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.