Classic girl names are surprisingly difficult to pin down – at least compared to the boys’ list.
In general, the girls’ list tends to be more volatile. We revive vintage names and embrace novelty all. the. time.
Choose any year, and a handful of the Top 25 boy names remain in today’s Top 25. For girls, that holds true for only a name or two.
Still, the same general criteria that works for the boys’ list applies here. To be considered one of the classic girl names, a name must:
- Claim a long history of use, even if they’re not always top of the charts.
- Be found throughout history, from the ancient or medieval to the modern era. The names could easily belong to a newborn baby, or her grandmother – or even great-great-grandmother.
- Avoid nickname forms. While many shortened versions of names have been around for ages, it’s the most evergreen version of the name that makes this list.
- Travel across languages. If a hallmark of a name’s classic status is a long history of use, it should be familiar in other countries.
- Feel at least slightly stylish today. I could argue that Agnes and Joan belong on this list – but they seem more like neglected traditionals than classic girl names.
Maybe the trickiest part for classic girl names is finding choices with a timeless quality. Alyssa and Alicia both come from Alice, and nearly qualify, but they seem more tied to a specific decade.
But these classic girl names repeat throughout history, found on saints and princesses, suffragettes and writers, world-changers from way back when and well into the future.
Alice transforms from sweetly storybook to mature and capable over the course of a lifetime. It’s a vintage charmer, worn by our Wonderland heroine and a famed suffragette, too. It started out as a short form of the Germanic Adalheidis, meaning noble type, but it’s been seen as an independent name for centuries. Adeline – as well as Adalynn and company – are all cousins. And yet it’s Alice that feels the most traditional and on-trend in 2018. Rumors that it was a favorite if Prince Louis had been a girl lent Alice a little bit of royal stature, too.
The Old Testament Hannah became Anna early on, and then Ann in English and Anne in French. I couldn’t decide which one to put on the classic girl names list at first, but as of today, Anna is more popular than Ann or Anne. It’s also the sound that drives many a feminine favorite, from elaborations like Julianna, to names that just happen to include the sound, like Adrianna.
The Germanic Karl became the Latin Carolus; Caroline emerged as a logical feminine form. Like all of the Charles names, it’s been worn by saints and royals over the years. You’ve probably belted it out at a party: Sweet Caroline … whoa, ho, ho … Not so long ago, every Caroline shortened her name to Carrie. Today that’s less common, and we often use the name in full. In the 1940s, we tended to say the last syllable like lynn, and the spelling Carolyn peaked. Today, we’re more likely to rhyme it with vine.
Shortly before the world met Princess Charlotte, this name entered the US Top Ten. Like Caroline, Charlotte is a feminine form of the equally evergreen Charles. And while it’s a classic, it’s never been so wildly popular as it is today. Maybe that’s because other -t ending girl names, from Scarlett to Violet to Juliette, are also fast-rising favorites. Some Charlottes might be Charlie, but chances are that a Charlotte will use her name in full. Charlotte Bronte lends it some literary cachet. It’s a polished and popular choice, as traditional as a plaid jumper, but with a lot of spirit, too.
Christina is tied to the 1980s – along with Christie, Kristin, Krista, and a long list of similar names. Despite that relatively recent peak in popularity, it’s easy to argue Christina’s classic status. It’s regal, saintly, worn by women of accomplishment, and heard in half a dozen European languages. Christina might be hibernating now, but doubtless this name will find its way back into favor.
The challenge with adding Claire to a list of classic girl names is similar to the problems of Katherine. Over time, we’ve spelled it Clare, and sometimes even Clair. The Latinate Clara also qualifies as classic. But at the moment, Claire stands closest to the top of the charts. It feels as sleek and modern as Sloane or Quinn, but has long fallen on the feminine side of the name divide. Credit to the thirteenth century Saint Clare – Chiara in Italian – of Assisi, who popularized the name and helped it spread throughout Europe. Lots of names include the sound, from elaborations like Clarissa to modern word name options, like Clarity.
