The Nickname Trap: How Popular Is Your Name, Really?

Mar 13th 2014

I recently spotted a potluck signup sheet and had to snap a picture:

It seemed an amusing coincidence that this group would include so many women with the same name. But then I started to wonder. Do they have the same name, really?

We traditionally think of Kate and Katie as forms of Katherine. Over the past 25 years, though, an American girl has been more likely to be named Kaitlyn (in one spelling or another) than Katherine/Catherine. Then there are all the other sources: the Kathleens, the Katrinas, the just-Kates. A flowering of parental creativity could have led to that remarkably uniform nickname list.

For parents who care about name popularity, nicknames like these can be "gotchas." Suppose you're considering naming your daughter Adelaide. You like that it's just on the outskirts of style. It's rare but familiar, old-fashioned but with fashionable sounds. If the name seems a little too much for a toddler, that's no problem, you can use Addie as an occasional nickname.

Five years later, your little girl is starting kindergarten. Just as you hoped, she's the one and only Adelaide in the school! Of course, by now she calls herself Addie...just like the two Addisons, an Adeline and an Adalyn.

Nickname popularity is nearly impossible to pin down statistically. Not every Addison goes by Addie, after all. What's more, nickname choices go in and out of fashion. Once you could expect to call a guy named William "Bill"; today he's more likely to answer to Will, Liam, or the full William. So how do you know if you're about to fall into the "nickname trap"? Read on.

Below are some nicknames that are becoming more popular than you might guess. If you're determined to choose a unique name for your child, you may want to avoid names that could shorten to any of these. On the flip side, you could treat a popular nickname as "safety valve" for an unconventional name. If the name Ajax turns out not to suit your son, he can always go by Jack. 

Ben. The classic name Benjamin is popular enough that you probably wouldn't expect Ben to sound unique. But you might at least expect it to be "all about the Benjamins." In the past few years, other Ben- names like Bentley, Bennett and Benson have skyrocketed. Take a look -- together they're catching up with Benjamin's popularity:

Bree. Aubrey, Gabriella, Brianna, and Aubree all rank among the top 100 girls' names. Then there's Brielle, Bria, Sabrina, Gabrielle, and Aubrianna. This nickname will be coming from all directions in the years ahead.

Cam & Cami. If you meet a grown man named Cam, you can safely guess he's a Cameron. But a little boy? A dozen different Cam/Kam names rank in the top 1,000 for boys (e.g. Camden, Kamryn, Kamari)...and ten in the top 1,000 for girls (e.g. Camila, Kamryn, Campbell).

Jack & Jax. These two names are very different in style, yet they sound enough alike to run afoul of the "classroom distinctiveness" test. Three Jack/Jax names rank among the top 100 names for boys (Jackson, Jack and Jaxon), and more Jax varieties are climbing (Jaxson, Jax, Jaxton, Jaxen).

Kate & Katie. As the photo above demonstrated, you'll meet lots of Kates and Katies of all generations. If you're focused on classroom distinctiveness, though, take heart: the combined "Kate" name sources are now at a historic low.

Maddie & Addie. Start with Madison and Madeline. Then get creative with spellings. Then take a little off the top to yield Addison and Adeline, and repeat. Here's a picture:

Max. Max makes a fine given name in itself, but don't judge its popularity by its rank. Twice as many boys get longer Max- names (Maxwell, Maximus, Maximilian, Maxton, etc.), and most of those go by Max.


March 13, 2014 12:17 PM

I've always found this really interesting. I had a lot of friends at camp named Ali/Allie or some other spelling. Their names ranged from Alison/Allison to Alexandra to Alaina to Alyssa. While all of those are fairly popular on their own, the combination made Allie easily the most common name. I once had a cabin of 15 girls with 4 Allies (not to mention 2 Callies, who were both Carolyns). 

March 13, 2014 1:23 PM

My older daughter is just Ada, and the Adalaide/Adaline/Adalyns are indeed slowly encroaching! It also sort of annoys me when people ask what "Ada" is short for, as if it's not a name in it's own right.

My youger one is Sylvia, and I've been surprised at how many "just Sylvie"'s we've met since naming her, but it's still not many at all, and we usually call my daughter Sylvia anyway.

March 13, 2014 5:31 PM

Didn't really consider this. Named our daughter Stella, potential nickname Ella. Using the name finder, there are lots of other names with Ella- isabella, arabella, etc. Oh well.

March 13, 2014 6:49 PM

I did the "Max Math" once:

Max Variants on Record:

Max: 3,663 born in 2012.

Maxwell: 3,187 born.

