The Baby-Name Trend That Unites America

In the past decade, new parents have fallen for vowels.

A baby lying on a blanket.
Linda Raymond / Getty

Liam, Noah, Emma, Olivia—the Social Security Administration has released its annual list of the United States’ most popular baby names and one thing is clear: American parents love vowels.

Continuing an on-and-off reign that began in 2008, “Emma” took the top slot for newborn girls’ names. “Liam” became the most popular name for boys for the first time ever. Both, notably, have a 1:1 ratio of consonants to vowels.

This is true up and down the list: Vowels accounted for at least half of the letters in all but one of the most popular girls’ names (Charlotte). Boys’ names are slightly less vowel-heavy: They make up at least half of the letters in four of the 10 most popular boys’ names, but many of the rest are close, with just slightly fewer vowels than consonants. Part of the reason for this may be that, as my colleague Robinson Meyer has written, girls’ names have long been far more likely than boys’ names to end in a vowel sound that linguists call a schwa—an unstressed “a” at the end, as in Olivia (No. 2 for 2017) and Ava (No. 3). This gives girls’ names a competitive edge in vowel counts.

Social Security Administration

As more vowels come in, consonants drop out: The two boys’ names that dropped from the top-10 list this year are consonant-heavy (Michael and Ethan), while one of the new appearances is the 1:1 Oliver. Similarly, the two new girls’ names—Amelia and Evelyn—have lots of vowels, while one of those downgraded was Harper.

Laura Wattenberg, a baby-names expert who created, describes many of these multisyllabic, vowel-heavy names as “liquid-sounding.” “They flow smoothly, like water down a glass stream-bed with no rocks or branches to impede its path,” she wrote in a 2012 blog post, citing examples such as Anaya, Aliya, and Eliana. “Every sound drawn out long, and without visibly moving your mouth.” She has a different way of describing names with lots of vowels yet few syllables, like Ayla and Leo: “While the liquids are all about flow—supple, multisyllabic creations—these names are mirror-smooth, self-contained miniatures: raindrops.”

Wattenberg said she wasn’t aware of any scientific phenomenon—some subtle linguistic edge, say, or psychological bias—that explains this tendency. Rather, she suggested it was something more simple: a reaction to the consonant-heavy names full of sounds like “hisses” and “sharp stops” that were popular a generation ago, like Steven and Karen.

Even if vowels are gaining popularity, another trend in the government’s data sticks out: Today’s most popular names aren’t nearly as popular as the top names of yesteryear. Emma and Liam were at the top of 2017’s list, but they were assigned to relatively few babies: to roughly 1 percent of baby girls and to 0.95 percent of baby boys, respectively, based on social-security data. By comparison, the most popular names six decades ago—Mary and Michael—were much more common, given to roughly 3 percent of girls and 4.2 percent of boys. That era is known for being the peak of name-conformity in America.

The fact that today’s top baby names are so rare, and unconventional, is its own noteworthy trend: New parents today prize individuality, and an unusual name can help a person stand out. Emmas may outnumber every other girls’ name in the kindergarten classrooms of 2023, but they can nevertheless feel a bit quirkier than the Karens of the past.