What is a "common name" to you?

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion around the forum about how many classic (and new classic) names are bestowed on so few children that they are actually rather rare among today's youth. Comments about how, since parents think of certain names as being common, they don't use them, meaning that those who do use them are in the minority. Comments about how a John, Paul, or Mark stands a good chance of being the only one in his class.

However, while that might be the case, the notion of a "common name" means something more to me. Yes, your John might be the only one in his class or grade - or even the only one in his school - but to me, that's not the only consideration when judging a name's popularity. Yes, whether or not your John will be the only one among his peers is an important factor, but to me, a name's popularity isn't just about its current usage. Even if I don't encounter a single child with a given name, if the name brings to mind multiple individuals with that name, then the name is common. It might not be commonly used now, but it's still a common name.

If I know, have met, know of, or read about several people with a certain name, then that name belongs to many, and is therefore common, even if those people are not newly-named children.

What does "common" mean to you?


By hyz
May 8, 2012 11:46 PM

I definitely see that point of view, but I only feel it strongly when the name appears frequently across many generations, particularly my own.  So, Matthew, Mark, David, Jacob, Joshua, Daniel, Rachel, Sarah, etc. all seem like "common" names completely irrespective of the fact that I know of only one or two people under the age of 10 with any of those names.  They do not seem dated like Jennifer or Jordan might, but they still feel too common for me to want to use.  On the other hand, where I generally only know significantly older people with a certain name (Helen, Mary, Dorothy, Joseph, Charles, Paul, even John and Anna, etc....), it does not seem truly "common", and is therefore more likely to feel fresh to me now.  

Sort of related, and funny, I thought--my mom once told me that she never wanted to interfere when DH and I were picking names for our kids, but she was just so glad we didn't pick any really boring, common names like Mary or Rose (said with distinct disdain).  Mary was still the top name the decade she was born, and had been for her mother's and grandmother's generations as well, but Rose was falling fast from its long-held spot in the top 20-50 names by the time she was born, and was probably more like a "mom" name to her.  But I can count on one hand all the Marys I've known under the age of 50, and the only Rose I personally know is in elementary school.  I guess Rose and Mary to her are like Linda, Nancy, Kimberly, and Michelle to me.  Common--regardless of the actual number of children bearing them.  

By Guest (not verified)
May 9, 2012 9:03 AM

I agree with the original post and also hyz's points. Perhaps my reference points will shift a lot when I become a parent and a higher percentage of the people I know are small children, but my impressions of a name's popularity are shaped at least as much by its usage in the past (particular recent past: roughly my generation and my parents') as in the present. Awareness of strong generational patterns in naming, and the impression that these trends are stronger and move faster than ever, tend to make parents focus on whether their kids will fit in with and/or stand out from their peers sufficiently, but this focus on cohort seems a bit narrow-minded. True, most people will spend at least a decade and a half - of their formative years, no less - sharing a large chunk of their waking hours with other kids born in the same year, but then as adults we join a work force made up of people from many generations. And throughout our lives the extended family, our hometown or neighborhood, ethnic and religious communities, etc., etc., provide many intergenerational contexts where we might consider (or not) how we and our names belong.

Of course, much has been said about the waning of community ties and increasing focus on nuclear rather than extended families, as economic trends have encouraged wage-earners to become more mobile. I wonder how increasing isolation, particularly from older generations of family and community, might play out in our collective approach to naming, at least for certain demographics. Am I more likely to name the baby after Great-Grandma Dorothy if she lives down the street and is a part of my and my children's lives? Or am I more likely to go with Dorothy, as an act of nostalgia, if I see her rarely and don't know any other Dorothys of her generation to make the name seem "old" to me? Perhaps if the family moves a lot the child's shifting group of classmates really is the most important reference for the impression of his or her name. And then there's the reality that as we reach to connect with the past, we are constantly re-imagining it (we think Great-Grandma Dorothy should have been an Olivia ...). Is the process of remembering and re-imagining substantially different in the modern world than it was when our great-grandparents were naming their babies? I don't know if nostalgia and/or enthusiasm for novelty have really changed overall. What does seem true is that we're all more self-conscious about our naming choices ... but this doesn't necessarily mean more (self- or otherwise) aware.

