The World's Favorite Girl's Name
What do Italy, Slovakia, Mexico, Estonia, Chile and Russia have in common? Incredibly, they all have the same #1 baby name, and they're not alone. Welcome to the new world of Sofia.
I've collected current baby name statistics from 49 countries, and the dominance of this one name is stunning. The map below shows the popularity ranking of Sofia (or its most standard local equivalent: Sophia in the United States, Sofie in Norway, Zsófia in Hungary) among all names for newborn girls. You can click on the image to view it larger in a new window.
This one name ranked #1 in 9 countries, #2-3 in 20 more, and top 25 in a total of two-thirds of all countries that report baby name statistics.
Together those countries, on 5 continents, speak 22 languages representing Baltic, Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Turkic and Uralic language groups. Dominant religions among them include Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Sunni Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, and unaffiliated/none. The name crosses borders of every kind. In fact, for three years it topped the name charts in both the United States and Russia. When was the last time those two nations agreed so completely on anything?
Even this map dramatically under-reports the phenomenon. First off, not every Sofia-loving country tallies baby name data. Greece, the name's homeland, is just one example. Among the countries we do have data for, many report only the top 5 or 10 names. That means that Sofia likely is quite popular in some of the countries labeled "unranked." And remember, too, that the map only reflects the popularity of one form of the name. It's common for Sophia, Sofia and Sophie to all be counted separately, sometimes with multiple forms ranking among a country's top 10.
In essence, the entire Western world has agreed on the most attractive baby name.
To be clear, I can't say definitively that Sofia is the world's most common girl's name in terms of number of babies born. With no popularity reports from large countries like China, India, Nigeria and Brazil, we just don't have the data to say for sure. But it is certainly the most widely popular, and it has surpassed the traditional #1 Maria/Mary in many countries where that name used to reign.
Unlike Maria (and Mohamed, the top global boy's name), Sofia hasn't been elevated as the core name of a religious tradition. While it is a name with religious history behind it, its popularity is a phenomenon of fashion, not faith. That fashion has come fast and furious. In the United States, the combined usage of Sophia, Sofia and Sophie has risen tenfold over the past two decades:
I've found similar trendlines in the other countries for which historical figures are available. For instance, you can click to see the soaring Norwegian trends for Sofie and Sofia. Other names have enjoyed waves of international popularity, but not like this.
Why Sofia? Most of the forces behind other global fashion trends, like clothing or music, don't apply here. There are no commercial influences on baby names, no marketing or advertising campaigns. Nor is this a celebrity-driven phenomenon. While there are famous Sofias and Sophies today, they don't approach the global fame that Sophia Loren achieved fifty years ago.
So what's driving the trend? As every parent knows, the choice of a baby name is multi-factored. I can't claim to fully understand what that makes Sofia irresistible in Finland or Belarus, but a look through American eyes offers some clues to its global appeal. The name is instantly recognizable as a classic, yet it was uncommon in every spelling from the 1930s through the 1980s. That means today's parents didn't grow up surrounded by Sophias, so it doesn't sound tired or over-familiar to them. It features long vowels and no consecutive consonant sounds, two key elements of current name fashion. It has a regal history and saintly pedigree. For the etymologically inclined, it means "wisdom." And obviously, it travels well and appeals to varied cultural backgrounds. Many of these qualities are shared by the most comparable past boys' name trend I've identified, Matthew/Mathias/Mateo.
The specific name choice, though, is only the face of the bigger story: the very fact of a global name trend. For 33 countries to all share the same fashion trend in baby names means that they're all naming based on style. That has not been the historical norm around the world. Choosing a current, stylish name requires moving away from traditional practices like naming after grandparents, and away from norms like John and Mary (and Juan and Maria, and Ivan and Marija). Across borders and cultures, we're all treating baby names as statements of individual style – and in the process, discovering that we're more alike than we ever imagined.