There are far, far more names than we imagine.
Last year, over 30,000 different names were recorded in the US national baby name statistics. Yet those stats only include names given to 5 or more boys or girls in a single year. What about the ultra-rare names? How many names were literally unique?
We can’t get that figure from the US government (believe me, I’ve tried). The province of Alberta, Canada, though, offers a window onto the world of unlimited name stats. Alberta, with a population of 4.4 million, published a list of every single name given to a baby in 2020.
A look at the popular names in Alberta suggests that the province is a decent mini-model for US naming. Alberta’s top names are Noah and Liam for boys, Olivia and Emma for girls. The top end of the popularity distribution is similar to US states of the same size, like Oregon and Kentucky. The bottom end of the distribution, the singleton names, is a revelation.
Of the 12,951 different baby names used in Alberta in 2020, more than two-thirds were used just once. If Alberta had reported only the 5+ usage names, as US states do, they would have captured 66% of all babies, but only 12% of all names.
The stylistic range of the unique names is extraordinary. I’m going to share a sampling of them here, with the recognition that each name represents a real child. Some of the names are so unusual that their bearers, as they grow up, are likely to find this article. (If that’s you, hi!) I hope that anyone who is inspired to comment will keep that fact in mind and treat this as a celebration of the wide realm of modern naming.
Some Unique Alberta Names
At one end of the familiarity spectrum are names well-known in English that simply aren’t common at the moment. Theresa, Geoffrey, Crystal, Barnaby, Constance, Denise, Howard, Ingrid, Claude and Stacy are among the singletons this year.
At the other end of the spectrum are names that are not merely unique among Alberta newborns, but among words in the world. Names like these have zero Google results beyond the Alberta name stats (or at least they did before I published this article):
Then there’s one listing so unlikely that I wonder whether any baby is called by the name at all. I leave it to each reader to contemplate what might be going on here. Keep in mind that the Alberta stats, unlike US name stats, preserve diacritical marks:
In between the familiarity extremes you’ll find an expansive showcase of global name cultures. For just a few examples:
Getachew (M) Amharic, “their master”
Jazdeep (F) Punjabi, “light of god’s glory”
Jetsün (F) Tibetan, “venerable, reverend”
Iñaki (M) Basque, Ignatius
Kalervo (M) Finnish, figure in Finnish mythology
Kikisepaw-Kihiw (M) Cree, “morning-eagle”
Obimnaetochukwu (M) Igbo, “my heart praises God
Piitaaki (F) Blackfoot, “eagle woman”
Zomorrod (F), Persian, “emerald”
Other names are parents’ own creative inventions. These include riffs on English words and place names, such as:
And then there are the names that go all-in on Scrabble value:
Some creative namers don’t even limit themselves to a single name. The singleton list features many hyphenated inventions, including:
And some of the names simply defy categorization, like:
Cassonade (F) – a French brown sugar
Nephilim (F) – mysterious giant beings in the Bible (plural)
Peaceman (M) – word concatenation, and the name of an anti-hate charity
Shylock (M) – stereotyped Jewish moneylender character of The Merchant of Venice
Xylatar (M) – I have no idea. Do you?
Beyond specific styles, my takeaway message is that contemporary naming is virtually infinite. Parents import, adapt, revive, reinterpret and innovate. And even the tens of thousands of names in US naming statistics are just the beginning.
Does the US government release the number of babies born each year?
As for Xylatar, I got nothing.
The government releases the total number of babies in their sample, and we know how many receive a 5+ name. But the distribution of 1, 2, 3 & 4-use names is the big question mark. (I suspect that singletons are significantly over-represented.) A Social Security Administration representative was once kind enough to give me more numbers, but they didn’t seem to match up with what we already knew.
I’m especially interested in the known names that were used only once. Of course, the smaller the population, the more likely a name is to be used only once, but I suspect if soon-to-be-parents had access to a list of names used only once or twice, but that were well known, those would rise. As they are names that are familiar but unique.
Canada has the most amazing and diverse collection of baby name data. Alberta publishes every name, and so does Quebec! With 2nd names, 3rd names, 4th names, 5th names…. Ontario goes back to 1920, so does Nova Scotia, while Newfoundland combines spellings. Saskatchewan updates their top 20 baby names monthly, so there is already partial 2021 stats. Manitoba has their data in a pdf report. And BC has a lovely visualizer, top marks for presentation! For the North, the top name only occurred 3 times, out of 500 or so births.
Alberta data was where I went looking for names with triple letters. I didn’t find anything that didn’t seem like a clerical error though.
Well that puts it into perspective!! Wow. Also, for me Xylatar only resulted in a potential surname- or- alien fan fiction musical instrument, possibly a play of xylophone and guitar? You’ve pointed out… It only takes just one person to bestow it!