Alexa used to be a name primarily given to human babies. Now it’s mainly for robots.
Seven years ago, Amazon released Alexa, its voice assistant, and as the number of devices answering to that name has skyrocketed, its popularity with American parents has plummeted. In fact, it has suffered one of the sharpest declines of any popular name in recent years. “Alexa stands alone as a name that was steadily popular—not a one-year celebrity wonder, not a fading past favorite—that was pushed off the popularity cliff,” Laura Wattenberg, the founder of the naming-trends website Namerology, told me.
At first, the number of baby Alexas spiked following the voice assistant’s rollout in late 2014—perhaps parents heard the name in the news and liked it—but it has since crashed. Likely, parents began to realize that having the name could be a nuisance, or worse, could become associated with subservience, because people are always giving orders to their virtual Alexas.
This up-and-down pattern reminded Wattenberg of what happens with babies named after hurricanes, when “the news coverage and attention causes the name to briefly shoot up, and then the aftermath, when the name is constantly referred to as a disaster, kind of kills it off.” Basically, Amazon’s impact on the name Alexa resembles that of a natural disaster. (When I reached out to the company, it didn’t comment on whether it had played a role in Alexa’s decline.)
Alexa joins a handful of other names that were toppled by a shift in association. Perhaps the most famous is Hillary, which was in fashion in the late 1980s but fell out of style after Hillary Clinton became first lady. (Wattenberg said parents tend not to choose politicians’ names, regardless of party.) Dick lost its appeal when it was no longer primarily used as a nickname for Richard, and more recently, parents ran from the name Isis when it became connected to terrorism.
The data on baby names released by the Social Security Administration don’t indicate why parents pick or avoid particular names, but Alexa’s trajectory mirrors the adoption of smart speakers in the U.S. Bret Kinsella, the founder of Voicebot.ai, a site that covers and analyzes data on the voice-assistant industry, told me that consumer uptake surged three years after Alexa’s release, in 2017. And the number of baby Alexas plunged below its pre-Amazon baseline in 2018—that may be when many parents started to understand the ubiquity of the name. (Now more than 90 million American adults are estimated to have a smart speaker in their household.)
Trend lines in other countries provide further evidence that Amazon was what punctured the name Alexa’s popularity. The voice assistant’s debut in the United Kingdom (in 2016) and in Canada (in 2017) were also followed by drop-offs in baby Alexas. (Owners can select a different “wake word” for their device so that they don’t have to say “Alexa” to get its attention, but that doesn’t much alter the name’s associations.)
What’s different about Alexa is that Amazon turned it into a name for a female voice that does your bidding. Other tech companies with voice assistants, though, have avoided annexing a popular name. Google’s voice assistant just goes by Google, and Microsoft’s is Cortana, which is in fact a name, but a very rare one.
Meanwhile, Apple has produced a much milder version of an Alexa effect. Siri wasn’t a particularly popular name to begin with before Apple released its voice assistant, Siri, 10 years ago, but it’s become even less popular since. The number of baby Siris each year fell from 111 in 2010 to 10 in 2020. There’s also been a drop-off in some Nordic countries, where the name is more common; last year, Denmark produced just one lone baby Siri. (Apple also did not comment on its role in the name Siri’s decline.)
“We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impact on their lives is real as well,” Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park, told me. Sharing a name with a robot can be tiresome. “‘OMG, Siri like the iPhone,’ should be engraved on my tombstone,” complained Siri Bulusu, a journalist, in a 2016 piece about her name. And name overlaps have led to sitcom-style misunderstandings, like when, as The Wall Street Journal reported, one dad asked his daughter Alexa for some water, and their robot Alexa responded by offering to order a case of Fiji water for $27.
But Amazon’s choice of name has had much darker effects on the lives of some Alexas, particularly the younger ones who get teased at school with an onslaught of commands. Wattenberg observed that the only Alexa that many of today's children know is the virtual one that their family bosses around, so it’s not surprising that some of them go on to belittle classmates with the same name. “Many parents [of Alexas] are changing their kids’ names or using their middle names because it leads to just horrendous bullying,” she told me.
When I asked Amazon if it has considered relinquishing the name Alexa, a company spokesperson did not answer that question but said, “Bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”
Amazon did not exactly ruin the life of every Alexa, but the consequences of its decision seven years ago are far-reaching—roughly 127,000 American baby girls were named Alexa in the past 50 years, and more than 75,000 of them are younger than 18. Amazon didn’t take their perfectly good name out of malice, but regardless, it’s not giving it back.