Think You Know Some Popular Baby Names? Think Again

Aug 16th 2017

Something mysterious has happened to America's popular baby names: they've disappeared.

No, the names Noah and Emma haven't suddenly vanished from the nation's nurseries. Those names are still #1 for American boys and girls. But it's debatable whether they're truly popular, at least by historical standards. For perspective, let's take a look at popular names of the past.

Dialing all the way back to 1880 (the earliest year of detailed baby name stats), half of all American boys received a name ranked among the top 15 on the popularity chart. Each of those 15 names was given to at least 1% of American boys. That makes for a tidy criterion: back in the age of traditional naming, a very popular boy's name was one given to 1% of all boys born, and a typical baby boy was likely to bear one of those names.

Baby naming evolved during the 20th Century, but that 1% standard remained a reasonable way to describe popular names. In the graph below, you'll see the total percentage of American boys receiving any name given to 1% or more of boys, in 25 year increments from 1880 through 1980. I've also listed the names that qualified at each point to get a sense of what "popular" names looked like at the time.

Styles certainly changed, from the eras of Fred and Frank to Larry and Gary to Jason and Justin. Yet the common names of each era still accounted for well over a third of all boys born. Now let's extend that same graph into the 21st Century.

Oh my, it appears we've fallen off a cliff! The list of qualifying names in 2005 was just Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Matthew and Ethan. Today (as of 2016 data), it's null. Zero, zip, nothing. Not a single boy's name today reaches the threshold that marked everyday popularity in generations past.

The graph for girls' names is nearly as stark:

It's one thing to say that we're naming more creatively today. It's quite another to realize that, from a historical perspective, popular names essentially no longer exist. Sure, we know that today's #1 names, Noah and Emma, aren't what John and Mary used to be. But they're not even what, say, Gary and Cynthia used to be.

The next generation, growing up at the far end of those graphs, is bound to have a different perspective on names. There are no generic names in their cohort. That's no "every Tom, Dick and Harry," no "little Susie and Johnny," no "Karen, hold my calls." Instead, each name points more than ever to a specific place, time and subculture into which a child was born.




August 16, 2017 10:31 AM

So there are actually some girl names today that meet the 1% threshold? What are they? Emma, Olivia...? This is pretty surprising, because traditionally, it's girls names that are more diverse.

Also, it's strange the that *number* of names meeting the 1% threshold was *increasing* from 1880 to 1980, before suddenly dropping off the cliff.

August 16, 2017 11:11 AM



It seems as if in this age of the internet, we are even more local.  I run into Ryans and Avas everywhere at my son's school.  I teach at a different school and haven't met an Ava yet.  While I've had Ryans, the name doesn't stand out in my classroom.  

August 16, 2017 5:57 PM

@TheOtherHungarian, Emma and Olivia are the 2 names that meet the 1% criterion today -- but even those just barely make it at 1.01%. Zero is coming on the girls' side, too.

As for the number of names, it's definitely interesting. In the earlier years you had a few monster hits (John and William both >8% in 1880!), then later the popularity spread out more to a pool of top names.

August 18, 2017 1:31 PM

I feel the same way about things being hyper-local. There are at least five kids named Miles in my social circle, whereas according to statistics Miles isn't even that popular of a name either nationally or in any US state. Cassius and Cassian also seem wildly over-represented in the children of my peer group (especially babies born this year!), while this wasn't a name I'd ever heard of beyond Cassius Clay and maybe a Shakespeare character or some ancient historical figure before the past year or so. Meanwhile I have never actually encountered a Liam or a Jaxon in the wild, I just hear tell that they are popular baby names for boys.

This definitely makes naming an actual baby pretty difficult. Luckily, my only real criterion is "won't always be Firstname C." in school (I'm a Sara born in the 80s, it was traumatizing), and it sounds like, with no truly ubiquitous baby names these days, that probably won't be a problem. Unless I name the baby Miles or Cassius, apparently?