Eleanor sounds smart and capable, thanks to former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But it’s romantic, too, as in Eleanor of Aquitaine. With nicknames galore, Eleanor exemplifies one of the best qualifies of classic names: they’re shapeshifters, difficult to pigeonhole, easy to grow with your child. Jane Austen used the alternate spelling Elinor for her Sense and Sensibility heroine. While both versions have history, as well as notable bearers, it’s the ‘ea’ spelling that has always come out on top in the US.
Few girls’ names have ranked in or near the US Top 25 every year since data was first recorded in 1880. Elizabeth is one of the very few. It’s among the first names to come to mind whenever classic girl names are mentioned, an enduring choice worn by queens – including the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, as well as movie stars (Liz Taylor) and world-changing women (Elizabeth Cady Stanton). In every decade, there’s at least one famous Elizabeth that comes to mind. With plenty of nicknames to consider, you could name every women in your family Elizabeth and you’d never be confused.
Emily held the top spot in the US for years, and even though it’s fallen out of the Top Ten, it remains a favorite. From poet Emily Dickinson to actor Emily Blunt, there are almost too many women of accomplishment to list. And that’s not counting fiction! Emily Elizabeth appears in the Clifford books; Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride answers to the name; and there’s Simon & Garfunkel’s romantic song “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.” Emma and Amelia have followed Emily up the charts and now occupy the Top Ten, but this version, imported to England by the German-born Hanover princes, remains a rock-solid traditional name for a daughter.
It’s easy to dismiss a chart-topping favorite as trendy, rather than timeless. Except nothing could be further from the truth! Emma is this generation’s Mary. A name with centuries of history and a straightforward sound. And while we might know an awful lot of little Emmas right about now, the name is truly timeless. From a medieval queen to Jane Austen’s unforgettable heroine, the name appears across the ages, sounding right at-home every time.
Frances is the feminine form of Francis. It started out as a nickname for a young Italian boy named Giovanni who loved all things French, but ultimately became famous as Saint Francis of Assisi. Forms of the name have traveled the globe, and Francesca peaked in the US just a few years ago. But Frances remains the most traditional, a buttoned-down choice with sassy, retro nicknames like Frannie and Frankie. And if this ranking feels a little too unusual to call a name classic? Consider that Frances has more than doubled in use over the last decade.
We talk about modern virtue names, but Grace has centuries of history. It comes directly from the Latin gratia, which can encompass beauty, goodwill, and mercy, but the Puritans who embraced the name were thinking specifically of God’s grace. Despite those roots, Grace doesn’t seemly specifically religious. Maybe that’s because we’re so familiar with it that it feels more like a name than a word. There’s Hollywood star turned real life princess, Grace Kelly; musician Grace Slick; and Debra Messing’s sitcom character on Will & Grace. It’s a name that feels elegant, but approachable.
The ancient world gave us a Helen of such staggering beauty that nations went to war. It means torch, which feels just right. Medieval English simplified it to Ellen, which seems nearly as traditional. And other languages give us Helena, Elena, and Eleni, too. But spare Helen carries itself like a classic. It’s the given name of Elastigirl – a.k.a. Mrs. Incredible – from the Pixar movies, and it brings to mind the legendary Helen Keller, too. Since this name peaked in the 1910s, it’s right on track for a comeback a century later.
John holds a spot on the boys’ list, an evergreen favorite. While feminine forms of John abound, Jane might be the most traditional in English. Maybe it’s a literary thing: Jane Austen wrote masterpieces, while Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is among the most enduring of novels. Smart, strong women by the name are plentiful: scientist Goodall; activist and reformer Addams; plus journalists, actors, and more. While some feminine forms of masculine classics are elaborate – think of Josephine and Roberta, Henrietta and Brianna – Jane claims the same simple, strong sound as her brother. It’s a tailored, straightforward choice, but there’s nothing plain about Jane.