Maximus: 1,835 born

Maximiliano: 975 born.

Maximilian: 582 born

Maxim: 344 born

Maxton: 235 born

Maximo: 222 births

Maksim: 161 births (Maks = Max in sound)

Maximillian: 136 births

Maxon: 66 births

Maxson: 44 births

Maximos: 24 births

Maxten: 9 births

Add that up, you get 11,483 "Maxs" born in 2012.  I have a Maximus born in 2012 and didn't realize it was as high ranking as it was. Oops! Oh well, most people still find it totally strange. My son only goes by Maximus so far because he has a cousin named Maximilian born in 2011 who goes by Max. 

Great article! I've been wishing for a way to add up all the nicknames but that'd be rather difficult to do. 

March 13, 2014 6:51 PM

Oops, it posted me twice! Sorry!

March 13, 2014 9:48 PM

The Ev names are up and moving too. Eve, Eva, Evelyn, Evangeline, Ever, Everly, etc. even Evan for girls. Add in Genevieve and the like and you end up with a whole lot of Evies out there (but are they Eh-vee or Ee-vee? *sigh*)

March 14, 2014 1:33 PM

My takeaway from this post is simple: women named Kate/Katie enjoy red wine.  So true!

That photo made me laugh--totally the story of my life.  In a Peace Corps group of about 30 volunteers, FIVE of us went by some version of Kate or Katie (I believe all were Katherine/Kathryn as well).  I've never minded a bit.  It's a fantastic name.

March 14, 2014 4:54 PM

My niece is a 'just Camey' and I've never really thought of it as a nickname. I've always thought of it as pretty unique but I wonder now if my niece might have a different experience, with lots of class mates using a homonym nickname. Its a great name, but knowing that my sister specifcally picked it because of how unique it was, combined with how well it flowed with the last and middle name they chose, I feel like she would be disappointed to realize how many similarly nicknamed children are possibly out there.

March 15, 2014 10:10 AM

I was in a play group of 7 kids, and among the group there was an Emerson, an Emily, an Emmelina and my Emmanuelle who all went by Emmy.  The mothers actually began using full names for the girls to reduce confusion.  When I named my daughter I worried about the popularity of the nickname options, especially since such a long name inevitably gets shortened, but in this case it turned out to be a great excuse to use the full name.

March 15, 2014 10:23 AM

There are four women in my degree program at school and three are Kates of one kind or another. On the first day, we met and divided up the name territory so only one would go by Kate/Katie/Katherine/Kaitlin etc.

March 15, 2014 10:17 PM

Can anyone help--I want to do awesome searches like this on Expert Name Voyager!  But as soon as a type a comma, I get "no results."  Why?

By Amy3
March 16, 2014 8:29 AM

I briefly considered Matilda for a girl, but I was put off by all the other Maddies running around. A Matilda would disappear in the sea of Madeleines, Madisons, and other Mad- names. 

March 17, 2014 3:16 PM

My wife LOVES Matilda!  

Also, I'd love to go to a potluck where FIVE people are responsible for bringing red wine!  How many for white?  Five more? Sign me up!

March 18, 2014 1:12 PM

This can go the other way, too. I was named Stephanie in 1986 - one of the top-ten names for girls that year. I've been in a lot of group situations where there are multiple Stephanies, but rarely do any of us use a nickname. Sure, you get some who prefer Steph or Steffi, but a much more unusual nickname like Effie or Stevie can dramatically swing a Stephanie away from being just "one of the Stephs" (a charming group nickname from the year I was in a cabin at camp with three other Stephanies).

March 18, 2014 2:00 PM

I had a group of 6 moms driving on a field trip when I was teaching school--they'd all be in their 50s-60s now. There were 2 Betsys, 2 Dianes and 2 Karens!

March 18, 2014 5:08 PM

I completely understand where you are coming from. My five year old is just "Liv" and people assume she is Olivia, which I actually never cared for that name. I end up saying before they can say the Olivia comment "Liv, like Liv Tyler" who is "just Liv" as well or I say "Just Liv." People are also surprised. It's very frustrating because Liv is also a Norweigan name in its' own right as well. I don't want her to be assumed as another "Olivia" as there are so many and it's unfortunate that it does happen with what I think is such a beautiful and unique full name.

March 18, 2014 5:08 PM

No idea why, but just reading the headline from the e-mail newsletter made me think "Kate/Katie" as in my son's preschool that is the name that is most shared amongst the moms, leading to occassional confusion. (Actually, there are the same number of Lisas, but for some reason, they are less frequently confused). Imagine my amusement to actually get into the post and see the topic!

