︎︎︎episode 50

Name Trends: From Bubbles to Kareem Abdul Jabbar the social science of the baby name game.

July 20th, 2021

︎︎︎︎ Listen on Apple
︎︎︎︎ Listen of Spotify
︎︎︎︎ Listen on Stitcher

Amanda - do you know why you were named Amanda?

How did you land on the name Dylan for your daughter?

Kim: My sister Stephanie likes to remind me of our baby naming plans that we had when were were kids. I LOOOVED the name Crystal so I was either going to name my daughter Crystal or Bubbles.

The baby center comes out with the top name trends each year. Amanda - What year were you born so I can look up the top trending names:


Before getting into it, remember all that chatter about how there was a predicted baby boom that was going to happen because of the pandemic - you know all that time on your hands…..

Well apparently it was actually a bust! Forbes reported that unlike after WWII - people have actually put off adding new family members because of the uncertainty in the world and researchers say we are looking at 300K fewer births than 2019. Job insecurity, health anxiety, and the gov’t telling people to stay away from hospitals made people more considerate about their decisions - additionally across the world people have decided to postpone plans to have children or actually decide to have FEWER children.

I have posted in the show notes here the top 2021 baby names so far (of course this is quite cis-gendered but i will get to that in a moment)...

According to Baby Center

Olivia and Emma for girls and Liam and Noah have been the highest trending names for a few years now….

Baby center did a recap in 2020 talking about how Baby names essentially act as a “mirror of the times”. They noted after reviewing all the names of new babies from the past year and saw that changes in the 2020 list reflect a year of loss and political divisiveness.” So - you could imagine that Kobe and Gianna saw nearly 200% increases in adoption rate after their tragic helicopter accident. Kamala is up over 100% and Liberty even saw a double digit increase. Amanda guess what - Karen and Chad saw a decrease in use by 13% and 12% respectively.

I am sure you can imagine some other 2020 key trends that reflect the times - Most notably the racial justice movement had a big impact in how parents named their children during the year - many memorialising key historical figures as King, Malcom, Frederick and Rosa saw a boost in popularity. Breonna also went up 108% in 2020.

So social scientists have been tracking name trends for years - fascinated by how the zeitgeist of the times helps to dictate the shifts in naming habits - be it mass culture or pop culture. They site for example - one of the most obvious showcases of this is the Puritans - with deep roots in their faith and the bible - who named their children biblical names like “Jebediah” and “Ichabod” which evolved then to moral or value names like “Faith” “Hope” or Mercy”...then evolving more during the American Revolution embracing patriotic names of rebels and war heros - George, Martha, Thomas, Montgomery were memorialized as strong baby names. 

Scientists have noted that over anything names have gotten much more diverse in the last 100 years - and novelty and original names also trend based on the actual “spirit“ of the decade. The Roaring 20’s and the 60’s were much more liberal with their naming tendencies then say the stiffness of the 50’s or 80’s that opted to stay more traditional, conservative and regimented.

Amanda, Did you know - that at the turn of the 20th century, there was a 1-in-20 chance that a newborn would be named John or Mary?

JStor reports in this great article called The Science of Baby Name Trends which has a ton of fascinating information including this -   “Back in 1900, for example, 91% of all children of any gender were given a name from the top 1,000 most popular names. But a century later in 2000, only 75% of girls wer given a name from the top 1,000 most-popular girl names, and that percentage had dropped for boys too, to 86%.

I mean - Amanda remember when Gweneth named her daughter Apple?  - this was like the start of such a craze.

So there is an article calledFrom Karen to Katie - Using Baby Names to Understand Cultural Evolutionfrom a group of social scientists that tracks the phonetic attributes that tie name trends and popularity together. For example “in the year 2000, some of the most popular names begin with a hard K sound—like “Carl” or “Katie”—while other popular names end with a N sound (like “Darren” and “Warren”). In the following years, parents are statistically more likely to prefer names that combine those sounds, like “Karen.” Or to put it another way, names evolve out of the sounds of previous names. “Names like Aiden should be more likely to become popular when names like Jayden have been popular recently,” as the scientists note.”

Psychology Today reports that scientists took it a step further to see if words that were common in the Zietgest had an effect on name trends. “Researchers conducted a study looking for correlations between hurricane and baby names. More destructive storm names—which get mentioned more frequently in conversation and the press—indeed influenced naming patterns. For example, following Hurricane Katrina, the number of infants given names starting with K jumped by a striking 9 percent.”

