The Age of the Unique Baby Name
Parents used to want kids to fit in. Now they want them to stand out.
These days, if you hear about the birth of an Olivia or a Liam, you might feel a pang of sympathy—the poor child has been cursed with the most popular name of their time and might be at risk of sharing it with a kindergarten classmate.
This wasn’t always considered an undesirable outcome. The name Mary, for instance, was the most popular girls’ name for all but six years from 1880 to 1961, and “if you talk to people from earlier generations, [they’ll say] ‘Well, of course there were five Marys in the class,’” Laura Wattenberg, the founder of the naming-trends site Namerology, told me. “That didn’t matter. There wasn’t that kind of fear.”
In the past 60 or so years, American parents’ approach to naming their kids has undergone a profound shift. Today, many parents seek out less popular names to help their kids stand out. But in the past, parents typically picked common names, consciously or not, so that their kids would fit in.
In 1880, the percentage of babies who got a top-10 most popular name was in the neighborhood of 32 percent, according to Wattenberg’s calculations. In 1950, it was about 28 percent. And in 2020, it had fallen to an all-time low of 7 percent. “We are deep in an era of naming individuality, where parents assume that having a [name] sound distinctive and unique is a virtue,” Wattenberg said.
For much of American history, many people just named their kids after someone on the family tree, which helped keep names in circulation for a long time. This was especially true for baby boys, who have historically had less varied names than baby girls in part because they were more likely to inherit a family name. For instance, in Raleigh Colony, roughly one in two boys had the name John, William, or Thomas. Those three names remained in or near the top 10 from the 1880s, when the Social Security Administration’s records begin, through the 1960s.
Of course, some names from earlier eras did stand out. Puritan names like Patience, Temperance, and Standfast had explicit moral heft. Immigrants injected some variety by using names from their home countries, but also sometimes opted for (or felt pressured to pick) “whiter-sounding” names in hopes of fitting in. And there was some charming regional diversity. Early-20th-century Oklahoma produced names like Ovonual and Odelene. In southern Appalachia, there were kids named Meek, Bent, Wild, Whetstone, Speed, and Anvil.
The last decades of relatively uniform naming were the 1940s and ’50s. In 1955, for example, half of all American babies born had one of just 78 names, according to Wattenberg. In 2019, that number was 520. Parents’ inclination toward sameness in the ’40s and ’50s might have had to do with the unifying effect of living through the Great Depression and World War II. Those events “gave them a sense of solidarity with the whole culture, the whole country,” Cleveland Evans, a professor emeritus of psychology at Bellevue University and an expert on names, told me. At a time when the path to success seemed communal, being like other people wasn’t seen as a bad thing.
Still, there were signs that people were tiring of names that were too popular. Evans pointed me to a 1953 song titled “John, John, John (Every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s Called John),” which includes the line “Can't we give this little guy a break and call him something new?”
This tune signaled the coming turn toward novelty and distinctiveness that took hold in the 1960s. It was driven by a slew of broader shifts in daily life. As family sizes shrunk and kids stopped doing labor, Americans “started to fixate on the uniqueness of each child,” as the sociologist Philip Cohen has written, and “individuality emerged as a project—starting with naming—of creating an identity.” Meanwhile, society was becoming more casual, and people were less likely to address each other by their surname. As Evans pointed out, this made differentiating your first name from others’ more important.
Another crucial change is that in the 1960s, parents started gaining access to data on baby-naming trends, according to Evans. Books informed parents which names were popular—and, by extension, which overexposed names they might want to avoid. As this information became more widely available, Evans argues, parents felt more social pressure not to pick the same name as everyone else, for fear of coming off as oblivious to the latest fashions.
That pattern only accelerated in the 1990s, when the Social Security Administration began posting the most popular baby names on its website. (The practice was started by a government actuary named Michael Shackleford who, a bit resentful about growing up with such a common name, originally compiled the data so that he could make a more inspired choice as a parent himself, and then figured that others might find it useful too.)
American naming is now in a phase where distinctiveness is a virtue, which is a departure from the mid-century model of success: Today, you excel not by fitting in, but by standing out. “Parents are thinking about naming kids more like how companies think about naming products, which is a kind of competitive marketplace where you need to be able to get attention to succeed,” Wattenberg told me. And whether or not parents nowadays choose a name with an eye toward its Google-ability, search engines and social media have certainly changed the way they think about the value (or the downsides) of having a name that is different from that of other internet users.
All of this has brought us to an era of exceptionally varied names. Which, in a way, represents its own kind of conformity: Trying not to be like everyone else makes you just like everyone else.