To the Matilda lovers, take heart! There are other lovely nicknames besides Mattie/Maddie. My husband totally tried to make Mattie happen with our almost two year old Matilda because he wants to believe she was named after him, Matthew - she wasn't. :) I was concerned about all the Madeleine/Madeline/Madelyn nn Maddie, of which we have a ton around, more than Madison.

But her main nickname, bestowed upon her at birth by her then almost two-year-old brother, is "Tilda", the closest he could get. Sometimes she is also called Tilly/Tillie, Tildy, or Tilders. I briefly thought I could get us to Maude, but it's all wrong for her, and her father has been pushing Tildywinks, but I think she's a Tilda for good!

March 18, 2014 5:17 PM

erinorerout, I have a daughter whose unusual name could shorten to Emmy...when we named her, we were on the fence about using the nickname (didn't really want to, but knew DH's parents would prefer a more familiar form) but right around her birth my brother conveniently started dating a woman whose given name is Emmy (whom he has since married), which gave us a good excuse for putting the kibosh on the nn :).

CiciK, I love Tilda as a nn for Matilda--I always thought it would be especially cool to sign it as ~.

March 18, 2014 7:29 PM

nedibles - thanks! I had such a strong association with Tilda Swinton for the nn "Tilda" (who I like, but she definitely seems like a strong personality/character) so I didn't really expect us to use it, but once ours was born and her brother started calling her that, we knew it was perfect. It would be totally cool if she started signing off as ~. Another fun, unique option!

March 18, 2014 10:13 PM

@Cossette729 - I can think of numerous names that would have the opposite effect (the "nickname trap" makes the name seem less popular than the stats for the full name would suggest). A lot of the classic/once-popular names that have multiple nicknames would have this effect; here's some I can think of:

For girls Elizabeth is easily the queen of nickname-diverse names. Catherine/Katherine/etc. aren't far behind (in that case the spelling variations end up "splitting" the stats as well), and Margaret is another classic with several common nicknames. Probably the leader among currently in-style names for nickname-ability is Isabella, and from the now-dated bunch Dorothy and Patricia.

On the boy's side a lot of the "older" classics (e.g. Charles, Richard, Robert) are often shortened in different ways, and there are also some more "current" ones like Alexander that could easily go numerous ways.

(If you can think of any more such names you're welcome to add to the ones I mentioned.)

March 19, 2014 1:05 PM

AlaskaKate -- re commas, my apologies, that seems to be a bug in the current build of the Expert Voyager! We'll fix it asap.

March 19, 2014 1:09 PM


I do love Tilda as the nn.  We woulda probably gone Tildy or more likely Millie, which would be a nod to my grammum too.  Kinda sad that we're done having girls!

March 19, 2014 2:03 PM

Thank you!  Baby girl due in 2 months and I'm dying to make fancy charts. :-)

March 21, 2014 11:58 AM

I've never fully understood the desire for unique names because, as a Kate/Katie/Katherine, I've always loved meeting people who share my name.  It creates an instant (albeit small) bond with new people.  (Plus it's always fun to go out in groups of 3+ Katies and introduce ourselves to people.)  But because those people usually have a name that is different from mine in some way (e.g. my friends nicknamed Katie who are officially Catherine, Kathleen, and Caitlyn and other Katherines who go by Kathy or Cat) it doesn't feel oppressively SAME, if that makes any sense.  I still felt unique (especially when, growing up, I was the only one whose initials, when spoken, pronounced my name: KT or KDT.)

So I gave my kids the same thing: top 10 first name + common or rising nickname, with a twist. Luckily, they've both also loved meeting others with their names so far.  Again, there's an instant bond.  But we have yet to meet anyone with both the same first and nickname as either.   

Maybe I'd feel differently if I had a common last name, but I've also somewhat envied the few Jennifer Smiths I've known, so perhaps not.  At any rate, it's a very satisfying way to name babies (especially if you happen to be drawn to popular names, but fear their popularity -- it's not that bad!)

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By rooz
June 26, 2014 6:55 AM

The mothers actually began using full names for the girls to reduce confusion.  When I named my daughter I worried about the popularity of the nickname options, especially since such a long name inevitably gets shortened, but in this case it turned out to be a great excuse to use the full name.About me:

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December 2, 2015 3:37 PM

For girls Elizabeth is easily the queen of nickname-diverse names. Catherine/Katherine/etc. aren't far behind (in that case the spelling variations end up "splitting" the stats as well), and Margaret is another classic with several common nicknames. Probably the leader among currently in-style names for nickname-ability is Isabella, and from the now-dated bunch Dorothy and Patricia.

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