quality issue, and their response was:
The data in our Name Voyager tool is correct. While it may be puzzling, there are definitely less Williams in the recent years than there were in the past (1880s). Although the name is still widely popular, there are plenty of other baby names that parents are using. In the past, there were a limited amount of names that parents would choose, therefore more children had the same name.
What bothered me was that the rate has declined drastically while the number of births was increasing. So, I was expecting William to drop in rank as well. But their explanation makes a lot of sense: if there is a much wider spread of names in recent times, the rank could indeed remain top. It was very nice of them to respond.
There are three ways to present this data series, as shown below. One can show the raw counts of William babies (orange line). One can show the popularity against total births (what Baby Name Wizard shows, blue line). One can show the rank of William relative to all other male baby names (green line). Consider how different these three lines look!
The rate metric (per million births) adjusts for growth in total births. But the blue line is difficult to interpret in the face of the orange line. In the period 1900 to 1950, the actual number of William babies went up but the blue line came down. The rank is also tough especially in the 1970-2000 period when it took a dive, a trend not visible in either the raw counts or the adjusted counts.
Adding to the difficulty is the use of the per-million metric. In the following chart, I show three different scales for popularity: per million, per 100,000, and per 100 (i.e. proportion). The raw count is shown up top.
All three blue lines are essentially the same but how readers interpret the scales is quite another matter. The per-million births metric is the worst of the lot. The chart shows values in the 20,000-25,000 range in the 1910s but the actual number of William babies was below 20,000 for a number of years. Switching to per-100K helps but in this case, using the standard proportion (the bottom chart) is more natural.
The following scatter plot shows the strange relationship between the rate of births and the rank over time for Williams babies.
Up to 1990s, there is an intuitive relationship: as the proportion of Williams among male babies declined, so did the rank of William. Then in the 1990s and beyond, the relationship flipped. The proportion of Williams among male babies continued to drop but the rank of William actually recovered!