Interesting question. I'll have to give it some more thought. Short answer though: yes, John and Mary remain "common names" to me, despite knowing relatively few people and no kids named either. And I honestly doubt that will change, even if I were to become a preschool teacher surrounded by Jacobs and Madisons. I'm curious to hear how others will respond!

- kalmia (not logged in)

May 9, 2012 11:28 AM

The Hungarian equivalent of the Social Security Administration's baby name lists also include lists for frequency in the general population. (See the third and fourth tables/lists here: http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keresztnevek_gyakoris%C3%A1ga_Magyarorsz%C3%A1gon_a_2010-es_%C3%A9vekben)

I find it somewhat suprising that for the past decade, János [John] is only in 4th place, after László [Ladislaus/Leslie], István [Stephen], and József [Joseph]. For women, the top of the list is Mária [Mary], Erzsébet [Elizabeth], Ilona [Helen], and Katalin [Catherine], so no surprises there.

I wonder whether anyone at the SSA compiles such statistics for the U.S. Where would John and Mary actually end up? What about Jennifer and Michael? How far off are our perceptions of frequency or popularity?

And for the record, I actually know several people named John (as well as a Jonathan, called Jon, sounds identical to John). The Marys I know are all distant (and actually Mária), one in Hungary, the other in New Zealand, so I don't deal with that name day-to-day. The names that are currently actually the most confusingly common in my circle of acquaintances are Sara(h) and David, followed closely by Lynn(e) and Michael.

And that brings me to my definition of "common": any name that's over-represented among the people I know qualifies as common, even if nobody's giving it to babies nowadays.

May 11, 2012 12:13 AM

I forgot to comment on this! I looked at the link and really enjoyed the names, and think that the frequency data are really great. It would be cool and useful to have stats like that from other places!

It's funny that I used John as the example of a ubiquitous name because I didn't mean someone named John until I was in my 20s. Jonathans, nn Jon, however, abounded in my life. I just did the calculation for fun, and it turns out that 8% if my elementary school grade was named Jonathan! (That's 5 out of 63 kids.) Of course, I have a limited sample of Jewish kids, and John simply isn't popular in that demographic, but despite not knowing a single John for over 2/3 of my life, I still think of it as common. Jennifer? I think that one was as common as it felt...

It was also fun trying to figure out what it said, despite not understanding Hungarian. After looking over it, I ran the page through Google translate and I thought that it was really interesting to see how many of the names were translated, too. I don't know if it's because I grew up in such a multilingual environment, but I tend to think of different language's versions of the same name as different names. I would never translate a person's name from the language that the person personally uses. Yes, I find it interesting to learn how various languages translate names, but I don't view them as interchangeable.

For example, I have a German friend named Eugen. (Actually, he was born in the Ukraine and the name his parents gave him was Evgeni, nn Zjenya. However, when he moved to Germany at age 11, his classmates teased him for having the girl's name Jenny, so when he changed schools, he took that opportunity to adopt a German name, and now goes by Eugen, except with his immediate family. But I digress.) My point was that he says his name as Eugen, and so that's what I call him. Other English speakers in my lab, though, call him Eugene (YOU-gene) and the French guy calls him Eugène. To me, that's not what he calls himself, so that isn't what I should call him.

It's a different story if the person is from a multilingual household and answers to several versions of the name, as I understand is the situation with your daughter. But if the person does not hold a multifaceted view of his or her name, I don't feel like it's my place to impose my language... Anyway, that's another topic altogether :)

By mk
May 9, 2012 12:24 PM

I agree what others have said. Common names to me are either ones that appear across several age groups, or ones that seem to be used frequently among people I know. John, Mary, Sarah, Matthew, Michael, Daniel, Emily, and Elizabeth are all common names to me. On the other hand, I have yet to meet anyone named Madison or Jacob, nor anyone with kids named Emma or Isabella, so those names do not seem common to me.

