We’re not the first to say that the Social Security Administration’s Top 1000 name list can lead a parent astray. While it is a fabulous tool, and worth every nickel of my tax dollar, like any data set, it requires some interpretation. About a week after it first came out, we posted our Top Ten list, based on the idea that adding up variant spellings changes the rankings considerably.

If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll now see a new widget on the right-hand side titled “Box.” There’s a handy little tool called box.net that allows users to upload and share files. If you’re so inclined, you can now download our Revised Top 100 and a side-by-side comparison of the official SSA list versus our revised version.

Or, if you’re not so data-obsessed, just read on for a few of our observations.

While the biggest reveal for us is that Emily is not necessarily the top name in the nation, a few other interesting points emerged:

  • It’s old news to many, but a name with variant spellings is always more popular than it first appears. The flipside is that names with fewer opportunities for creative respellings are actually less common. Hailey and Kaitlyn both make our revised Top Ten; Hannah dropped to #13.
  • We could compress even farther. Our initial impulse was to group Kayla and Kaylee, Lily and Lillianna, Alexa and Alexandra. But some of your comments made us think the better, and so we’ve tried to use a conservative approach to clustering. Still, even our Revised Top 100 doesn’t show a complete picture of how often certain same elements are repeated. Lillian drops, but Lilianna skyrockets; if we opted for the most condensed grouping possible, it would probably be a Top Ten name.
  • Certain spellings lead to more than one pronunciation, complicating the clusters. Is Myah pronounced like Maya? Or is she Mia? The first gains while the second falls in the Revised Top 100, but exactly how much is impossible to say without interviewing every single mother of the ambiguously spelled.

Admitting our flaws, we nonetheless declare these names the Biggest Gainers in the ApMtn Revised 100:

  • Kaelyn rises a staggering 242 spots!
  • Carly rises by 171.
  • Callie rises by 162.
  • Elena rises by 119.
  • Camryn rises by 117.
  • Jayden rises by 103.

Of course, that brings most of these names into the Top 100. There are still many more Kaitlyns (over 15,000) than Kaelyns (just about 4,000). But Kaelyn isn’t the obscure name that her #337 official rank implies. By our calculations, she’s a comfortable #95.

Other names with double-digit gains include Christina (up 77 spots), Keira (77), Juliana (73), Danielle (72), Jada (59), Liliana (58), Katie (47), Jordan (45), Camila (45), Peyton (44), Layla (41), Valeria (41), Madeline (39), Arianna (38), Adriana (37), Jacqueline (35), Kaitlyn (34), Aaliyah (30), Maya (28), Mackenzie (28), Kylie (25), Gabrielle (22), Rebecca (22), Riley (21), Zoe (16), Hailey (15), Makayla (14), Aubrey (13), Katherine (12), Brianna (11) and Jasmine (11).

The drops are not nearly as dramatic, but the following names posted double-digit plummets: Julia (fell by 24 places), Audrey (23), Kimberly (22), Alexandra (21), Brooke (21), Taylor (21), Andrea (21), Alexa (19), Morgan (19), Jessica (19), Jennifer (18), Nevaeh (17), Victoria (17), Kayla (16), Lauren (15), Faith (15), Lillian (14), Angelina (14), Nicole (13), Samantha (12), Sydney (12), Destiny (12), Avery (12), Alexis (11), Mia (11) and Claire (10).

For parents aiming to avoid referring to themselves as Emma J.’s mom or Hayley-with-the-two-y’s dad through the school years, a few lessons emerge:

