The Case for Giving Your Baby a “Popular” Name

James Masciovecchio and his wife had narrowed down their list of baby names to two options: Celia and Maeve. Then they saw a report that showed Maeve is one of the most popular names of 2019. (While we won’t know the actual ranking of  2019 baby names until the Social Security Administration releases new data in early 2020, Nameberry released a list with Maeve at #5 for popularity, based on the site’s page views.) That bit of insight into Maeve’s popularity put the kibosh on the whole plan.

“We immediately decided against it,” Masciovecchio says. “Having one of the most popular boys’ names of all time myself, I wanted to make sure she didn’t have five others with her name in her class.” Masciovecchio’s daughter, Celia, was born in August.

Masciovecchio isn’t alone in wanting a unique name for his child. “There are so many more names in sheer numbers now than there were even a decade ago, and parents get more and more adventurous,” says Pamela Redmond Satran, CEO of Nameberry. That means seeking out unique names can occasionally lead to once-rare names, like Maeve, rising in popularity for the very reason that they were once less popular. This has the somewhat surprising effect of names that once seemed unique becoming, at least for babies born in a certain year, relatively common.

“Some people call names like Harper for a girl or Jace for a boy ‘unique’ but they’re actually far from it,” Redmond Satran explains. People named the seemingly common name of Rachel — particularly those who were born in the ’80s or ’90s, when it was one of the most popular names out there — might be surprised to learn, for example, that there were far more Harpers (#9) born in 2019 than Rachels (#198).

But there’s another side effect of the search for a unique baby name: These days, far fewer babies have any of the top 10 names. For example, in the 1990s, there were 303,094 babies born named Jessica, the most popular name in that decade. In the 2010s, however, Emma is the most popular baby name, but only 177,410 of them have been born so far. Even accounting for the fact that we’re still missing that final year of data, that’s still a lot fewer #1 names. The trend holds true for boy’s names as well — and it goes back further than just the past 20 years. In the 1880s, for example (the first public records of baby names) 40% of boys had a top-10 baby name. These days, less than 10% of boys do.

Popular baby name
Image: JuliaGrin/Shutterstock. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

Parents hell-bent on finding a unique name for their spawn aren’t the only reason for this, of course. The United States is also a lot more diverse than it was in 1880 (and even than it was in the 1990s). A more diverse population is going to pull from a wider range of names with different cultural backgrounds. Birth rates have also dipped, meaning there are fewer babies overall. And regardless of ethnicity or culture, the popular definition of what a first name must entail continues to change as well. “The idea of what constitutes a name has expanded in so many directions,” explains Redmond Satran, “with parents adapting nature words and place names into first names, inventing names and spellings, and reviving long-forgotten names from mythology or the Bible.”

All these reasons combine to mean that, whatever 2019’s top names wind up being, a child born this year with a top 10 name is far less likely to wind up in a classroom with tons of kids with the same name as them — compared to one of, say, the Ashleys of 1985. But the fear still persists: Redmon Satran cites over-popularity as one of the main causes of baby name regret. But some people don’t mind having popular names, or just don’t care. Redmond Satran’s own son, Owen, had a name that became increasingly popular throughout his childhood, but he found he liked having a more common name.

More recently, Whitney Tyner found out that a name she had long loved had become trendy: She had liked the name Ava since she was a little girl, back when it was relatively rare. In the late ’90s, however, the name surged in popularity and has been a top 10 name for over a decade. So was Tyner at all deterred?

“We noticed it and talked about it for a little while,” Tyner says. “But at the end of the day, we decided that we weren’t going to let a trend decide something so important for us.” Ava, Tyner’s daughter, will share her name with 14,923 other babies born in 2018.

But hey, that’s nearly a third fewer babies than the #3 most popular name in 1986, the year Tyner herself was born. (Amanda, 40,529). The takeaway? Baby names are a very personal thing, and what constitutes “unique” will vary widely from person to person — and year to year. But if your biggest fear is having your child have to be identified with their last initial for all of elementary and high school (miss y’all, Katie B. and Katie S. and Katy C.!) you can rest assured that in 2019, the odds are lower than they’ve ever been.

Comments