However, if I loved a name I would use it regardless of how "common" I thought it was.

May 9, 2012 4:35 PM

I largely agree with the OP and comments. Even if a name isn't currently popular or used frequently I would consider it common if I know many people with that name.  Popular names of my generation I probably could never use even though most of them aren't used frequently at all at the moment.  The same with my parents generation. I guess commonness and freshness are inversely proportional to me.

May 10, 2012 4:05 PM

To me, common means a name that is used/known across generations - it's not trendy in an über-hipster popular right this month kinda way, it's not necessarily popular/top-10 right now, but it's common enough for practically everybody to know someone, somewhere with this name.

By Guest (not verified)
May 10, 2012 4:24 PM

It's interesting to me how a few months of keeping track of discussions on this site have shifted, perhaps skewed, my idea of what 'commonness' of names consists.  I realize I'm starting to think of statistically extremely rare names that come up a lot in discussions on here as 'common', or at least common amongst creative name-enthusiast types.  Perhaps trendy is the word--innovative, but following a particular trend in innovation.  I'm thinkng of names like Annika, Wren, Edith, Xander, Owen, Matthias.  I've loved several of these names for years, but now think they might be 'too common' because others seeking interesting names think of them often.  How messed up is that?! 

May 10, 2012 7:13 PM

I think that definitely happens when you see names pop up a lot on here. The discussions on here don't seem to be representative of usage in the general population though!  I think this board tends to attract a certain type of namer.  

Of the names you listed I know 1 Xander and 1 Owen and none of the others!

May 10, 2012 11:42 PM

I totally know what you mean! There are names that I like, and when I see them mentioned in conversations all over this blog, I feel like they're, well, common - despite not knowing or knowing of a single person with those names in real life. Then I check the stats and some of them rank as low as the 900s. Frequenting this blog most definitely alters our perceptions of name popularity and usage!

May 27, 2012 12:03 AM

Right. I have a friend who insists Beatrix is trendy and over-done because she knows two babies named Beatrix. The catch is, Beatrix has never been in the top 1,000 names. No matter how you define trendy, Beatrix can't be that trendy.

May 11, 2012 12:33 AM

Over on the writer's board area, November provided a cool link to data of given names in the US from 1801-1999. The info was gathered from census and social security data and grouped by decade. Unfortunately, it's still just looking at births and not at the population at large, but it's still interesting to see how name usage evolved through the decades.

May 11, 2012 10:29 AM

I agree that "commonness" is a factor of usage both currently and over generations. The names I would pick to be common over time are John, Mary, Elizabeth, Michael, David, Mark, Sarah, Abigail, etc. I'd also include recent hits like Olivia, Emma, Jennifer, Susan, Kyle, Matthew, Ryan, etc. Although those last few weren't in the top ten list of the last century I still feel like I here them often. Now if someone asked me what the "popular" names of today are then I would have to adjust my list. Popular and common are not the same things.

May 11, 2012 12:48 PM

No, agreed. Popular is defiitely not the same as common, but I think that popular might be more objectively quanitifed, while common is more subjective. Though I could be wrong. And, of course, the subjective part of popularity is how popular is too popular to use. To me, "popular" is about current usage and perceptions, while "common" is more about a name's overall representation in society.

May 27, 2012 12:10 AM

There is a site that is supposed to show how many people are statistically likely to have any given combination of first and last names. For instance, my first name and my maiden name are statistically likely to be shared by 57 Americans. My son John, who has our common last name, shares his namew with about 2,871 other people. Frankly, though, in this day and age, I'd take a little privacy over being unique any day. 

May 27, 2012 12:10 AM

Here's the link: