What is the average American baby named? It's not a question we often ask. We talk a lot about the most popular names, but those don't necessarily represent the shape of the fast-changing name population. Suppose, instead, that we try looking at typical names the way we look at typical housing prices or personal income: by tracking medians.
The median is the midpoint value. Half of individuals rank above it, half below. To find a year's median baby names, I've tallied up the boys' and girls' name popularity charts until I reached the point where half of babies received a more common name and half less common.
Tracking those median names over time reveals that the average baby name today is dramatically different from those of past generations. The big story isn't about which specific name happens to lie at the 50% point. No single name is a good portrait of a whole era's tastes. The real story emerges in how far down the popularity rankings the average names lie.
The chart below shows how far you had to count down through the most popular names to account for half of boys and girls born in a given year, taken at 15-year intervals since the 1950s.
In 1955, most American parents were content to choose from among about 80 broadly liked names. As of 2015, it took more than 470 names to satisfy the same proportion of parents.
That abstract-sounding stat has a real impact on how names come across. Take a look at the percentage of babies receiving the specific midpoint names in each year:
As the chart shows, the average baby name of the 1950s was vastly more popular than today's average. In 1955, the median boy's name Edward was given to nearly one baby out of every hundred. (That's almost equal to the popularity of today's #1 name.) By 2015, just one baby in every 782 received the median boy's name, Luca.
In other words, the typical baby today receives a fairly uncommon name. The atypical is now typical.
You can interpret that dramatic shift in positive terms, as a rejection of conformity pressures and a flowering of diversity, creativity and individuality. Or you can view it negatively, as a decline in consensus and common ground as everyone strives to be special, standing apart from their neighbors. Whichever spin you put on it, the population-wide shift shapes the impact of every name we choose.
Finding a name with the classic appeal of William or Alexander - but without their popularity - can be difficult to achieve. How do you find a name that’s both recognizable and traditional without picking something “ordinary” or “commonplace”?
One place to look is the sturdy British-style classics that can go overlooked in the rush toward the new and creative. Both handsome and under the radar, these fifteen choices rank outside the top 300, but offer extensive histories and cultural connections that give them personality.
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Frederick. Attractive and approachable, Frederick is a handsome choice that has spent a few decades out of the spotlight, making it ideal for revival. Dozens of Fredericks appear in the annals of history; while the name is recognizable, your Frederick can make the name his own.
Philip. This distinguished choice has musical, royal, and literary ties - from the Biblical apostle to the Duke of Edinburgh, Philips have long been influencing cultural change. While Phil still maintains a mid-century vibe, nicknames Pip and Flip are more fun in the modern age.
Francis. The popularity of progressive Pope Francis has dusted off this traditional name and given it a twenty-first century spin. The connection to the patron saint of animals, Saint Francis of Assisi, is another plus. Whether religious or secular, Francis is a name with both goodwill and gravitas.
Neil. With Noah and Nolan gaining so much attention, perhaps a name with a similar sound but a more sophisticated style could come back into fashion. Neil is smart yet understated, familiar yet fresh, the type of name that wears well with all varieties of age and personality.
Roger. Gallant and debonair, Roger is ready for a comeback. It shares aural similarities with both noble George and trendy Ryder, but has a roguish vibe all its own - thanks to rockin’ Rogers in The Byrds, Queen, Pink Floyd and The Who!
Edmund. Though it’s the least popular of the Ed names, Edmund is by no means a lesser form. Edmund is elegant and underused, with an amicable tone; it’s no wonder that Shakespeare, Austen, and Keats have all championed the name in their works.
Lewis. Ranking in the top five boys’ names in Scotland, Lewis is an English standard that hasn’t quite captured the hearts of Americans. But why not? It’s a charming choice with cultural weight and a variety of connections, from explorer Meriwether Lewis to author Lewis Carroll.
Hugh. Talented and dashing actors Jackman, Laurie, and Grant have influenced Hugh’s personality, converting it from a lordly pick to an appealing, manly option. It comes from Old German for “mind” - a fitting meaning for a refined and polished name.
