What are the most popular baby names of all time?
It sounds like a straightforward question. Except that there are different ways to measure usage. Are Steven and Stephen two names or one? Are we talking about the percentage of the population receiving a given name, or the name’s numerical ranking? On percentages, today’s #1 name is far less common than the #1 name from a few decades back. Speaking of decades, what’s your time frame for popularity – this year? The past twenty years? Or all time?
Here’s one measure that seems fairly objective: the US Social Security Administration provides a chart showing those few names that have ranked in the US Top Five at some point since they started tracking these things in 1880.
It’s an elite group, to be sure. As of 2012, only 42 girls’ names have ever risen that high, and just 23 boys’ names. Call it another indicator of greater volatility and daring in naming our daughters.
The era matters. Amy, Barbara, or Betty would be rare on a child in 2014, even though they were once ubiquitous. Mason might feel novel, but that’s likely because he’s only recently entered the elite five.
Names that I’ve written about have links in blue.
The Most Popular Baby Names of All Time: Girls
Abigail - Call her a one-hit wonder. Abigail broke into the Top Five just one, in 2005.
Alexis - Dynasty is over, and all of the Alex- names are slipping. Could Alexis go back to the boys?
Amanda - She was a favorite in the 1980s, but she still feels wearable in 2014, a literary coinage likely to make a comeback … eventually.
Amy - A mini name from the 1970s, Amy wouldn’t be out of place in our Zoe-Ava age.
Angela - More enduring than Nevaeh.
Ashley - An 80s name par excellence.
Ava - Hollywood glam meets moder minimalism.
Barbara - With a long history of use and international appeal, she’s a classic that our granddaughters and great-granddaughters might embrace.
Betty - I’m still waiting for Mad Men’s former Mrs. Draper to inspire namesakes.
Brittany - The famous Ms. Spears is Britney, and she’s made this name feel more pop star than French place name.
Carol - Feminine forms of Charles like Caroline and Charlotte are white hot, but Carol is still rockin’ bell bottoms on The Brady Bunch.
Deborah - The Biblical heroine is stuck in style limbo.
Debra - Believe it or not, both spellings of this name ranked in the Top Five in the 1950s. Shades of Aidan/Aiden.
Donna - Oh, Donna. Ritchie Valens crooned her name, and she became one of the most popular names of the 1950s and 60s.
Dorothy - She went somewhere over the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and landed in Miami as one of The Golden Girls by 1985. Today she seems ready for revival, a three syllable, ends-with-y name that would wear well.
Emily - A Top Ten name since 1991, Emily leans literary – think Dickinson, Bronte – and has a long history of use.
Emma - Relatively rare when television’s Kate & Allie debuted in 1984 – she was Kate’s teenaged daughter – Emma entered the US Top Ten in 2002, the same year Ross and Rachel gave the name to their baby on Friends. Thanks to her classic style and Jane Austen heroine ties, Emma remains a favorite.
Hannah - An Old Testament name with a homespun feel, Hannah ranked in the Top Ten from 1995 through 2007.
Heather - A 1970s staple, the mother of Harper and the forerunner of many a creative botanical name.
Helen - She ranked in the Top Ten from 1891 through 1934, second only to Mary in a few years.
Isabella - In the early days of a revival when Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise gave the name to their adopted daughter in 1992, Elizabeth’s equally royal cousin skyrocketed to the Top 100, and has been in the Top Ten since 2004.
Jennifer - She was everywhere in the 1970s, the default name for a generation of girls.
Jessica - As Jennifer faded, Jessica became the it-girl J name of the 1980s.
Joan - Another Mad Men name, once worn by the heroic Joan of Arc. Less popular than Jane today, but still a possibility.
Judith - Jude is big for boys. Judy is a Jetson. But Judith is an Old Testament heroine, a classic name still fading from use today.
Karen - This tailored, Scandinavian spin on Katherine was most popular in the 1950s and 60s. If not for that fact, she’d fit right in with Madison and other tailored names for girls in 2014.
Kimberly - If she hadn’t been so popular in the 1960s and 70s, Kimberly would be a hit today. Instead, baby girls are answering to Everly and other three-syllable, ends-with-y names.
Linda - Lovely Linda, once the name of a generation – today, firmly in grandmother name territory.
Lisa - Once a pet name for Elizabeth, today Lisa Simpson stands on her own. It was a reasonable choice for 8 year old Lisa Simpson when the character debuted in 1987. The Simpsons don’t age, but fewer and fewer girls have been named Lisa with every passing year.
Madison - This street name made a Splash when Darryl Hannah’s mermaid-in-New-York decided it was the name for her back in the 1984 hit. Fast forward to 1997, and Madison made the Top Five, more popular than her predecessor, Allison.
Margaret - She’s a venerable classic, a Top 100 staple from 1880 into the 1980s. With names like Eleanor and Beatrice on the rebound, I’m cheering for Margaret to reverse her slide.
Mary - Long the top name and undisputed #1, today she’s fading fast. And yet, meet a little girl called Mary and it feels both classic and fresh.
Melissa - Pretty Melissa doesn’t quite feel out of place on a baby in 2014, fitting right in with Gabriella and Cecilia, too. In fact, she still ranked #177 in 2012, showing that she’s been more resilient than many a former Top Ten.
Michelle - Once a Beatles song, she’s now firmly in mom – and First Lady – territory.
Olivia - A member of the Top Ten since 2001, Olivia still belonged to the Top Five Fraternity as of 2012, inspiring respellings, like Alivia, and the rise of similar names – Olive, I’m looking at you!
