The Myth of the Normal Name

by appellationmountain on March 1, 2008

Visit nearly any baby name forum and it’s amazing how often you’ll hear variations on one comment:

Give your kid a normal name!

What’s more dazzling is that this criticism can be in response to nearly any choice – from a chart topper like Ava or Aiden, to standards like Henry or Beatrix.

I’d like to put forward a simple tenet of baby naming: there is no such thing as normal.

The definition of normal is regular; conforming to the common type. The best measure of this then, must be the Top 20 – or perhaps 50 – names, and thanks to the Social Security Administration, data on “normal” names is readily available.

Scan it for a few minutes, and I’m sure you’ll agree: just like hemlines have always varied, baby names have come in and out of vogue. With the exception of a very few names – mostly for boys – the Top 50 are far from a stable list.

In 1906, the following names were normal:

  • For girls, Mildred (#9), Ethel (#11), Gladys (#16), Gertrude (#22), Bertha (#25), Thelma (#31) and Myrtle (#37).
  • For boys, Walter (#12), Willie (#13 no, not William – just Willie!), Clarence (#18), Fred (#20), Roy (#24), Ernest (#28) and Elmer (#42).

No fair, you say? That’s too far back to find a true measure of normal? Let’s try 1926, then. After all, plenty of octogenarians are still with us, wearing names like:

  • For girls, Betty (#3), Doris (#7), Norma (#29), Phyllis (#33) and Edith (#42).
  • For boys, Albert (#21), Eugene (#23), Ralph (#24), Norman (#39) and Stanley (#43).

Even in 1946 – a year some of us can remember – plenty of the favorite names are strange by today’s standards:

  • For girls, Shirley (#18), Beverly (#30), Peggy (#43) and Connie (#45).
  • For boys, Larry (#11), Gary (#12), Terry (#26) and Bruce (#32).

Even 1966′s list features some names that would be awkward to bestow on a child born today:

  • For girls, Lori (#21), Tina (#23), Dawn (#24) and Rhonda (#39).
  • For boys, Rodney (#35), Randy (#45) and Troy (#48).

By 1986, the names sound more familiar, and either more palatable or less appealing to our ears, depending on our generation. But there are still some extremely trendy entrants on the list, including:

  • For girls, Ashley (#2), Brittany (#8), Amber (#13) and Crystal (#25).
  • For boys, Justin (#14), Dustin (#42), Jesse (#48) and Travis (#49).

And so little wonder that by 2006, the Top 50 had changed dramatically again.

  • For girls, Madison (#3), Brianna (#20), Taylor (#22), Savannah (#30), Destiny (#37) and Nevaeh (#43).
  • For boys, Tyler (#18), Austin (#41) and Jayden (#50).

The bottom line is that the Top 50 – the most commonly bestowed names in the US – are quite the changeable lot.

It’s also interesting to note that the Social Security Administration lists only the Top 1000 names. This represents about 75% of the population. So even a name that ranks at a relatively obscure #1000 (In ’06, that was Jarvis) or #998 (Thaddeus) is shared by about 180 children.

Plenty of “normal” names – enduring classics like Beatrice – can be found hanging out in the upper ranks of those listings. Beatrice came in at #966 in 2006, with a mere 266 girls given that lovely name that year.

Some European nations maintain a registry of acceptable names, strictly limited to exclude such fanciful entrants as Misty (a Top 50 name for girls in the 1970s) or Dale (a Top 50 name for boys in the 1960s). Would it be possible to compile a list of 300 or 500 names and force every parent to choose from the list? Perhaps. But inevitably, the same thing would happen – even in that small sea, certain names would be more popular; others neglected.

There are popular names. It might even be possible to agree that some are classics.

But there’s no such thing as a normal name – and that’s a good thing.

NOTE: Post revised and links added on October 11, 2013.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Juliet December 23, 2009 at 5:09 PM

I would love to applaud you for this!
I’ve said this for years. Just because something isn’t common or ‘normal’ to you- means that it is a weird or a unique name. People are far too quick to bran things as made up, weird or unique. What one must do is either give someone the benefit of the doubt or educate yourself on it before commenting. I would sometimes mention a name and say how it is said and that it was a popular name in my country -yet, people would still brand it as made up! ‘Shakes head and sighs’

This is one of the times when sometimes a person says a name is unique (and I know for a fact they live in a country and region where that name would not be foreign or weird) like Elise, it confuses me. The name just happens to have peaked a few years ago. lol It is a completely normal name that has been around for ages.

Oh well, I suppose region and your personal o exposure to certain names does influence what you view as ‘normal’.

A good example is the name Kai: in Japan it’s mainly a female name, whereas in the US, it’s mainly a male name. Also, in most English-speaking countries, the name Jan would be female, said, well- Jan. In SA, if it were on a male, it would be said YUN as it would be an Afrikaans name

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charlottevera August 8, 2009 at 1:10 AM

Interesting observation. There are too many cultures at play in North America for our governments to place many limits on the names parents choose. In the Korean Sunday school class I teach we have two little Eugenes — one Eugene is a boy and the other is a girl. While it sounds odd to our ears, I have to remind myself that Eugene is actually a unisex name in Russia too.

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The Bagel of Everything April 28, 2008 at 12:03 AM

I told my mother-in-law that if I ever had a little boy, I’d want to name him Adrian. She had a cow! She insisted that Adrian is a girl’s name. It isn’t — Adrianne is the feminine version of Adrian. I hoped spelling it for her would alleviate the misunderstanding, but she, a teacher, swears she’s had taught several little girls with that name and spelling.

Adrian is a fine traditional Irish male name. There are plenty of Irish-American girls with names like Murphey and Quin. That doesn’t make them “girl names”.

Luckily, my husband and I decided before we were married that we wouldn’t be having children.

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Guy Davis March 2, 2008 at 12:38 AM

You might find this map of popular baby names easier for browsing the SSA data. The map includes regions such as Alberta, Canada and Scotland that release every single name given so you can find some really rare names there. Like you said, the SSA data only extends to the top 1000 names unfortunately.

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