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What is the REAL Average American Name?

March 6, 2024 laurawattenberg 2 Comments

What is the REAL Average American Name?

March 6, 2024 LauraWattenberg 2 Comments
US Map outline with question mark in the center

Author and You Tube maestro John Green recently set out to describe the median American. He calculated the median age (38), the median gender (female), the median household income ($74,580) and the median opinion of Taylor Swift (positive). When it came to names, though, he abandoned population medians and just chose the most common name for a 38-year-old woman: Jessica.

I can’t blame him for bailing on an average name. Population-wide name stats aren’t reported in the US, and calculating the all-ages average would require mountains of data: name frequencies, birth rates, life expectancies. It’s an unreasonable length to go to.

Yet the decision has consequences for Green’s whole project. When he gave his hypothetical median a name, he transformed it from a data set to an individual. Choosing the individual’s name based on age and gender centered the image on those elements. You can see the framing effect in the comments on Green’s video, which talk about “Jessica” as if “she” were a person. What’s more, skipping the full-population name view misses a chance to understand America through its names, and an opportunity to be surprised.

That’s where Namerology comes in. Going to unreasonable lengths for baby name data is our bread and butter! So let’s find the real Average American Name.

Crunching Data: What is Average?

I started out with historical data on U.S. baby name frequencies and total births by year, and a Census projection of the 2024 U.S. population by age and gender. A whole lot of collating, normalizing, interpolating and calculating later, I had solid estimates of the number of living Americans with each name.

The simplest average to start with is the mode, the most common name. This is how popularity stats are usually presented. For instance, when John Green identified the average American car (a pickup truck), he was talking about the modal, most common car. Based on my calculations, the most common name in America is:

Michael.

This one is no contest. Michael was the #1 or #2 name for American boys every year from 1954 through 2008.

But wait a second. Our average American is a woman named Michael? Surely that’s not typical at all.

No, Michael is not usually a woman’s name. To be fair, though, Green’s statistic that the average American drives a pickup truck doesn’t represent women either. Why should we narrow this one data point by gender and not the others? The fact that we have trouble choosing a name neutrally is a tribute to names’ cultural power.

If we want a common but female name, we’ll have to move down the list. More men’s names have stayed popular across the generations. After Michael, the next six most common names in America are also traditionally male: James, John, David, Robert, William, and Christopher. The most common female name is:

Mary.

Now things are getting interesting. Mary has not been a top-10 girl’s name in over 50 years. The fact that it can still be #1 overall is a testament to how much the enterprise of naming has changed.

Back when Mary reigned, it reigned perennially and absolutely. Decade after decade, 5% of girls would be named Mary. Today trends move faster, and no name covers even 1% of girls born. So the fast-fading legacy name still leads the pack.

And Now, the Median

It’s time to take it up a notch. Green’s real target was the median American, the midpoint. For names, that would be the point where 50% of Americans have a more common name, 50% less common.

Among male names, the all-ages median is Shawn. A variant spelling of the Irish name Sean, Shawn moves us away from the English regal classics toward the modern age of name personalization and diversity. The median female name is Ruby, a revival from the turn of the 20th century that’s both young and old. (Try it in the NameGrapher to see.) Ruby’s cultural associations are notably diverse, from civil rights icon Ruby Bridges to gender-fluid actress Ruby Rose.

And the overall median American name is:

Alice.

Like Ruby, Alice has a split young/old profile. (Fun fact: a 38-year-old American woman is nearly as likely to be named Michael as Alice.). But unlike Ruby, Alice is also a core classic of the English naming tradition. It has been in steady use for nearly a millennium straight and can’t be pinned to any particular era.

Alice’s associations are beyond diverse, verging on irreconcilable. The sitcom Alice, Alice Walker, Alice Cooper, Alice Cullen, “To The Moon, Alice!,” “Alice’s Restaurant,” Alice in Chains, Alice B. Toklas, and above all, the young Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s version of Alice is a contradictory whirl of its own. It’s innocent and cynical, traditional and subversive, and constantly being reinvented.

Put it all together and you have a name that’s completely familiar, yet proves more and more elusive the closer you look. There’s your true American median.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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2 Comments

  • ChrisinLiberty
    ChrisinLiberty March 6, 2024 at 8:22 pm

    Looking into the Ultimate US Map; I can see why Alice can be considered the “New” American Classic. Though I see it as being popular in the New England, but I’ve been seeing it gain some foothold in the west and east coasts; such as Florida, Washington, Alaska, etc. Perhaps in a few years, or maybe decades, we could see Alice climb the ranks back up years since its early 20th Century reign came to an end.

  • Julie March 6, 2024 at 9:32 pm

    Coincidentally, John Green’s daughter is named Alice!

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