The baby name Olivia transformed from lovely Shakespearean rarity to chart-topping favorite.
Thanks to Liv for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
William Shakespeare used the name Olivia in his comedy Twelfth Night.
In fact, he may have invented the baby name Olivia – though it was in sparing use by the time the play was written around 1601.
The Latin oliva means olive. There’s a series of Saint Olivas from ancient days. And, of course, the Bible tells us that Noah knew it was safe to land the ark when a dove returned carrying an olive leaf. Oliver was very much in use by Shakespeare’s time, and Olive was also heard for baby girls.
Word play in Twelfth Night suggests the olive reference inspired the name’s choice. The phrase “hold the olive” refers to an olive branch, a traditional symbol of peace.
It’s clear that the olive tree, and all the symbolism associated with it – peace, but also friendship – attach to Olivia, too.
Shakespeare drew extensively on an earlier Italian comedy for inspiration, though it’s not clear if the character names come from that source.
What we do know is that the baby name Olivia never entirely went away.
It’s ranked in the US Top 1000 every year since 1880, the first year for which we have data.
For generations, Olivia served as the textbook definition of a normal name. Familiar, but not common.
The baby name Olivia ranked #251 in 1900; #293 in 1925; and #275 in 1950. That’s pretty steady.
British-American actress Olivia de Havilland became a Hollywood star in the late 1930s. She scooped up two Academy Awards for Best Actress, including for 1949’s The Heiress.
And yet de Haviland didn’t inspire parents to choose her name.
By the 1960s, the baby name Olivia slipped into the 500s, reaching an all-time low of #543 in 1971.
Then came The Waltons, a television series about a wholesome, Depression-era family making the best of things in challenging times. It debuted in 1971 with a Christmas special. By the following September, it had become a television staple.
The family included grandparents Zeb and Esther; children John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Erin, Ben, Jim-Bob, and Elizabeth; plus the parents, John Sr. and Olivia.
Olivia Walton was everything you’d expect in a matriarch – kind and compassionate, but also strict and hard-working.
Her name comes from Spencer’s Mountain, a novel by Earl Hamner Jr., loosely based on his childhood in rural Virginia. (Though Hamner’s mom was named Doris.)
Then came singer Olivia Newton-John. The Australia native won a talent contest, headed for the US, recorded the ballad “I Honestly Love You,” and scored her first hit.
That was 1974. In 1978, Newton-John starred as Sandy in Grease. Then came roller-skating extravaganza Xanadu. In the 1980s, she scored a massive smash hit with her album and hit single “Physical,” an anthem to the era’s aerobics craze.
From mason jars and homemade dresses to leg warmers and big hair, the two women offered very different images for Olivia.
Combined, they pushed the baby name Olivia to #228 in 1980.
And by 1990? The baby name Olivia debuted in the US Top 100 at #72.
BY THE NUMBERS
Along the way, we met plenty of famous Olivias.
Olivia d’Abo played Kevin’s cool older sister in The Wonder Years. Actors Olivia Wilde and Olivia Williams answer to the name, as does Olivia Colman, currently playing Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
Fictional Olivias multiplied, too. In the sixth season, The Cosby Show gave us a super-cute Olivia Kendall, step-daughter to Denise Huxtable. The character was played by none other than Raven-Symoné. Given the show’s mega-popularity, it almost certainly increased use of the name.
Mariska Hargitay played Detective Olivia Benson on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from 1999 through today. She’s appeared on 500 episodes and counting. Her character’s appearance tracks with the name’s rise, too.
From 2012 to 2018, Scandal gave us Olivia Pope, arguably the best known of the current batch. Unless you’re under twelve, in which case, Ian Falconer’s porcine Olivia, who debuted in her first book all the way back in 2000, might claim the title.
Other famous people with the name include American author Olivia Goldsmith, known for The First Wives Club, as well as actor Olivia Munn. Most recently, singer Olivia Rodrigo catapulted from the Disney Channel to the very top of the pop charts, contributing to the name’s staying power.
