Name Rankings and the Illusion of Consensus

Mar 22nd 2018

In May, the U.S. government will release its annual baby name statistics and I will post the new top 20 name list in this space. It's the most exciting naming day of the year, my profession's Superbowl Sunday. But how much does that top 20 list really mean?

The answer is "less and less every year." The top 20 names represent the points of agreement and commonality in our baby name culture, and agreement and commonality are going out of style. The driving force behind current name trends is the desire to be different. Take a look at the percentage of babies receiving a top 20 name over time:

Through the 1960s, the top 20 names covered between a third and a half of all American babies. Back then, a top-20 list would have given you a pretty solid snapshot of name style. Today, the portion of babies covered by a top 20 list is just one in eight, and falling.

The new top 20 is not just a smaller snapshot, but a potentially a misleading one. For instance, the top names of the 1960s, Michael and Lisa, were broadly popular across ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic lines. Today, it's easier for names to rise up the ranks by appealing primarily to a particular demographic or region. What's more, the lifecycle of hit names is getting shorter. When style is about rapid change and individuality, focusing on the ever-shrinking points of consensus leads us away from the real story.

This isn't to say that name stats aren't informative. They have a great deal to tell us about our whole society's attitudes, values and obsessions. We just have to cast a broader net, looking at samples and shifts in addition to summaries. I'll still be posting the new top 20 name list the moment it's released this May, but I'm going to post other ways of tracking style as well. I'll be talking about the median or "average" names, the risers and fallers, the brand-new names, and the top names in each state. That kind of array now paints a far clearer picture than the top of the charts. In today's fashion, consensus itself is an outlier.

 

Comments

1
March 22, 2018 6:29 PM

One thing I've started to realize with name popularity and top 20 lists is that it's not so much that everyone is so unique, it's that everyone is looking for a unique angle on the same few names.

So while not that many little girls have Ella on their birth certificate (and thus show up on these lists), when you consider the additional popularity of Eleanor, Eliana, Eloise, and other names where Ella is an obvious nickname, as well as Ellie, Elle, Elena, and on and on, names that amount to the same thing as Ella are probably collectively as popular as the Jessicas and Lindas of previous decades. Everyone thinks they are being "unique" because they used Ariella to get to Ella as a nickname, but you're still one of five Ellas in school at the end of the day.

I recently had a conversation with someone who was just not grasping that Aoife and Eva are pretty much the same name, and that very few people are going to meet an Aoife and even know that it's not Eva. Aoife is a great name! But it's not actually unique.

2
March 22, 2018 8:29 PM

Except that if in school there are multiple Evas, she won't be Eva L., she'll be Aoife. She'll be able to write her name with no qualifier and everyone will know what's hers. I went to school with two Karens and let me tell you that I always felt distinct from them because I never needed to put an initial on anything. And should Ariella get tired of blending in with all the Ellas, all she has to do is start using her full name and she's no longer one of the pack.

That's not to say that I think  spelling the name Ayden makes a "unique" name that's completely different from all the Aiden/Aidans out there, because it doesn't. But names have aural identities and written identities. Some blend in more in one of the two domain, but that doesn't discount the ways in which they stand out in the other.

3
March 23, 2018 8:41 AM

It is fascinating that we all want a unique name for our kid, but unique in a way that fits in and doesn't stand out too much.  Few would use "Aloysius" today, which would be almost completely unique, but many will use novel varients of Aiden/Aidan as mentioned above.

 

I'm also amazed at how local naming is, in our increasingly interconnected world.  I'm surrounded by Ryans, male and female.  It isn't *that* popular nationally.