  • Don’t just check the name as you expect to see it spelled – even if you think there’s obviously a proper spelling. We know the mom of a school-aged Madeleine. Since their surname is French, she couldn’t contemplate any other way to spell her daughter’s name. But as it happens, Madeline and Madelyn were far more popular spellings at the time – and Madalyn and Madilyn have become increasingly popular, too.
  • Planning on using a nickname? Consider other given names that might share it. In Madeleine’s case, she shares her nickname Maddie with Madison (and Madisyn, Madasyn, etc.) So not only are there a lot of variant spellings for the name itself, the nickname feels extremely common. The same holds true for Lily, Lexi, Addie, Katie and a few others.
  • Accept that even if you use the dominant spelling of a name with variants, you’ll have to reinforce that expectation over and over – and over – again. Victoria and Samantha can rest easy. But choose something like Elena – one of our personal favorites, and the most popular spelling – and you may well find yourself opening birthday cards and party invitations to Alaina, Elaina and Alayna. People have expectations about how names are spelled, based on their own backgrounds, experiences and preferences, and often don’t stop to think about whether they’re right or wrong.
  • If you choose an unusual spelling or a name of recent coinage, accept that it might be a headache. Name obsessed as we are, we have been known to mangle a name, especially one that we rarely we see written. An old friend’s wife has the unusual moniker Kylene. At least we think that’s the proper spelling. Or is it Kyleen? She once confessed that even her aunts and cousins get it wrong, and, nice person that she is, she doesn’t correct anyone. We recently discovered that we’ve been misspelling our neighbor’s daughter’s name wrong. She’s Mylah, not Myla. Ooops.
  • Recognize that the trickiest situations are those when two spellings are quite close to each other. Peyton and Payton are shared by about 5,000 girls; nearly half are Peyton-with-an-a and half Peyton-with-an-e. Similarly, Arianna and Ariana differ by only an extra n. Even a straightforward name sometimes contains unexpected hassles.
  • Know that the original spelling is not always the most popular. Once upon a time, we loved Caitlin and Michaela. Today, they’ve been far eclipsed by Kaitlyn and Makayla. It doesn’t matter that the original versions are very different; name your daughter Michaela, and realize that insisting “We spelled it the right way” won’t help most people write your child’s name properly.
  • Names that are gaining in popularity are also often gaining variant spellings, making for a double whammy. Jessica’s days at the top of the charts are dropping, and so parents choosing this name are less likely to make it “different” by spelling it Jessika, Jessykah or Jezikah. But Kaelyn rises so much precisely because most of the individual variants are gaining, too.

To be perfectly honest, all of this reinforces our long-held opinion that while it’s not a big deal to be “Sofia-with-an-f” or “Juliana-with-one-n,” names with more than two possible spellings are almost always more trouble than they’re worth. We make a few exceptions – we’re quite fond of Katharine Hepburn’s spelling, for example, and despite the possible headaches associated with Elena, it remains a favorite.

The Revised Top 100 isn’t any more perfect than the original list, but it’s a useful exercise – and parents contemplating choosing a name like Callie or Maya would do well to check both.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. This is an older post that I just happened to come across by looking in the archives for the name “Lily”, but I couldn’t help but chime in on the “Katherine” debate.

    I am one too, only my name is spelled “Katheryn”. I do care for this spelling. It is always misspelled, mispronounced, etc. People think I made it up. (My parents named me after two family friends who spelled their names this way – I had nothing to do with it). My favorite spelling of the name is with a C; preferably “Catherine”. However, I feel it is so rude when other people say they “hate” a spelling, especially when it is not their spelling. What’s it to you? What do you care? You’re not the one who has to listen to people tell you the “e” doesn’t belong or that *you* spelled it wrong or call you Kathleen, Kathy, or Katie instead because they can’t be bothered. I can say I prefer a spelling over another, but honestly, if you ever see me writing that I “hate” a name or a spelling, please kick me off this website, because I shouldn’t be spouting my opinions over the internet anymore.

    Sorry, but that really hurts my feelings. It’s bad enough to not like your own name spelling, but when other people dump all over it it feels like salt in the wound.

    1. Kat, thanks for saying this. The longer I write about names in a public forum, the more I realize that names are only “just” names until they’re attached to a flesh’n’blood person looking you in the eye.

      A year ago, I wrote a series of posts called “Seven Deadlies” – the seven worst things I thought you could do to a kid, name-wise. (And I actually stopped at six, because I never gathered my thoughts around #7.) But I took them down a few months ago because honestly? The longer I write, the more I realize that names are both far more important and less important than I believed before. (I’ve yanked the posts.)

      I’m not saying this very well, but I think you’re absolutely correct. And I’m trying to move to what Laura Wattenberg has called a “scorn-free” policy.

      And I think the only person who should be able to say that they “hate” a name is someone wearing the name.

      Thanks for reminding me about this – it is an important issue, and one that I’ve disregarded myself.

      1. Thanks for listening. For the record, I’ve never felt offended by anything you’ve written or commented on. I also need to learn to stop being so defensive! 🙂

  2. I love you and your amazing research. That comment deserves its own post! I guess I’ll have to concede to the Katharines, although I still maintain it looks weird. It’s better than Kathyreinne, which an interviewer once wrote for my name. I told the lady the right spelling, and she laughed me off, saying “that’s how I spell my daughter’s name, because your version is boooooring!” Needless to say, the interview didn’t go well, and I didn’t get the job. 😉

  3. Ah … the Katharine question! It so happens that my cousin is Katharine, after Ms. Hepburn. (I’ll be sure to tell her to look up the Arts Center next time she’s in Old Saybrook – congrats on the opening!)

