Sunday, August 2, 2009

Was there a decline in formality around 1920? Evidence from names

In Stanley Lieberson's excellent book on naming fashions, A Matter of Taste, he has really cool graphs on the decline in various symbols of formality during the 20th C. For example, he shows that the Sears catalog offered fewer and fewer dress hats for men and women, and dress gloves for women. This begins at the start of his dataset in 1920, and by about 1970 hardly any are offered at all.

He also shows the decline in people who use initials rather than their first and/or middle names, among some prestigious group (the board of directors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, if memory serves). He interprets this -- and other anecdotal data, such as college students not wearing shirts and ties anymore -- as evidence for a "general decline in formality" process during the 20th C. That is, whatever is causing this change, it must apply at a very general level -- nothing to do with hats per se (such as the difficulty of getting into cars with them on), or gloves per se (such as having heated cars). It must account for changes in nicknames too.

Steven Pinker has also mentioned Lieberson's book, the data, and the "general decline of formality" interpretation in his own book, The Stuff of Thought, where I first learned of Lieberson's work. And I myself had believed this interpretation until reflecting more on it.

There's something wrong about calling this suite of changes a "decline in formality" -- Lieberson has shown a decline in particular symbols (albeit many such symbols), but why is the popularity of those particular symbols a proxy for "formality"? After all, once upon a time, men didn't wear hats at all -- yet the period was very formal. Sometimes they wore powdered wigs, and sometimes they didn't even bother with those, as you see here in this painting of Rene Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden. This also shows that facial hair is not inherently formal or informal -- even when gloriously ungroomed, as most pictures of the Victorian gentleman Charles Darwin prove.

As for using first initials, which supposedly is more formal because it increases social distance -- only people close to you use your given names -- I looked up some lists of famous people known by their first initials (as in R.A. Fisher) or first initial and middle name (as in F. Scott Fitzgerald). See here and here for the lists. I then looked up their birth years to determine when they turned 20 -- that is, roughly the time in your life when you make a decision about how you'll be called as an adult. Here is how these initialled people are distributed by year of turning 20:

There are a few odd cases in the 18th C, and an increasing trend is visible by 1850. There's a peak from 1890 - 1920, and a decline afterward. The apparent resurgence near the end of the century reflects a fad among Generation X pro sports stars to use initials -- these are not the contemporary counterparts of G.K. Chesterton or J.B.S. Haldane. I've listed all of the post-1980 people in an Appendix, so that you can see. Even with sports stars, it was only a 10-year fad. So, among the cultural and social elite, the use of initials never recovered.

The trouble with using this symbol as a proxy for formality is obvious: it implies that there was hardly any formality before 1870, which we know isn't true. The same would follow if we looked at the presence of what we call "dress hats" among paintings or photographs of the elite, stretching back into history. Top hats, say, were a symbol of formality only for a limited time -- not before or after. The proper interpretation of Lieberson's data, then, is that the 20th C saw a steady decline in Victorian symbols of formality, not of formality in the abstract. Now, why do we single out Victorian symbols as those that "really count" as formal? My guess is that Baby Boomers are thinking about what their grandparents' lives were like -- "Why, my grandfather used to ____ , but no one does that anymore."

When you think about it, the reason that there can't have been a decline in formality in the abstract is that formality is simply a set of social conventions for how to present oneself in various contexts. It doesn't matter what they are, as long as everyone knows what they are and adheres to them most of the time. In game theory terms, we're playing a coordination game, where we do well as long as we do the same thing, and poorly if we do different things -- e.g., picking one side of the road to drive on. But a more apt example is the sound-meaning pairing that speakers of a language use -- after all, there's nothing palpably pavonine about the sounds in "peacock," but as long as we all adhere to the convention that those sounds refer to that animal, we're fine. Likewise, there's nothing inherently formal about wearing hats, but in some times and places, everyone agreed on hats as a formality symbol.

Seen in this light, what we have is something like a shift in the pronunciation of common words. (In game theory terms, we have moved from one of the multiple equilibria to another.) That is, we still have very rigid rules of formality that everyone understands pretty well -- it's just that they're different from before. Now, it is considered formal to wear a button-down shirt with no tie, and it is considered a violation of formality to wear a top hat and tails -- this would offend your peers' sense of propriety just as much as if you'd shown up in a purple leisure suit.

And even far enough back, it was not considered formal to use your first initials -- that too changed from being a violation of formality to a standard of formality, before falling out of use again. These rise-and-fall patterns are typical of changing tastes that recurrently replace each other. It may sound strange to talk about fashion in conventions -- shouldn't they be stable over long stretches of time? -- but there's a new generation that has to build its own conventions every year. Just as with language, most such changes of conventions occur among the young, who seek to mark themselves off from their elders.

Now, I'm sure that a Structuralist could look at all of the symbols of formality across space and time and discover underlying principles, and the formality symbols we actually see would just be variations on them. If we had a way of measuring those deep principles, then we could say whether the level of formality has changed over time. As it stands, though, all we can conclude from young people today using nicknames, wearing t-shirts rather than button-downs, and believing that Latin phrases are pretentious, is that the symbols of formality are changing. It is just like a generational change in the way a thing is pronounced. The taboo against violating formality is still incredibly strong, as a young person will immediately find out if he wears a jacket and tie in the classroom.

Of course, you may think that college students looked better back then (I do), or that Middle English sounds better than Modern, but we shouldn't confuse the aesthetic evaluation of different time periods with the empirical task of seeing if something deep about formality has changed or not.

Appendix, recent famous people known by initials:

k.d. lang
D.B.C. Pierre
P.J. Hogan
B.D. Wong
A.C. Green
B.J. Surhoff
A. L. Kennedy
J.K. Rowling
J.J. Lehto
B. J. Armstrong
R. Kelly
A.R. Rahman
F.P. Santangelo
C.J. Hunter
J.D. Roth
J.T. Snow
P.J. Brown
P.J. Harvey
P. T. Anderson
M. Night Shyamalan
J.J. Stokes
A.J. Langer
V.V.S. Laxman
O.J. Santiago
J. D. Drew
B.J. Ryan
R.W. McQuarters
J.C. Romero
A. J. Burnett
C.C. Sabathia
J.J. Redick


  1. I'm not sure how it would rank on the formality scale, but I've always thought that the use of one's first initial and middle name (for example, J. Edgar Hoover) is hopelessly pretentious.


  2. A top hat & tails would not seem informal, but excessively/anachronistically formal. Same with a powdered wig. Formality seems to be something the upper class does, and as long as the lower class isn't wearing powdered wigs or coat-tails, they won't seem informal.