The name climbed steadily, reaching #50 in 1994, #10 in 2001, and #2 in 2014, and, at long last, #1 in 2019. It’s still there as of 2020.
It’s not just in the US, either. Olivia tops the charts in the UK, too, currently ranking #1 in England and Wales and #2 in Scotland.
Like so many popular names, the baby name Olivia inspired a few alternative spellings. Alivia debuted in the US Top 1000 in 1995, peaked at #175 in 2010, and has since fallen to #253 as of 2020.
Given our affection for A names, Alivia’s success is no surprise. It might also appeal to parents eager to avoid OH-livia, in favor of a softer Ah-livia.
Olyvia, Alyvia and more variations are sometimes seen, too.
NICKNAMES and OTHER LIVS
Livvy – or Livie, Livvie, or Livi – is the obvious nickname for Olivia. But Ollie and Allie work, too, depending on the spelling. And the spare Liv might be the most sophisticated of them all.
Liv is also an independent name with Scandinavian roots meaning life.
And Livia sounds like a short form, but comes from a Latin name meaning blue, or possibly envious. The spelling Lyvia is sometimes seen, too.
TO THE TOP
Add it up, and the baby girl name Olivia is powerfully popular. It’s a choice that feels literary and traditional, even though it’s really a twenty-first century favorite. Like similar sounding names Isabella, Amelia, and Sophia, it’s a feminine and romantic choice, but with a certain strength, too.
We love a long, flowing name for a daughter, especially with an -ia ending, and especially with a middle V. Olivia has it all.
What do you think of the baby name Olivia? Do you hear it often?
First published on October 29, 2013, this post was revised substantially and re-published on November 28, 2020 and again on April 13, 2022.
I had Olivia on my list for years! I’m a nineties baby and knew one growing up and 2 in college and have a great aunt named Olivia. But as I met more and more young kids or infants named Olivia after my son was born I decided to scratch it off the list. It’s a lovely name it’s just too common where I live. Especially since my other two kids have more “sweet spot” names for where we live.
I’m an Olivia born in 1979. I was 19 years old before I met another person with my name (and I live in a large metropolitan area) and she was an elderly woman in her 80s. Nowadays, you can barely turn around without bumping into an Olivia, but they are all under 10 years old. Extremely rare to meet an Olivia my age, even though I was born right after the Grease explosion. My parents did not name me after Olivia Newton-John, though I get asked that often enough. It was just a name they both liked…the only one they both liked, actually.
As a child, I fell in love with Olivia while watching Avonlea on the Disney channel. There are too many Olivias for my liking where we live, or I would consider it for a daughter. Incidentally, Avonlea also introduced me to Felicity, Cecily, and Jasper. I really miss that show. 🙂
I love the name Olivia. It has it all. Plus, for reasons unknown, it’s not one I get sick of hearing. Sophia and Isabella feel done to death, but no matter how many Olivias I meet I always feel like it’s a tasteful choice. I feel similarly about Eva.
Would I use it tomorrow? Sadly, probably not, but if I hadn’t started watching name stats my daughters would have been Lorelei and Olivia.
What did you name your daughters instead? I used to love Olivia when I was a teen. Now that it has become so popular, I like Catherine and Laurel instead.
Sarah, I probably worded that badly. I don’t have any yet, but my fingers are crossed for one day! I just meant that those were my top choices for years (a decade really, since I was teenager) and would have ended up being used if I hadn’t discovered the SSA database. If I was naming a daughter tomorrow I would probably use the understated Griet (I’ve loved it since reading Girl With a Pearl Earring). That or the long-form Margriet, with the intention of calling her Griet 🙂 Catharine and Laurel are lovely, classic choices, I hope you get to use them!
What about the Cosby show darling, played by Raven Symone? Most people of my generation might have filed that name away for future use.
I essentially feel that I would love my name if it were not in the top ten, and maybe also if my middle name were not Grace. My parents also totally thought they were trendsetters. I guess Grace was not a default middle name in the 50s and 60s, when they were named. They should have named me Alice instead as my mother wanted. I will say though that in my particular area Olivia is not too common.