Walter. While Walter often comes across as an ordinary pick, it seems to adorn some of the most creative men in history: Raleigh, Whitman, Disney, and even fictional Mitty rank among highly influential Walters. Today, the name has begun to rise again, possibly owing to Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White.
Rupert. This variant has never rivaled Robert in use, but it definitely surpasses the original in attitude and charisma. Nickname Ru is a sweet and modern choice, perfect as a complement to this handsome and uncommon name.
Winston. Associated with both powerful Churchill and intellectual Orwell, Winston is a thoroughly British name. As parents looks for alternatives to William and Wesley, Winston holds up as an attractive choice with strength and character.
Barnaby. Though it’s fairly well-used in the UK, Barnaby has never ranked in the US Top 1000. Could its friendly sound, rare usage, and literary connections bring it attention in today’s era? Barnaby is a wonderful English pick that deserves a bit more notice.
Alistair. Pleasant and unexpected, Alistair is a distant variant of Alexander. Unlike the popular version, Alistair has a unique sense of individuality and nobility. Famous Alistairs include all sorts of men, from politicians to athletes to pop culture characters.
Leopold. With Leo quickly becoming the adored nickname du jour, alternatives to Leonard and Leon are gaining new fans. Leopold is an aristocratic choice with a German spin - once Queen Victoria used it for her son, the British claimed it as a favorite.
Dexter. Most Americans are likely to relate Dexter to the children’s cartoon or the fictional serial killer, but this dapper name merits further study. Dexter fits in with modern trends, but maintains just enough eccentricity and smoothness to keep it enticing.
Almost any well-named movie character, good or evil, can inspire a baby name trend. But what about a name intended as a joke? After all, some of Hollywood's most memorable character names, from Cruella de Vil to McLovin, were constructed for laughs.
Thanks to scriptwriters who can pinpoint the intersection of silly and stylish, even joke names have crossed over to real-life babies. OK, maybe not Cruella or McLovin. But just as a name like Cameron can leave its etymological meaning of "crooked nose" behind, an appealing character name can transcend its jokey origins.
For exhibit 1, I give you Madison. The writers behind the 1984 movie Splash earned big laughs by having a mermaid naively name herself after a Madison Avenue street sign. "Madison's not a name," said her appalled human companion. The joke was on him; since the movie came out, more than 350,000 American girls have been named Madison.
None of the four additional names below approach Madison's popularity. Some, in fact, may still sound like jokes to you. But all of them have broken through the fourth wall and become real – and rising – baby names.
The 2012 animated film Wreck-It Ralph took place in a world of video games, including a candy-themed "Sugar Rush" game featuring a character named Vanellope von Schweetz. Vanellope was a high-concept joke, an artificially vanilla-flavored take on the old-fashioned name Penelope. But as it happens, between the time that the movie was conceived and when it was released, V became the hot new name letter and the number of girls named Penelope skyrocketed. Bullseye. We've seen little Vanellopes named at the rate of about 70 per year since the film came out.
When The Simpsons' writers imagined the founder of the city of Springfield, they came up with a western-style pioneer with the over-the-top biblical name "Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield." Part of the joke was that Jebediah isn't actually a Bible name at all. But it sure sounds like one, doesn't it? A smattering of real-life boys have been named Jebediah ever since the name appeared in a 1970s western film, but the satirical Simpsons character put the name on the map. More than 50 American babies have been named Jebediah in the past two years.
Maleficent started out as the villain of Disney's 1959 princess classic Sleeeping Beauty. The name was a sly and ingenious choice. An obscure adjective meaning "producing evil," Maleficient worked on multiple levels for adults and kids alike; even those who didn't recognize the word couldn't miss its sinister elegance. In 2014 Maleficent became the first Disney villain to take top billing, brought to life as a title character played by Angelina Jolie. The following year the name registered in the baby name statistics for the first time.
What do you name a boy who runs at super-speed? The team behind The Incredibles had the perfect winking answer: Dashiell, called "Dash." Before the 2004 movie, Dashiell was an uncommon name and Dash as a given name was nearly unheard of. Both names rose in popularity afterwards, but "just Dash" rose fastest. Today it's a top-1,000 boy's name, twice as common as the full Dashiell.