August 18, 2017 2:29 PM

Sarasmirks, needing an initial can still happen, but we cannot predict what the repeated name will be. None of the baby name statistics tell us anything about the random and local overlaps that will define and determine a child's experience with his or her name.

Anecdotal evidence is about as illustrative as we can get...

My daughter's name and its slightly more common variant were both ranked in the 170th-200th range six or seven years ago. She attended preschool with a girl with the variant name. That's in a group of 50 students. At the time, the other girl lived on the next street up the hill. Her family has since moved, but she still attends the same elementary school. We'll see how often the two girls end up in the same class.

There are four boys living at our end of the street. Two of them are named Jaxon, in that spelling. (They're about three years apart in age, so they will not be overlapping in school contexts.) This name is pretty well-represented locally -- there have been at least two classmates with brothers named Jackson -- but I have never met an actual Ethan, Jayden, or Liam. (Nor Cassius, Cassian, or Miles.)

August 18, 2017 5:33 PM

This looks to me like a "Naming Singularity": a point beyond which it becomes increasingly difficult to make predictions about naming based on past experience.

I do wonder--how many names would be in the 1% club if we combined forms? E.g. Jackson was only 0.558% in 2016, but if you add in Jaxon and Jaxson and Jaxen you get up to 1.218%. It's a striking trend, regardless.

Sarasmirks, that's funny about Cassian, Cassius, and Miles--all three were on our list when we named a baby last year! They've been on my radar a while, though, especially Miles (I went to elementary school with a Miles, and have a brother who's a jazz musician, so Miles Davis is a huge association) and the short form Cass (Cass Winthrop was my favorite male lead on one of my high school soaps). That's kind of an eclectic bunch of associations to show up in a pocket!

August 19, 2017 1:16 PM

I think the fact that we'd have to rely on combining spellings to get to 1% is a telling detail in itself. Yes, names have always had multiple spellings, in English especially, but parents in the past didn't go in search of alternate spellings, or come up with them for the specific purpose of being different. (Our forebears could and did come up with their own share of doozies in the spelling department, but their motivation wasn't a desire for distinction or "uniqueness", generally.) It's another dimension of the fractured modern naming landscape.

September 11, 2017 11:42 AM

My 6 year old will be James T. in his class this year - there are 3 other boys named James.  We do call my son Jay but he doesn't want to use it at school. My daughter is one of two Clare/Claire in her math class this year as well.


August 21, 2017 11:56 AM

Interesting column, as I've been meaning to ask you to do essentially the inverse: Chart over time the number of names needed to cover 50% of the population.

August 23, 2017 10:55 AM

@Megan W. Those names are similarly popular in my area! My son has two Ava's in his kindergarten class of ~15. It's so weird to hear Ryan is popular now - to me it's a very 70s/80s baby name but apparently popular in my area.

I think the defining names of this cohort will be the -aidens.

August 26, 2017 7:38 PM

Never in a million years would I think there would be another Clem in my grandson's school, but sure enough, there was another in his kindergarten class!  My grandson is Clemeth, and the other boy was Clement, but they were referred to as Clem M. and Clem T.

And way back when, when my son, Thomas James, was in 3rd-grade, there was another student named Timothy Joseph...and they both were called TJ!  Since neither of us mothers would budge (my son simply wasn't a Tom or a Tommy!), they were TJ B and TJ S.

You cannot guarantee your child's name will be the only one!

August 30, 2017 2:26 PM

My kids are 5 years apart in age, and now in 5th and 1st grade. In every single year for both of them since preschool, they've each had at least one Sophie/Sophia/Sofia I have been their classes. I think we live in a Sophie(a)  bubble. Lots of Gavins on the boys side but not like Sophie(a). 

August 31, 2017 11:42 AM

Yes! That's exactly what I was looking for. Don't know how I missed it the first time...  Thanks!