The Top 10 Baby Names, Then and Now

Oct 15th 2015

 Baby naming has changed, and a popular name isn't what it used to be. I talk about those themes a lot, but today I'd like to offer a stark, simple illustration. The charts below show the popularity of the top 10 names of three very different years:

 1900, the end of the Victorian era and the dawn of a new century;
 1957, two generations and two world wars later and the height of the baby boom;
• 2014, another two generations later and the most current year of baby name statistics.

Compare for yourself:

Top 10 Baby Names -- Generational Comparison

First off, it's hard to miss the dramatic downsizing of this generation of names. Today's #1 boy's name is only half as popular as the #10 baby boom name. By standards of past generations, you could even say that no names are popular today.

Looking closer, the shapes of the curves have also changed. Back in 1900, the very top of the chart dominated. The #1 name Mary in particular was more than twice as popular as any other girl's name. In 1957, the top 10 names accounted for roughly the same percentage of babies, but more evenly distributed.

I see this as a movement from a tradition-guided consensus to a style-guided consensus. The 1900 names (particularly the boys) still follow the traditional English pattern, with John and Mary presiding over the classic regal names. By 1957 parents were seeking a new sound, but they didn't go out on a limb. Instead, they moved en masse to names that were modern in style but simple and familiar, like David and Steven. Today's curve is notably flat, as parents aim to name differently from their neighbors.

Perhaps the most surprising change, though, is about gender. Look at the total percentages of babies represented by each year's top 10:

    Boys   Girls
1900   31.8%   18.4%
1957   30.3%   19.6%
2014   8.0%   7.7%


Traditionally, parents have named sons more conservatively than daughters. Boys' names went in and out of fashion slowly, and the core traditional names were favored for their solidity. Girls' names, in contrast, were more likely to be objects of fashion. Today, that difference has vanished. We approach boys' and girls' names alike with style-conscious creativity, making "popular" names an ever more endangered species.

The total picture is of huge movements of culture with shifting perspectives, expectations and values. Today's list points to a more image-obsessed, competitive culture, but also a more egalitarian culture with greater freedom of expression. And you can see it all in the simplest of name stats: three years' top 10 lists.


October 16, 2015 10:18 AM

Another thing I noticed: female names used to be consistently more varied and thus fragmented than male names (add up John, William, and James and compare to Mary in 1900, and notice how the top five boys each outnumber the top one girl in 1957). Now, both genders are almost equally varied -- and the boys have an edge in the equal distribution department. That's a complete reversal of historical trends.

October 16, 2015 10:38 AM

Did you read the whole article? Laura makes exactly that point - see that last table of percentages.


October 16, 2015 10:49 AM

HNG, I noticed that, too--the top two girl names now are both higher than the top boy name (and the #3 girl name is too close to call with my vision), which is indeed a lot different from generations past.

On the other hand, we're still more conservative in choice of boy names--two names, William and James, have persisted through all three boy lists, and a third, Michael, is held over from the 1957 list. That's only one fewer name than was held over from 1900 to 1957 (and a fourth name on the 2014 list, Liam, is actually a nickname of perennial favorite William).

On the girls' side, there's only one name that appears on more than one list (Mary, of course, on 1900 and 1957); otherwise, the lists completely change from one half-century to the next.

October 16, 2015 11:34 AM

Márti, yes, I read the whole article, but there's a difference in emphasis or focus: I'm specifically noticing that the top boys used to outnumber the top girls, by a rather wide margin, whereas now the boys are actually _more_ varied/fragmented than the girls.

But yes, the conservatism of boy's names persists in the perennial use of William and James, with nothing to compare for the girls. (Interesting exercise that I don't have time to pursue: how far down the list would you need to go to find a girl's 3-way repeat? Top 25? 50? Which name would it be? And does the semi-random choice of these three years influence things? Do William and James skip any years in the top 10?)

October 16, 2015 11:51 AM

A quick skim of the NameVoyager suggests that William and James did fall out of the top 10, William in the 1980s and 1990s and James in the 1990s through 2013.

The fact that William and James are back in the top 10 is due to the fragmentation you mention, rather than a huge resurgence in popularity--in absolute numbers, there are fewer boys named either of these now than in the 1990s, though the drop is less steep recently (and in the case of James, there seems to be a slight actual up-tick in the past few years).

Michael has never been out of the top 10 since it first made it there in the 1940s, again thanks mostly to fragmentation. In fact, it held onto the #1 spot from about 1957 (the 1960s is the first decade it was #1) through the nineties, even while in absolute numbers it plummeted--from more than 20,000 per million at its peak to fewer than 6,000/mil at the end of the nineties.

By erin
October 27, 2015 12:33 PM

This is a reflection of the niche-ification (for lack of a better word) of our whole culture due to the internet! Did you ever read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson? It was a book in 2008 about how business was going to become more and more niche-oriented. It has definitely come true.

Another example - TV shows. The ratings of today's highest-rated TV shows would have gotten them cancelled 20, 30, or 40+ years ago. There are so many shows for every taste now, that viewers are spread across many more shows now. Before you needed mass viewership for something to catch on, but now we can learn about obscure shows on the internet and bond with others who like them. 

It's happening in every aspect of our culture and this is a great example. 

October 28, 2015 10:37 PM

I think Erin's comment gets at what I was thinking: While no names get a whole 5% of boys or girls in the overall population, some namesdefinitely get that amount in geographic and SES subgroups. In my town alone, for example, every child in my kids' school, with class sizes of 20-25 students, has a class with a Liam and a Sophia/Sofia. And quite a few classrooms have two or three kids with those names. My 17mo DD has a name outside the Top 1000, but there are at least three others in our town of 125,000, girls ages 6 months to 12yo. So, like I caution people who think that their child will never be, say, Gavin S. because the name "isn't too popular" or is below a certain rank, you can always have local ethnic pockets or style trends.