Kamala is an American name

But an old-fashioned one

Kamala Harris’ first name is a recognizably Indian name. It comes from the Sanskrit word for “lotus”, a pond flower, and one frequently associated with a meditating Buddha or a self-sustaining Vishnu.

Buddha on a lotus. Image by Wortflow from Pixabay

Babies named Kamala

The US Social Security Administration (SSA) maintains a list of baby names by state and year. It is available in BigQuery as a public dataset, which means that we can quite quickly query it:

SUM(number) AS num_babies
FROM `bigquery-public-data.usa_names.usa_1910_current`
WHERE name = 'Kamala'

Plotting this in Google Sheets (in the BigQuery console, select Explore Data and choose Explore with Sheets):

Let me answer two questions you may have, looking at the chart above, and one big caveat.

Caveat with this dataset

The caveat is that the data is collected by the SSA by state, and if there is only one baby with a given name born in a state-month-year combination, it is removed from the publicly released dataset (for privacy reasons).

This means that we need at least two babies named Kamala born in a state that month before it shows up in the dataset above. Theoretically, we could have had 600 babies (one per state, 12 per month) that don’t show up in the data.

The hippy effect

The SSA dataset starts in 1913, so why does the graph above start only in the 1960s? The obvious answer is wrong. It was in 1965 that the Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished the quota system based on national origin. It was after 1965 that non-white immigrants started to be allowed into the United States, but notice that the graph peaks in 1964 and 1965. These are not immigrant babies you are seeing. You are seeing babies born to the India-loving hippies of the 1960s.

Notice that the name tails off starting in the 1970s. This is because Kamala is an old-fashioned name even among Indians. Literally. The name fell out of fashion. You can see this by comparing it to an ever-green, easily pronounceable Indian first name that was not popular among the flower children. (You may not believe this, but Indian immigrants tend to choose easily pronounceable first names for their kids.)

Kamala vs. Meena

Here’s Kamala compared to Meena:

SUM(IF(name = 'Kamala', number, 0)) AS kamala,
SUM(IF(name = 'Meena', number, 0)) AS meena
FROM `bigquery-public-data.usa_names.usa_1910_current`
HAVING (kamala + meena) > 0

Plotting this, we can see what a name popular among Indian immigrants would have looked like.

How to try other names

You can try the queries above in the BigQuery sandbox — 1 terabyte of querying per month is free, and you don’t even need a credit card. The queries in this article process about 150 MB, so you could run 6000 queries like these per month before you hit the free tier limit. Google Sheets, the other tool I used for this article, is free.



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Lak Lakshmanan

Operating Executive at a technology investment firm; articles are personal observations and not investment advice.