Patricia – Once an absolute staple, Patricia has faded to the edges of the Top 1000. Nowadays, Trish is the other carpool mom, Tricia is your great aunt, and Patsy is a country legend. She’s passed the shamrock to other Irish names, from Erin to Maeve, but here’s guessing she’ll be back around the same time Barbara and Deborah reappear.
Ruth - The numbers don’t show it yet, but Ruth seems to be on the verge of a comeback. And why not? Her heyday was the 1910s and 20s, meaning that the hundred-year rule should favor this vintage, Biblical gem.
Samantha - She made a few appearances in the Top Five back in the 1990s, and like Alexandra and other elaborate names from that era, is just starting to wane.
Sandra – Sandra broke into the Top Five just once, in 1947. Wholesome actress Sandra Dee was popular in the 1950s and 60s – if you’ve ever seen Grease, you’ll recognize the name. Today you’re far more likely to meet a baby Alexandra – or really, any form of the name other than Sandra.
Sarah - Rarely has she left the Top 100, and her appearances in the Top Ten have been frequent. Call her almost as classic as Elizabeth.
Shirley - The Ashley of an earlier generation. Blame Charlotte Bronte for putting Shirley on the list of possibilities for girls. The famous Miss Shirley Temple helped cement her place as a 1930s baby name favorite.
Susan – I’m a fan of Susan – not Susie or Sue, but the tailored, spare Susan. With Biblical and botanical ties, she’d be a hit today, if only she hadn’t been a hit before.
The Most Popular Baby Names of All Time: Boys
Alexander - Alexander appeared in the Top Five just once, in 2009. This name has an enduring, classic sound that ensures he’ll never feel dated.
Andrew - Preppy, polished Andrew had a good run. As of 2012, he still ranked in the Top Twenty, the same place he’s been since 1979.
Charles - The future king of England answers to this name, and he’s having a real moment in 2014 – though his Top Five streak was in the 1920s.
Christopher - After years as understudy to Michael, Christopher has also faded into dad name territory. The entire clutch of names – Christina, Kristen, Christa, even Christian - are slipping out of use, though I think Christian retains a certain style, thanks to his ‘n’ ending.
Daniel - He of the lion’s den, the heroic Daniel has been a go-to choice for generations.
David - Another enduring classic, though a David born today is more likely to use his full name instead of the once automatic Dave.
Ethan - He’s got Colonial cool, thanks to Ethan Allen, but this now-popular pick was obscure until the 1970s.
Jacob - Long the top name in the US – well before anyone had ever heard of Twilight, heck before Taylor Lautner was even born - the Biblical Jacob remains friendly and accessible. He’s likely to give up his #1 spot this year, but that doesn’t parents have written him off.
James - Among the most classic of names, truly trend-resistant, he ranked in the Top Five from 1880 through 1980, and has never left the Top 20.
Jason - Big in the 1970s, Jason grew up, married Jennifer or Jessica, and named his kids Jacob and Ava.
Jayden - Jason is the forerunner of lots of today’s popular names, including nouveau coinage Jayden – one-part Biblical, one-part Pinkett-Smith.
John - Like Mary, John has fallen. Long the undisputed #1 name, surname form Jackson is now more popular than the original.
Joseph - Do you know Joe? Chances are you know three or four, and their ages range from little boy to senior citizen. Along with James, one of the most enduring choices for boys.
Joshua - He was a mega-hit from the 1980s into the early 2000s. The Old Testament name has a long history of use, but he’s definitely been at his most popular in recent years.
Mason - The descendant of Jason and Michael, an accessible surname name, and one of the biggest challengers to Jacob for the #1 spot. Mason debuted in the Top Five in 2011.
Matthew – The names of the twelve apostles are pretty solid go-to choices. Well, maybe not Bartholomew. That’s a little obscure. But Matthew works marvelously. He peaked in the 1980s and 90s but remains wearable today.
Michael - Angelic Michael held the #1 spot from the 1950s into the 1990s. While he remains an unassailable classic, he also feels a little more overused than many of the 65 names on this list.
Nicholas – The alter ego of Santa Claus, Nick darted into the Top Five just once, in 1999. So while he’s slightly tired and fading quickly, Nicholas remains a perfectly reasonable pick for a son in 2014.
Noah – For most of US naming history, Noah was a relatively uncommon choice. On the heels of Joshua, Noah cracked the Top Five in 2011, and crept up to #4 in 2012. If the new Hollywood blockbuster starring Russell Crowe as the arc builder fares well, could Noah climb farther? Hard to say, but Crowe did wonders for Maximus.
Richard – The saintly, regal Richard deserves the title classic – but these days, a newborn Richard is almost certainly an honor name. He’s been fading since the 1940s.
Robert - A former #1 name, Robert has fallen out of favor in recent years, but I’m inclined to group him with Matthew – a classic that still feels wearable in 2014. I wouldn’t call a little boy Bob, but Rob or Robbie seems rather charming.
Tyler - What happens to the formerly trendy? If you’re Tyler, you crack the Top Five in 1993, and fall to #50 by 2012. That’s still plenty respectable – and signals that lots of parents are still naming their sons Tyler! But I’d expect Tyler to be a teenager.
William - The future King of England, once granny and dad make way. Like James and Joseph, there’s something truly enduring about William. And like Robert, his nicknames have morphed over the years. Once upon a time, every William was Billy. Now, you’d probably expect a little guy with this name to answer to Will.
Which of the most popular baby names of all time is your favorite? Are there any that you would still use, despite their former (or current) popularity? Are you more likely to avoid names that were once popular, or do you only consider current use?