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:
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:
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.
Why is Addison now a girl's name while Harrison is still all male? The answer is in the nicknames. Addison trims down to girlish Addie, Harrison to boyish Harry.
In the new unisex world of surname baby names, a name's root can be destiny. Names like Jefferson and Finnegan are anchored to the male side by the familiar nicknames Jeff and Finn. Even without nicknames, a hard-edged start can make a name like Braxton distinctly male.
If you like surnames with a classically masculine sound, check out the names below. All are familiar as surnames but uncommon as baby names, and are built off roots that signal "boy." Those roots set the names' style for today, and make them likely bets to keep that style for the long term.
Clark Kent baby names: nickname as alter ego
Can you sum up a baby naming era in a single pair of names? Let's give it a try: Donald and Betty. Gary and Deborah. Austin and Alexis. None of those names ever hit #1 on the popularity charts, but they were the most characteristic baby names of 1930, 1953 and 1996 respectively.
I've identified the characteristic names of every year since 1900 -- the names most distinctively popular at that time compared to other eras. Some of the names did become #1 hits, but many others defined their fashion times without ever reaching the top spot. Each year's boy/girl name pair represents a moment in American culture.
Scroll through the name style timeline below. I think you'll feel time itself scrolling along with with you.