Joseph is among the most evergreen of boys’ names, so it seems fitting that Josephine appears here. While the French feminine form of Josephine wasn’t widely used until Napoleon married Josephine, who was born Marie Josephe, it fits with regal, storied classics like Charlotte and Elizabeth. Another quality Josephine shares with other classic girl names? Nicknames galore.
This name traces its beginnings to the Roman Empire, makes a cameo in the New Testament, and pops up in Shakespeare. There’s master chef Child, A-list actor Roberts, two former First Ladies, and too many fictional characters to even begin. Despite this, Julia doesn’t feel tied to a specific decade. It’s not a vintage revival. And yet, it doesn’t seem wildly common, either. It’s classic, strong, and perfectly feminine.
Over the years, the K and C spellings of this name have swapped places, but they’ve always been a favorite for American parents. The name’s roots are Greek, and origins are obscure. Early Christians liked it because it sounded like katharos – pure. That’s the meaning that we commonly use today. Saints and queens have worn the name, like Russia’s Catherine the Great. A sea of famous Kates followed: Katharine Hepburn, the Duchess of Cambridge, Cate Blanchett, and on and on and on. It’s among the most classic of classic girl names, one that nearly everyone agrees belongs on this list. But the spelling? That’s much tougher to agree on.
If you’re a child of the 70s, you’re forgiven for not realizing that Laura counts as a classic. It became a Top 25 staple beginning in the 1960s, and remained one right through the Reagan era. What fueled the name’s rise? A 1940s movie and song boosted Laura. So did Little House on Prairie‘s pioneering main character, General Hospital super-couple Luke and Laura; Twin Peaks’ ill-fated Laura Palmer. Songs did, too, from the 1940s movie theme song to Christopher Cross’ mournful “Tell Laura I Love Her.” It was a tsunami of Laura, pushing the name to the top of the charts. And yet, it’s a classic with ties to the natural world and a long history of use, one that’s sure to make a comeback.
We love a good mini-name these days. Just look at Top Ten staples Mia and Ava, or rising favorites like Ivy. Leah is just the tiniest bit longer, though Lea and Lia are seen, too. A long-time Top 100 fixture in the US, Old Testament Leah became popular post-Protestant Reformation. Unlike many classic girl names, there’s no single figure that dominates this name’s image, which makes it different from, say, regal Elizabeth or literary Jane. And yet, with centuries of use behind it, Leah feels every bit as traditional.
Until recently, Louisa and Louise both fell outside of the current Top 1000. The more elaborate Louisa, with its literary ties, rose first. But now Louise, too, has returned to the rankings. Silent film star and 1920s icon Louise Brooks lends the name a vintage sophistication. And the option to shorten it to Lou or Lulu appeals, too. While it’s familiar in the middle spot, the time has come for Louise to return as a first. It might make a great substitute for chart-topping classics like Charlotte.
Another choice that immediately comes to mind when classic girl names are mentioned, Margaret has been around since before the fourth century. It comes from the Latin word for pearl. From Margaret of Antioch to Margaret Atwood, notables can be found in nearly any generation. The go-to nicknames have changed, cycling from Peggy to Maggie to Maisie, and there’s an option to suit every personality. There’s something substantial about Margaret, a name that sounds capable. File Margaret with frills-free choices like Helen. They’re the girls’ names that show it’s possible to be feminine without sacrificing strength.
Many people list Mary as the most common girls’ name, and that’s half-right. After spending well over sixty years as the #1 name in the US, we all know a lot of Marys. But the name has slipped so far that a Mary born today seems downright surprising. In some places and times, Mary was considered too holy a name to give to a child; at other times, it was a staple choice for girls. Both reasons led to lots of Mary names, like Molly and Mae. But it’s the straightforward Mary that stands as a classic worthy of fresh consideration today.
