The Baby Name Length Report
How long is the typical American baby name? Are girls' or boys' names longer? And have names gotten longer or shorter over time?
These seemingly basic questions are more complex than you might think. To get a picture of baby name length trends, I calculated the average number of letters per name given to American babies in each year since 1980. Here's a picture of the historical curve:
I've zoomed in on the range, from a low of 5.48 letters per baby in 1886 to a high of 6.21 letters per baby in 1989. Given that we're averaging across millions of data points -- with a steady base of Katherines, Williams etc. throughout -- that modest numerical range represents some dramatic changes in American baby naming style.
Let's break down the eras we see on that graph, shown in alternating bands below.
We start out short in the 1880s (A), the era of Fred, Joe, Annie and Mabel, not to mention John and Mary. By the 1910s (B) we see the age of cute nicknames giving way and a heftier 20th Century wave of Raymonds, Stanleys, Dorothys and Mildreds taking hold. We then hit a long plateau (C) that you might think of as the "Age of Robert." Robert ranked #1 or 2 among boys' names from 1921 through 1953. Other typical names of that period are Donald, Gloria and Elaine.
The brief peak in the early 1950s (D) corresponds to big jumps in the names Deborah and Michael; John, James and Carol were among the fastest fallers. Then later in the '50s (E), names started lightening up. Kevin, Mark, Lisa and Donna soared, and name lengths dipped.
Starting in the mid '60s, we see an extraordinary 25-year run of name lengthening (F). Consider that until 1970, the #1 girls' name had never topped 5 letters. (Mary, Linda and Lisa held the crown.) Then Jennifer hit, and names have never been the same. Consider, too, the many long "new classic" names that emerged during that time, such as Christopher, Matthew, Jessica and Stephanie. Early in the period they were balanced by '60s names like Todd and Jill, but by the mid '80s long names dominated. Since then we've seen two decades of shortening (G), as many parents reached back to the antique-styled simplicity of names like Emma and Jacob, and the trim chic of names like Zoe and Cole.
These period shifts are remarkably consistent between boys' and girls' names. But since girls' names have been more volatile and subject to fashion, the movement is more dramatic on the girls' side:
Note the crossing of the lines in 1907. While we tend to think of girls' names as longer than boys', in fact the average boy received a longer name for the first 27 years of our sample. The length differences remained modest until around 1980, when the length of girls' names went through the roof.
How do these average differences translate to actual names? Here's a hint at the sounds of the times. In 1886, nine different one-syllable girls' names cracked the top 100:
Grace, Rose, Pearl, Maude, Mae, May, Ruth, Maud, Kate
The same list for 1989 reads, simply:
At the other end of the scale, the 1886 list also included nine 3+ syllable girls' names:
Elizabeth, Lillian, Julia, Josephine, Amanda, Caroline, Rebecca, Virginia, Harriet
By 1989...take a deep breath:
Jessica, Brittany, Amanda, Samantha, Jennifer, Stephanie, Elizabeth, Emily, Tiffany, Melissa, Christina, Rebecca, Kimberly, Alyssa, Erica, Andrea, Alexandra, Victoria, Allison, Angela, Vanessa, Alicia, Cassandra, Maria, Natalie, Jacqueline, Kristina, Monica, Erika, Brianna, Marissa, Cynthia, Veronica, Diana, Natasha, Melanie, Patricia, Bianca, Alexis, Abigail, Julia
What about today? Intriguingly, today's top 100 list boasts both more one-syllable names and more 3+ syllable names than the 1989 list. We're seeing multiple style impulses at work, as parents turn over every stone in search of the perfect, distinctive, eye-catching name.