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Think You Know Some Popular Baby Names? Think Again…

Something mysterious has happened to America’s popular baby names: they’ve disappeared.

No, the names Noah and Emma haven’t suddenly vanished from the nation’s nurseries. Those names are still #1 for American boys and girls. But it’s debatable whether they’re truly popular, at least by historical standards. For perspective, let’s take a look at popular names of the past.

Dialing all the way back to 1880 (the earliest year of detailed baby name stats), half of all American boys received a name ranked among the top 15 on the popularity chart. Each of those 15 names was given to at least 1% of American boys. That makes for a tidy criterion: back in the age of traditional naming, a very popular boy’s name was one given to 1% of all boys born, and a typical baby boy was likely to bear one of those names.

Baby naming evolved during the 20th Century, but that 1% standard remained a reasonable way to describe popular names. In the graph below, you’ll see the total percentage of American boys receiving any name given to 1% or more of boys, in 25 year increments from 1880 through 1980. I’ve also listed the names that qualified at each point to get a sense of what “popular” names looked like at the time.

Styles certainly changed, from the eras of Fred and Frank to Larry and Gary to Jason and Justin. Yet the common names of each era still accounted for well over a third of all boys born. Now let’s extend that same graph into the 21st Century.

Oh my, it appears we’ve fallen off a cliff! The list of qualifying names in 2005 was just Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Matthew and Ethan. Today (as of 2016 data), it’s null. Zero, zip, nothing. Not a single boy’s name today reaches the threshold that marked everyday popularity in generations past.

The graph for girls’ names is nearly as stark:

It’s one thing to say that we’re naming more creatively today. It’s quite another to realize that, from a historical perspective, popular names essentially no longer exist. Sure, we know that today’s #1 names, Noah and Emma, aren’t what John and Mary used to be. But they’re not even what, say, Gary and Cynthia used to be.

The next generation, growing up at the far end of those graphs, is bound to have a different perspective on names. There are no generic names in their cohort. That’s no “every Tom, Dick and Harry,” no “little Susie and Johnny,” no “Karen, hold my calls.” Instead, each name points more than ever to a specific place, time and subculture into which a child was born.



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