Rachel faces the same challenge as Laura. It peaked recently, in this case, in the 1980s. Plus, we all think of Jennifer Aniston’s character on Friends, the 90s sitcom powerhouse. So it’s easy to overlook Rachel’s status as a true classic. Like many an Old Testament name, it became more common in English following the Protestant Reformation. Today’s parents might also appreciate the ties to early twentieth century conservationist and author Rachel Carson. It’s a name that went to school with Ashley, Heather, and Brittany, but Rachel feels right at home with Eleanor and Mary, too.
She’s the Old Testament wife of Isaac, the cheerful little girl on Sunnybrook Farm, and the first Mrs. DeWinter. Like so many Old Testament names, Rebecca owes its rise to the Reformation. In the US, the name peaked in the 1970s, but it’s never left the US Top 250. The long list of associations with the name, from a Shirley Temple character to the title of a Daphne du Maurier novel, bring that home. Dozens of notables wear the name today, along with plenty of fictional characters. Some Rebeccas answer to Becky, Becca, or Bex; a few are Reba, like country music’s Reba McEntire.
A go-to middle name for years, lately it’s just Rose on the rise. Spare and elegant, this botanical name feels sophisticated and friendly, all at once. Rosie makes for a darling nickname. Elaborations and smooshes are wildly popular, too, from Rosalie to Rosemary to plenty of less-expected choices. Rose names appear for centuries. During the 1100s, Henry II famously had a mistress named Rosamond Clifford, known as “Rose of the World.” And Saint Rose of Lima lived in the 1700s. An interesting twist? Many of the medieval Rose names come from the Germanic element hros – horse – rather than the flower.
While we think of Ruth as an Old Testament favorite – and that’s true – it’s also a celebrity baby name. Way back in 1891, Grover and Frances Cleveland named their baby girl Ruth. Cleveland was elected president twice, serving from 1885-89 and 1893-97. Her birth made headlines, and the name catapulted into the Top Ten. It fell out of favor, but after a century’s hibernation, Ruth is climbing the popularity charts once more. One more factor: Ruth doesn’t just pass the Supreme Court Justice test; it is the name of the legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sarah means lady in Hebrew, and sounds nicely feminine. While Sara is preferred in plenty of languages, it’s always lagged between Sarah-with-an-h in the US. Both spellings were big in the 1980s. One reason: Hall & Oates recorded “Sara Smile” in 1975, Fleetwood Mac gave the name to a song in 1979, and Starship followed in 1986. Sarah has always charted in the US Top 125, and makes the Top 100 most years.
Tally up the two spellings, and Sophia/Sofia just might be the most popular given name for girls born in the US in recent years. It’s powerfully popular across Europe and Latin America, too – doubtless one of the reasons many parents choose it for their daughters. More reasons: the meaning (wisdom), literary ties galore, and a handful of royals by the name, like King George III’s daughter, born in 1777. Today, however, the most famous tiara-wearing bearer of the name is the Disney Channel’s Sofia the First.
THERESA (unranked), TERESA (#871)
How can a name that fails to crack the current US Top 1000 be considered a classic? I’ll point to the multiple saints, royals, and other historical figures by the name. Theresa might mean harvest, or possibly summer. Many of the most famous bearers of the name have been Spanish, which explains the Teresa spelling – in fact, that’s probably why Teresa still holds on today. While you’re more likely to meet a Tessa than a Theresa, centuries of use put Theresa on the classic girl names list.
If you love strong, but feminine, names for girls, Victoria belongs on your list. There’s the legendary, long-reigning queen, of course. The name’s meaning – victory – is another plus. And Victoria was the Roman goddess of Victoria way back when. Factor in a stylish sound – the sharp ‘v’ and the on-trend – ia ending – and it’s no surprise that Victoria ranks in the US Top 25. It’s rarely left the Top 250 over the past century plus.
What are your favorite classic girl names?
Originally published on October 1, 2018, this post was updated with current popularity data and re-published on June 4, 2019. Additional updates followed on August 4, 2020, October 26, 2020, June 5, 2021, February 17, 2022, August 2, 2022, and May 18, 2023.