America’s top-10 list of popular baby names always looks comforting. Or, depending on your perspective, boring. The names change slowly, and their style remains mostly traditional. The overall impression is of gradual evolution and cultural continuity. And it’s a lie.
Change in 21st-century naming has been anything but gradual. It’s been revolutionary, a splintering of style that breaks with the past in dramatic ways. But the top of the popularity charts cannot tell this story. A top-10 list is a perfect instrument to create the illusion of stability in the midst of a cyclone.
The View from the Top
Take a look at the current top names for American boys and girls:
The overall style of the list is classic with a light touch. Only a few of the names, like James, are actually timeless favorites, and some, like Lucas, are enjoying their first-ever popularity. But as a group, the names reflect a traditional style sense and approach to naming.
When that list was announced in May, news outlets practically yawned aloud. How can a creative, wide-open naming culture lead to a near-stagnant list of “hot” names like William and Henry? Here’s how.
Popularity charts reflect the taste of people who choose popular names.
That may be a truism, but it’s also a profound factor shaping the name popularity charts. Because actively avoiding popular names is the biggest trend in American baby names today. It makes whole areas of style invisible to name rankings.
Not All Styles Count Equally
Parents who prioritize novelty and creativity in names have an infinite pool of options to choose from. They can turn words or place names into baby names, or simply craft their perfect name from scratch. Even when large numbers of creative-minded parents share similar tastes they don’t converge on the same names, by design. Many will customize elements and spellings to create a name that’s uniquely their own. That spreads out their choices across the popularity spectrum.
For instance, if you only tracked the top of the popularity charts you would miss the whole phenomenon of hundreds of girls’ names ending in -ee:
In contrast, parents who prioritize the strengths of traditional names find their choices constrained. Classic names are a limited resource, and classics that fit the contemporary taste for light, vowel-heavy names are even scarcer. So tradition-minded parents expect to share their choices with others. They tend to agree on spellings too, because spelling is part of the package. “Jaymz” and “Hennreigh” don’t make the same style statement as James and Henry.
That leaves top-10 lists firmly in the hands of traditional namers. This skew becomes increasingly misleading as traditionalists, and top-10 lists themselves, represent a smaller and smaller segment of the naming population.
The Incredible Shrinking Top 10
Rankings offer no sense of scale. There is always a #1 name, even if that name is only a fraction as popular as #1s of past eras. That’s a problem when scale itself—the changing level of consensus—is part of the story.
In the past, popularity charts served as a solid snapshot of everyday name style, especially for boys. America’s top 10 names accounted for about a third of all boys born. But the popularity curve has flattened. Today’s top 10 accounts just one-fourteenth of American boys.
By consistently reporting name data in scaleless rankings, news reports obscure the fact that the top 10 is losing relevance as a portrait of how we name children.
Last year, an incredible 31,538 different names registered in U.S. baby name stats. Yet 8% of babies received a name that was too rare to even register in the count—more than received a top-10 name. That’s the real story of American names today. But as long as we continue to focus on the top of the popularity charts, we’ll continue to see only the most traditional sliver of our increasingly freewheeling name culture.
Laura, thanks for this fascinating post. When you say “8% of babies received a name that was too rare to even register in the count,” do you mean they were outside the top 1000 or that there were fewer than five babies given that name so it wasn’t included in the list at all?
Sorry if that wasn’t clear! 8% of babies received an “uncountably rare” name given to < 5 babies.
Got it, thanks!
How do the rankings change when you combine spellings? As you said, the traditional names often have only one or maybe two common traditional spellings (The only exception I can think of is Katherine/Catherine/Kathryn), while I imagine combining spellings would cause names like Riley/Rylee/Ryleigh/etc and Adalynn/Adelyn/etc to jump several ranks.
No question, some names are creativity magnets. Riley, for instance, currently has at least 26 different spellings in the stats! But most of the variants are uncommon, and NO spelling of Riley is as popular as the #2 spelling of Sophia (Sofia).
In the end I suspect a spelling-combined top 10 would still look mostly traditional, if a little shuffled. It’s impossible to create, though, because there’s no practical way to identify all the spellings of each name (e.g. Rhileigh and Wrylee), and because there are no clear boundaries between names. Is Railee a form of Rylee or Raylee? Are Amelia and Emilia the same? Camila and Camilla?
Has the percentage of children receiving a Top 10 or Top 100 name declined in the same way in other countries that publish their baby name stats, or is this a particularly American phenomenon?
I also wonder how much of this pretty drastic change in naming habits over the past century or so has to do with immigration from so many different cultures around the world, each with their own naming traditions. Sure, America has always been a nation of immigrants, but a century ago most immigrants (who were mainly European and white) would adopt English names: Wilhelm became William, Giuseppe became Joseph, etc. Nowadays though, not only do most immigrants keep their own names, they frequently give their children names from their “old countries” as well, and the pool of baby names being used grows exponentially. Do less ethnically diverse countries still show more of a baby name “consensus” today, like what America had in 1881?