7 Fun Facts About American Names

Most Americans are given a first and last name when they're born, but aggregate data on full names is not widely distributed by any federal government agency. Instead, data on first and last names is compiled and released separately by two different agencies. The Social Security Administration (SSA) releases an annual list of first names given to babies born in the United States, while the Census bureau provides a list of last names of individuals living in the U.S. once every decade or so.

But there are some sources of information on full names. One is the Social Security Death Master File (DMF). The DMF is widely used as a death verification tool, though a fraction of a percent of the individuals are added erroneously while still alive (and not all deaths are recorded). The most recent publicly available full version is from 2013 and contains over 87 million entries. Eighty percent of the entries were born 1930 or earlier, so the group skews older. While the DMF doesn’t provide an exhaustive list, there are still a lot of very unusual full names among them. Here are seven fun facts about American names from the DMF.


There were 1560 different first and last name combinations. Thomas Thomas is by far the most frequently occurring, followed by James James. Alexander Alexander and Santiago Santiago make a good showing. The most frequently occurring female name is Rose Rose at number three. The rest of the top names are predominantly male. Of the top 25, only four are names that are overwhelmingly female: Rose Rose, Ruth Ruth, Grace Grace, and Rosa Rosa.


Excluding people with identical first and last names, there are 4344 different names where the last name starts with the first name. More than a quarter of the total occurrences are for John Johnson, followed by William Williams. Similar to Johnson and Williams, almost all the last names are patronymic. Their original meaning was to denote someone is “son of [insert father’s name].” The top 25 include patronymic last names that are English (ending in son, like Robert Robertson), Welsh (often ending in s, like Edward Edwards), Danish (ending in sen, like Jens Jensen), and Spanish (ending in ez, like Martin Martinez). Given that by definition, a patronym includes the name of the male parent, it’s unsurprising that boys’ first names dominate the top of the list. The top female name is Eva Evans at number 19, with only two more in the top 25, neither of which are patronymic (Rose Rosen and Rose Rosenberg).


Patronymic last names are not always signified by their endings. In some cases, it’s the beginning of the last name that gives it away. Such is the case with Gaelic (last names starting with Mc or Mac or O’ in Ireland for "grandson of") and Norman (start with Fitz). From a total of 2201 different first and last names where the last name ends with the first, the top four names are all patronymic. They are, in order: Donald MacDonald, Donald McDonald, Gerald Fitzgerald, and Patrick Fitzpatrick. However, the top names are not dominated by patronymic last names, including the top female name: Anna Hanna. There are many examples of this type of accidental overlap, including Avis Davis, Edith Meredith, and Milton Hamilton. It should be noted that it is possible for a last name to both end and start with a first name. And so, Rosa Rosa-Rosa is included on both lists.


Using a pronouncing dictionary, I scanned the DMF for cases where the last name rhymed with the first name. The dictionary file didn’t contain every possible name, so there may be others among the 87 million; however, the more common names do appear to be included. I uncovered 16,308 different rhyming first and last names, including Florence Lawrence, Doris Morris, and Nellie Kelley. Names like this, which might be considered more melodic, seem to be more prevalent among females. Four of the top five names are female (all with first name Mary), including the most common: Mary Perry. The most common male name is John Hogan at number 2. If you’re not sold that this is a bona fide rhyme, Paul Hall and John Hahn follow at 6 and 7, respectively. There were also 158 Ronald McDonalds on the list, though in 2014 Taco Bell managed to find a couple dozen more who are still alive.


The DMF has some very rare last names that due to minimum threshold requirements don’t make it into the aggregate U.S. Census data. This includes 43 different last names that are 16 characters or longer (last names in most recent U.S. Census data max out at 15 characters). As a native of Greece, a country notorious for long last names, I had a hunch it would be a contest between Greek and Armenian last names. I was partially right in that Aghubgharehptiannej is most likely Armenian. Everybodytalksabout is Native American and Fernandezdelaportil is Spanish in origin. I excluded names with hyphens or spaces from my search, however it does appear that all three of these may have been altered to merge previously distinct segments.

The next three longest are Persian (Amirsahansouzshani), Georgian (Dzhindzhikhashvili), and Laotian (Nanthovongdouangsy). The longest Greek name in the DMF was 17 characters (Papadimitropoulos).


Most of the people on the DMF were born before 1930, so names like Donald Duck (six occurrences), Homer Simpson (69 occurrences) or Joseph Stalin (one occurrence) may not have the same cultural significance for the parents who thought of these names. However, I located 20 names that would have raised eyebrows even a century ago. Finding peculiar last names is not something that can be accomplished via a simple algorithm, so I scanned the database for instances of remarkable names mentioned by Russell Ash, as well as a few of my own. The most popular is Mary Land (139 occurrences), but there's also Hazel Nutt, Robin Banks, Scott Free, and Pearly Gates.


Also from Russell Ash’s list, I scanned the DMF for occurrences of 16 different unfortunate first initials and last names. At the top of the rankings are 721 B. Wares and 375 B. Quicks. O. Heck, C. Below, and T. Hee all had more than 10 occurrences.

Damian Mac Con Uladh contributed research for this article. Further information and more extensive lists of results can be found in this post at Social Security Death Master File courtesy of

Live Smarter
Nervous About Asking for a Job Referral? LinkedIn Can Now Do It for You

For most people, asking for a job referral can be daunting. What if the person being approached shoots you down? What if you ask the "wrong" way? LinkedIn, which has been aggressively establishing itself as a catch-all hub for employment opportunities, has a solution, as Mashable reports.

The company recently launched "Ask for a Referral," an option that will appear to those browsing job listings. When you click on a job listed by a business that also employs one of your LinkedIn first-degree connections, you'll have the opportunity to solicit a referral from that individual.

The default message that LinkedIn creates is somewhat generic, but it hits the main topics—namely, prompting you to explain how you and your connection know one another and why you'd be a good fit for the position. If you're the one being asked for a referral, the site will direct you to the job posting and offer three prompts for a response, ranging from "Sure…" to "Sorry…".

LinkedIn says the referral option may not be available for all posts or all users, as the feature is still being rolled out. If you do see the option, it will likely pay to take advantage of it: LinkedIn reports that recruiters who receive both a referral and a job application from a prospective hire are four times more likely to contact that individual.

[h/t Mashable]

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Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."


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