What Is a Popular Baby Name? (Hint: There Are Fewer Than You Think.)

Apr 10th 2013


Today, I'm going to try to answer a fundamental question about baby names -- a question that parents care deeply about but never ask.

What IS a popular name?

When a restaurant or a vacation destination is described as "popular," that's usually considered a compliment. A popular spot is an attractive and crowd-pleasing choice. Yet in the world of baby names, "popular" has become the least popular designation around. I regularly hear from parents-to-be, anxious that the names they love are poised to become "popular."

Have you ever wondered what that actually means? When does a name qualify as popular (or "TOO popular"?) Is there a dividing line? And if you don't know what a popular name is, how can you avoid it?

National name rankings are easy to find, but what's needed is a functional definition: Will your child have classmates by the same name? Will other parents find your name choice fresh and intriguing, or say "Oh, I have two different nieces with that name!" That functional popularity is what most of us really care about, rather than knowing that 12 other boys' names rank above Elijah.

Functional popularity is tricky to pin down, since it's shaped by two slippery factors.

1. The community multipler. The names Adam, Jaxon and  Jesús are close in frequency nationwide, but in a given community or social set their usage levels are likely to be very different.

2. The psychological multiplier. You notice every time there's another Caroline in your daughter's class, team or playgroup. The episodes stick in your mind and pile up. But the routine absence of another Caroline doesn't register at all. The result is that we perceive name doppelgängers as much more common than they really are.

Despite these challenges, we can make a rough translation of national popularity charts into functional terms. The number of names that qualify as functionally popular may surprise you.

I've divided names into six popularity levels based on current U.S. name usage. If you tend to share tastes with your friends and neighbors, you may want to adjust for the community multiplier. Choose from the name sets one or two levels below your popularity comfort threshold. If meeting another kid with your child's name seriously bugs you, do the same for the psychological multiplier. And if you're focused on unfamiliar names rather than just currently uncommon ones, try applying these thresholds to the historical peak ranks on the NameVoyager.

Super-Popular Names: One in Every Classroom
(1 out of every 25 babies born)
Good news! NO names are that popular. Not even close. Even the most popular name in America is given to just one out of every 177 babies. The #1 name in your home state may approach 1 out of every 100 babies.

Very Popular Names: One in Every School
(1 out of every 100-1,000 babies born)
This functional level corresponds roughly to today's top 100 boys' and girls' names. If your favorite name is out of the top 100, it's not "very popular." Surprisingly, this applies to your state's top 100, too; the 100 top names for boys and girls in your state are given to about one of every 1,000 babies.

Popular: You Wouldn't Be Surprised to Meet One
(1 out of every 1,001-5,000 babies born)
The name Gregory has fallen far from its peak, but you wouldn't bat an eyelash at a young Greg. You've probably never met a Kyla, but that name wouldn't surprise you either. And even if the name Angelo isn't common in your community, you know there are plenty of Angelos out there. These are the names ranked in the #101-400 range.

Not Especially Popular: Oh Yeah, That Name
(1 out of every 5,001-10,000 babies born)
There are tons of babies named Jackson and half-tons named Jaxon, so it figures there would be some Jaxens. And while the name Linda has dropped off the trend radar, it figures that it hasn't disappeared completely. Some of the names in the #401-700 range may be genuine surprises (Sincere for a boy, and Phoenix for a girl?), but most will look familiar in one way or another.

Uncommon: Huh, That's an Interesting One
(1 out of 10,001-20,000 babies born)
Old Testament names and presidential names are hot, but Hezekiah and Nixon? When's the last time you met a baby Ernest, let alone an Elvis? And how did they spell that, Charleigh? Add in some names that may be well-known within a particular ethnic group but unfamiliar outside of it (Belén, Vihaan) and the names ranked #701-1,000 bring you to the realm of the unexpected.