The 100 Year Name Rule

I have been really curious about the names that our Grandparents had - my Grandmothers were name Myrtle and Millie - names that at their time where popular and on trend and for children of the 80’s and 90’s sound outdated and old - names you could never in a million years imagine naming a cute little baby - because you only associate it with old stodgy grownups. So those names fall out of popularity - only to reemerge as viable and even cute names 100 years after they were considered relevant - because a new generation has rolled in who doesn't have these associations but, as we all remember, love the concept of nostalgia.

Well there is an interesting phenomenon that is called the 100 year rule.   So Rose and Alfie and YES even Myrtle and Millie, all have the opportunity now to start coming back around because they sound new and fresh and mysterious again.

Associations take a clear roll in the baby name game and we have a clear association with our own generation and the generation of our parents - and even grandparents that effect how names become unpopular. Me and my sister’s names Kimberly, Stephanie and Amy are such 70’s and 80’s sounding names - you wouldn’t see these on the top lists - but I bet they will be back in action in the next oh 30 or 40 years? 

I also am guessing that the Cottage Core trend will start a tidal wave of old timey names coming back in the next 5-10 years because there is a very interesting trend of Old Lady Chic names showing a comeback after many years sitting idle and recognizably banished by society - all  inspired by Cottage Core and a feeling of familiarity and comfort.

Here are a few Girls names that are showing signs of popularity:

It reminds me of one of my favorite Netflix shows - the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina - who embraced these names Ambrose, Hilda, Prudence, Agatha, Rosalind and even Dorcus.

Neutral Names

Amanda you have been an early adopter of this trend - for a while American’s have had a long tradition of giving male names to daughters but what is now trending are Gender Neutral names.  As we mentioned before - Statistics have shown that baby names tend to experience a resurgence in popularity every hundred years or so, and in the 1920s, traditionally “boy” names for girls such as Frankie and Billie were all the rage - now they are back - and pop culturally relevant for girls as well. (ehem. Billie Eilish who is very much going to effect the name trends). Gender Neutral names are growing in popularity matching the times as is the demand to prescribe to cis-gendered sterotypes and names is loosening for new parents.  Baby center reports that names like Riley, Emery, Alexis, Arial, Briar and Morgan are trending on both gender sides.

Other traditionally boys names are being commandeered for girl baby names as well - one of the most popular boys names Noah, moved up 35% for girls in 2020 - Palmer was up 47%, Ezra up 32%, Sutton 26% - and others like Kai, Grayson and Palmer as the gender divide keeps shrinking.

Local Yocals

Interestingly also Baby center also noted that location and destination names like Paris, London and Sydney - you know dream cities - have been popular for years - but during 2020 more local destinations have been trending - they credit this to people taking more pride in  places they were either raised or changed them - or choosing names closer to home which reflects the reality of shelter-in-place orders and travel restrictions.  So names like Berkeley, Arizona, Aspen, Phoenix, Harlem, Carolina, Baylor, Dallas and Salem all saw uptrends.

The Celeb impact

Of course we would be remiss to point out the effect celebrities and popculture has on name trends. Trending celebrities have historically always had an effect on the names of baby’s - Taylor, Adele and Lennon are all trending names of course - but also historical figures particularly for women’s names have had an impact - Ruth (Bader Ginsberg), Amelia (Earhart) and  Eleanor (i.e. Roosevelt).

And of course what celebrities NAME their own babies has a direct impact on trends as well.  Think of Meagan Markle and Prince Harry’s babies - Lilibet and Archie (also a direct association with the 100 year rule). Or Mindy Kahling’s Spencer…..

Additionally Disney Princesses, Marvel characters, Country music stars and strong Athletes (I mean hello Olympics anyone?) they all have a big impact on popularity of names. There are predictions that are affected by streaming services - Disney + offering easy access to classic disney movies will likely have an effect on names with classic names coming back into the mix.

Biblical Name trends

Naturally biblical trends have been around - well, since the bible and have been inspiring names forever. Mary, Matthew, John...but apparently the Old Testament is inspiring names that have a bit more of a worldly theme hinting that people are turning to spirituality in these times of such uncertaininty and fear - Genesis, Gideon, Dante, Zion, Saul and Soloman, Ismael - Ezra as the Unisex crossover and Galilea.