Naming for Kin during World War I: Baby Names as Markers for War

Tastes and beliefs influence the choice of baby names. During periods of intense social change, names thus inform on how rapidly individuals adapt to new circumstances. Using a large, crowdsourced French genealogy database of 5.5 million individuals born between the years 1905-1925, we leverage this well-known characteristic of baby names to analyze reactions to the First World War, a time of unexpected and extreme family disorganization characterized by the hasty separation of millions of couples followed by uncertainty on the soldiers’ survival. We investigated paternal (father to son/daughter) and avuncular (uncle to nephew/niece) name transmission during the conflict. We found that immediately following mobilization, the rate of paternal name transmission increased by about 50% for both males and females. Heightened transmission correlated with predictors of the level of risk the father was exposed to. These results suggest that paternal name transmission accurately reflects ordinary people’s perception of the risks taken by the soldiers in the first months of the War. Increased transmission of an uncle’s name following his death was found both for uncles who died in peacetime and during the War, but significantly more sustained in the latter case. This phenomenon is strong evidence that the ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ was widely and persistently practiced in French society.

References : Todd (Nicolas) & Coulmont (Baptiste), “Naming for Kin during World War I: Baby Names as Markers for War”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2021, 52(1), p. 55-67, doi : 10.1162/jinh_a_01663

Pour en savoir plus :

  1. Les prénoms, la guerre, l’histoire, avec Baptiste Coulmont et Nicolas Todd (Podcast Paroles d’histoire, épisode 210)
  2. Les prénoms de la mobilisation (Jean-Marie Pottier), Sciences Humaines, « Grands Dossiers » n°64 – Septembre-octobre-novembre 2021
  3. Mon père, ce héros ? (Ou son père, mon héros) (sur le blog)
  4. Capsule vidéo sur youtube :
  5. Geneanet, d’où proviennent les données initiales
  6. Partie du code (déduplication) sur github