Glitch alert: Was “Korea” coded as “Kansas” in U.S. baby name data?


I think I may have found another problem with the SSA data.

It all started with Chong, which was on my shortlist for the Mystery Monday series. When I tried one last time to figure it out, I noticed some pretty interesting stuff.

Chong debuted as a girl name in 1947. I couldn’t find a pop culture explanation. It kept making me think of the Chinese name Chong (the forename, not the surname) but virtually no one from China — or anywhere else in Asia, for that matter — was immigrating to the U.S. in the 1940s.

Here’s the gist of what happened next…

  • Looking at the other 1947 debut names, I found 3 similar to Chong: Myong, Kyong and Kyung.
  • I realized then that I was dealing with Korean names, not Chinese names. But these Korean names were truncated for some reason. (Korean names typically have two parts, e.g., Seo-yeon, Yu-jin, Tae-hyun, Min-jae.)
  • Looking at the rest of the SSA data, I found a bunch of other truncated Korean names with debut years ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s.

The most obvious explanation, immigration, could theoretically work for the debuts from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Korean immigration to the U.S. (starting with war brides and orphans) began again in the 1950s and peaked in the 1970s-1980s. But it couldn’t explain the debuts from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.

So I checked the SSA’s state data. If these name debuts were somehow (impossibly) being caused by immigration then I would expect to see them clustered in places like Hawaii, California and New York.

But you know where they were popping up? Kansas.

Even weirder, this only lasted until the ’70s or so — after that, the names stopped appearing on the Kansas list altogether.

Here’s the SSA data (from 1920 to 1969, inclusive) for most of the Korean names I found:

NameU.S. Total
Kansas Total
Chong106 baby girls
16 baby boys
103 baby girls
unlisted for boys
Chun22 baby girls12 baby girls
Dong32 baby boys15 baby boys
Hae19 baby girls19 baby girls
Hee5 baby girls5 baby girls
Hye29 baby girls28 baby girls
Hyun10 baby girls5 baby girls
Ji10 baby girls5 baby girls
Jin13 baby boys6 baby boys
Kyong51 baby girls50 baby girls
Kyung63 baby girls55 baby girls
Mi114 baby girls78 baby girls
Myong50 baby girls44 baby girls
Myung11 baby girls11 baby girls
Ok35 baby boys30 baby boys
Soon48 baby girls
5 baby boys
38 baby girls
unlisted for boys
Yong114 baby girls
60 baby boys
108 baby girls
52 baby boys

I doubt these names represent Korean babies being born in Kansas.

I also doubt they represent non-Korean babies in Kansas getting Korean names. (Asian baby names were not trendy among the white farm families of mid-20th-century Kansas, as you might imagine.)

My theory is that these names actually represent Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. as adults during the second half of the 20th century, applied for social security cards, and were mistakenly assigned Kansas as a birthplace instead of Korea.

Perhaps someone used the letter “K” as shorthand for Korea for a particular batch of records, and that “K” was later interpreted as Kansas, either by a person or by a computer.

However it happened, the miscoded birthplaces would make it appear as though hundreds of Korean babies had been born in Kansas throughout the 20th century — even during decades when that would have been extremely unlikely.

(I’m still curious about the truncation. Perhaps whoever miscoded the birthplaces also mistakenly split the compound Korean names into American-style firsts and middles.)

Does this theory make sense? Do you have have other ideas/information?

Sources: A Brief History of Korean Americans – National Association of Korean Americans, Korean Immigrants in the United States – Migration Policy Institute

Image: Adapted from Data loss of image file (public domain)

2 thoughts on “Glitch alert: Was “Korea” coded as “Kansas” in U.S. baby name data?

  1. Whoahhhhhhhh That is an amazing find and the theory totally works! Good work!!!!!

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