And Then There's...
...everything else. Think about it: we reached the level of genuinely unexpected names without even leaving the top 1,000 lists. More than a quarter of baby names chosen today lie beyond.

If you fall in love with a name that's almost never heard, that should give you confidence to follow your heart. But if you gave up on the name Calla because a ranking of #1,911 seemed too common for your unique and precious child, I'd strongly suggest you reconsider. When a frequency of 1 occurrence per 39,000 babies born overrides all the other qualities you look for in a name, you may be putting too high a premium on uniqueness -- or losing sight of what "popular" really means.

 

Comments

51
January 11, 2014 8:37 AM

I know that looking at birth announcements can help (although it doesn't cover all births) and once you have kids you get a feeling of what names other parents are using in your area as you start mixing with a lot more kids.

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January 12, 2014 2:23 AM

I never knew an Aidan in person prior to having kids.  By the time I had my second child (four years later) I was sick to death of the name.  I'd bet some of these trends follow age of parent as well.

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January 12, 2014 3:18 AM

We knew she wasn't going to be the only kid with that name out there, and the odd one or two others doesn't bother me at all, I love the name. I just don't want there being lots of others with the same name around. 

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January 15, 2014 8:49 AM

Conversely we have friends who have kids called Jacob and Emma, who have never had to share a class with another kid with the same name despite having extremely popular names for their birth year.

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January 16, 2014 6:26 AM

Many kids have names that reflect their ethnic background, but there are also many who have quite non-traditional names like Cedar, Sequoia, etc.

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January 17, 2014 9:32 AM

I was always at least one of 5 in my class with that name. I often even had the same surname initial as others sharing my name. It really bothered me, but I knew that even if I picked a top 10 name for my children they are unlikely to have the same issue I did.

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January 17, 2014 10:34 AM

Even if you manage to pick a name not locally popular, you can still come across another one or two of the same name just by sheer coincidence. Conversely we have friends who have kids called Jacob and Emma.

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January 17, 2014 11:14 AM

I totally agree. As a Catholic, I know a lot of Matthews, Johns, John Pauls, Marys, Catherine/Katherines, and Theresa/Teresas, but the percentages are much higher than the name lists would have you think, even state by state.

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January 18, 2014 3:39 AM

We knew she wasn't going to be the only kid with that name out there, and the odd one or two others doesn't bother me at all, I love the name. I just don't want there being lots of others with the same name around. 

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January 18, 2014 8:13 AM

was always at least one of 5 in my class with that name. I often even had the same surname initial as others sharing my name. It really bothered me, but I knew that even if I picked a top 10 name for my children they are unlikely to have the same issue I did.

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January 19, 2014 4:16 AM

I agree with Elizabeth T, that I grew up with a name that was very popular for my generation and I was always at least one of 5 in my class with that name.

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January 19, 2014 8:14 AM

t's about knowing what is important to your SO or friend or whoever and putting your efforts in accordingly. If you want to do something extra nice and loving for a specific person, knowing what will work best for that person is extremely useful. No need to put all of your effort into compliments if they couldn't care less.

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January 20, 2014 7:11 AM

I often even had the same surname initial as others sharing my name. It really bothered me, but I knew that even if I picked a top 10 name for my children they are unlikely to have the same issue I did.

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January 21, 2014 2:42 AM

We knew she wasn't going to be the only kid with that name out there, and the odd one or two others doesn't bother me at all, I love the name. I just don't want there being lots of others with the same name around. 

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January 23, 2014 3:36 AM

There's a flip side, though. The plus of choosing a name with relative rank-stability is that it isn't as date-stamped. Brandi was a lot more popular than Molly in the 80s, but there have probably been more Mollys overall since then due to the stable ra

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January 31, 2014 8:17 AM

Even if you manage to pick a name not locally popular, you can still come across another one or two of the same name just by sheer coincidence.

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March 22, 2014 11:41 PM

Part of the discrepancy between reality and perception is the increasing use of spelling as a distinguishing feature.

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