    Here’s my take on it, though I don’t read Greek or Latin, so it’s based very much on secondhand sources. While the name’s precise meaning and origins are debated, they’re quite clearly Greek, and based on the name Hekaterine or Aikaterine. As I understand it, there’s no hard C in Greek. Of course, there wasn’t originally a K in Latin, but they did eventually adopt the Greek Kappa. The letter was still used sparingly, but odds are that any Ancient Roman women whose names were recorded would’ve been Katharina, or perhaps Katerina. That’s both because the name itself came from Greek, and because of the link (either pre-existing or desired by the Romans) between the name and the Greek word for pure, katharos.

    So that gives the edge to Katherine with a K – in fact, it probably gives the edge to Katharine. (Sorry, Kayt!)

    Catherine became the dominant form in vernacular Italian and Spanish, and most of the early saints recorded by the Catholic Church would’ve been Catherine. Sometime in the Middle Ages, the dominant form in England became Katherine. It’s murky, though, because personal names weren’t written all that often, and no one was overly fussed about proper spellings.

    In fact, standardized spellings are largely an 18th and 19th century convention – for words *and* personal names.

    Of course, queens and other notables have always had their names written, and so looking at the six wives of Henry VIII, we can draw some interesting conclusions. Some references refer to all three as Katherine or Catherine, but I’ve often noticed that often Catherine of Aragon – his Spanish-born wife, baptized Catalina – is written with a C, while his two English-born Katherines (Howard and Parr) are written with a K.

    Since the name is in use in virtually every European language, it really depends on how the language interprets K and C. My husband’s Polish family is chock full of Katherines – actually, Katarzynas. They’re still in Warsaw. 😉

    My Italian family has mostly Catarinas on our tree, and in their early days in the US favored the spelling Catharine at first; Catherine a generation or two later. Of course, Italian was a fractured language, too. Today, Caterina is the dominant form in Italy.

    There’s actually a St. Catharines, Ontario, outside of Toronto, but the bearer of the name wasn’t a saint, but the wife of an early notable. I believe she was English, so the rules about K/C use are pretty liberal even when you can say that one would’ve been dominant or preferred.

    So … the Ks have it, but just barely. And, of course, in the last few decades, Catherine has dropped out of favor while Katherine has skyrocketed, probably because it seems like the logical way to get the nickname Kate.

    All of this aside, the “ryn” endings on Kathryn/Cathryn seem to be used infrequently until the 19th and 20th centuries, but they’ve been around. You’ll also see Kathrine and a few other oddities in the historical record. It probably isn’t a sign of creative parents as much as it signals a non-standard, evolving language.

    Anyway, that’s my spin … anyone ever come across an authoritative discussion on this point? I’ve pieced this together by reading about the evolution of Greek and Latin and culling my usual sources to see how the different spellings are treated, but I’d love to read something scholarly.

  4. Oh, well thanks, coolteamblt! Hahha. But yes, I believe Katherine with a K (not sure if it’s Katherine or Katharine, tbh) is the oldest form of the name. Catherine was the most popular spelling for years in America (and possibly Britain, too), but now Katherine is. That’s probably why Catherine seems more old fashioned or traditional. I was named after my grandmother, btw, which is how I lucked into my favourite spelling of the name. At least I get a little bit of originality in being Cat with a C or Cate with a C. It is a pain in the butt, though.

  5. Also, these are things I try to let people know when they start saying things like ‘Haileigh is unique! Look, it’s 229184th in popularity this year!” *shudder*

    Awww, I like my version, Katherine, a lot, but I like Catherine best. Katharine always has looked funny to me. I really hate Kathryn.

  6. I just had to drop in on their conversation too. You will be seeing the named Katharine with an “a” a lot more as the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and Theatre will be opening in the town Hepburn called her “paradise.” That town is Old Saybrook,Connecticut. It is the only theater named after the 4-time Academy Award winning actress.
    Come visit us at http://www.katharinehepburntheater.org

  7. I’m quite fond of Katharine Hepburn’s spelling too as it happens!! 🙂

    Appellation Mountain, I was under the impression that while Catherine is the more traditional spelling of the name, my spelling (and indeed that of the late Miss Hepburn) is the oldest form of the name, could you tell me if this is correct?…

    On a different note entirely, I’m not that keen on Elena, largely because all I ever seem to hear at the moment is Ella/Ellie. I’ve done a little investigative work and found that their UK rankings are as follow: Ella(9) Ellie(13) and not to be forgotten: Eleanor(49). This means that their combined rating probably puts this trio around the top 5 mark (I’m not that good at maths!); hence why I’m always hearing the name. It just goes to show how deceptive lists and statistics can be…