Why Popular Name Stats Can Be Misunderstood

Before the U.S. Social Security Administration began publishing the top baby names for boys and girls each year back in 1998, statistics on popular baby names were difficult for the general public to find. Maybe a few times a year the top 10 or top 25 names were published in local newspapers. Historical and state data was even more scarce.

Now, thanks to the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Name site, the top 1000 names given to boys and girls each year since 1880 is available to anyone. The top names for each state is also available. Being a former market research analyst and always a name nerd, this is such a thrill!

And yes, I have copied the data into a spreadsheet and started doing my own calculations to extrapolate name trends. Such findings were used in these posts: Baby Name Gender Equality, Trends: Baby Boy Names, and Uncommon Baby Names vs. Unusual Baby Names.

Certainly this online tool can be very useful. But has a name ever felt more or less popular than the data suggests?

Part of this could be explained by an individual’s frame of reference shaped by demographics. Different U.S. regions, different socioeconomic classes, and ideological groups each have their own mini-trends within the U.S. trends. But part of the explanation could also be the following limitations to the data.

Alternate Spellings

Many parents may be aware that the U.S. data does not combine different spellings. This makes sense because combining spellings could dilute the data. For example, when a spelling is changed the pronunciation variable is unknown. While Sarah and Sara (usually) sound alike and could be combined, do Mia and Mya sound alike? To some people the answer is yes, while to others the answer is no.

For those who are interested, there are some sites that have combined spellings, such as Name Nerds. Name Nerds shows which spellings are included in each name-group. For example, the “Kelly group” consists of Kelly (1047), Kellie (87), Kelli (72), Kelley (53), Keleigh (15), Keli (11), Kely (8), Kellee (8), Kelleigh (6).

The uncombined spellings is something to bear in mind when looking at popular name rankings. For example, according to the U.S. data, Riley ranked at 40 in 2010, while the “Riley group” on Name Nerds ranks at 14!

There were some surprises to me. For example combining the spelling for the “Lily group” only moves Lily up one notch (from 17 to 16). However, Lily may “feel” like a top 10 name due to the next data limitation.

Nicknames & Silent First Names

Lily is not only a given name, but can be a nickname for several long forms, including Lillian, Liliana, Lilith, and even Elizabeth (or Elisabeth). When all the children being called Lily are added to all the children given the name Lily on their birth certificate, that adds up to a lot of Lily’s!

The same can be said of Max, a common given name and nickname for many other long forms, as discussed  in the story behind my daughter’s name, since she would have been named Max had she been a boy.

To add another variable, some people go by their middle names, resulting in a “silent first name.” Could these people cancel out people who go by nicknames? For example, perhaps for every Lillian who is called Lily, there is a Lily Rosaline who goes by Rosie or Rosaline (or some other middle name with Lily, but I just find Lily Rosaline pretty and wanted to use it). This is nearly impossible to measure.

Simply put, some people don’t use the first name on their birth certificate as their call name, and there is no practical way to account for them in the data.


The post on compound names mentions that Marie-Claire was not in the U.S. Top 1000. Since writing that post, I have learned that statistically the popularity of Marie-Claire is inconclusive, due to the fact that the U.S. data does not include punctuation in name stats. I discovered this on the Baby Name Wizard Blog post, British Baby Names vs American Baby Names.

To verify if this was still the case, and find out how a name such as Marie-Claire would be counted in the data, I contacted the U.S. Social Security Administration and they were quick to respond. They confirmed that, yes, accounting for hyphens in the name data is simply too costly, while they will print hyphens on social security cards. As for how a name like Marie-Claire would be recorded, the hyphen would be removed and the space would be closed.

Historical Trends

In the Social Security data background information, it is noted that many people born before 1937 never applied for a social security card and therefore their names are not counted in the data.

Popular Middle Names

For the time being there simply is no data available on popular middle names. Or at least I have searched for middle name data and have not been able to find it – other than volunteer middle name polls online. If someone else is aware of middle name data, please let me know.

Since many people are curious about middle name trends, perhaps this data will become available, if not from U.S. Social Security Administration, perhaps from another public or private entity. However, if middle name data becomes available, the same limitations or other limitations will most likely apply.

Why share these limitations? I’m not complaining about them. All data has limitations, and sometimes it’s simply not practical or even possible to compensate for every unknown variable. I share these limitations to help parents look at the data from a different perspective and to encourage people not to get too hung up on popularity.

Hypothetically speaking, somewhere out there may be a pregnant lady who dreamed of one day having a son named Mason. Maybe this Mom-to-be knew Mason was popular, but never imaged that Mason, ranking at 12 in 2010 was almost in the top 10.

Upon learning this she becomes discouraged, thinking she would never in a a million years give her son a top 20 name, that could end up in the top 10 by the time her son is born in 2012.

But she and the Dad-to-be can’t agree on any other name, and no other name feels right. Oh my the calamity!

To this hypothetical lady, if you are out there reading, “Name your son Mason.”


  1. […] Very simply, Lily and Max Syndrome is one nickname with many long forms, making the call name more popular than what the Social Security stats suggest. […]

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