Warning: Your Baby’s Name Could Become #1

Last week the top 2011 baby names became public.

This raises a subject I find fascinating. Among the most competitive parents, a child reaching #1 in any given area is usually something to celebrate, not avoid.

  • Becoming the #1 in class? Yes.
  • Becoming #1 on the gymnastics team? Hooray! Yes!
  • Getting into the #1 Law School? Hell yes.
  • Getting the #1 name? Hell no.

As absurd as this may sound, many parents, influenced by annoying memories of being one of X Jennifer’s, Jessica’s, Michael’s, etc. go out of their way to avoid giving their baby the #1 name. Names ranking from 2-10 are equally dreaded. My generation of parents is more focused on unique names than the older generations. I’m guilty.

Before the sex of my son was known, my Mom suggested Olivia.

My response was, “Mom, Olivia’s nice, but it’s a Top 10 name.

My Mom’s response was “So what?

My Mom doesn’t understand my resistance to Top 10 names.

Perhaps my Grandmother didn’t understand my Mom’s resistance to giving me my second cousin’s name.

Had I been a boy, my first name would have been my Dad’s middle name. My parents would have followed the same convention for their firstborn daughter except my Dad’s cousin claimed my Mom’s middle name as her daughter’s first name nine months before I was born. The name in question, Dawn, was a rising star of the 70’s.

Many from my Grandmother’s generation can’t fathom the reluctance to recycle friend and non-household family names. Comments from readers of this Name Lady article, They Want My Baby Name, suggest “Baby name theft” is a foreign concept to my grandmother’s generation. Best friends would both name their daughters Nancy. Families would have four cousins named John. And no one would blink.

Each generation strives to give their kids names more unique than the generation before. How far will the next generation go to avoid a popular name?

The top 1000 list represents only 73%, of babies. The top 1000 is a lot less representative of girls. Only 66% got top 1000 names last year.

Over the past decade the top 1000 has shrunk around 4% . If this trend continues, 30 years from now only 60% of babies could get a top 1000 name. Only a little over half of all girls could get top 1000 names. Imagine that.

Thirty years is a long time. Perhaps the un-popular name trend will reach equilibrium by then. In fact, for the first time in a few years, there has been an ever so slight increase (a big whopping 0.1%) in babies getting top 1000 names.

Regardless, based on what I read, un-popular names seem to be a trend.  Reader comments from the 7 Surprises from 2011’s Top 1000 Baby Names speculated that some names, such as Adelaide and Matilda may have been slightly hurt by their hip-factor. These names went up, but not as dramatically as we thought. While difficult to prove, some parents may have avoided these names fearing they will become popular.

Avoiding names that aren’t even popular, just seem in danger of becoming popular, might explain the high turnover in popular names. Over the past five years, the turnover rate of #1 girl names is unprecedented. The next question is: if the pool of popular names continues to shrink and become increasingly volatile, will the top 1000 rankings carry any weight?

The top 1000 very well may carry weight in the future – as a list to avoid. Avoiding # 1 or the top 10, 20, 50, 100, or even 500 is no longer unique enough. Nameberry readers tend to be ahead of the curve and often actively seek names outside the top 1000. When discussing the unveiling of the 2011 Top 1000 baby names for Nameberry, Appellation Mountain’s Abby Sandel focused on what’s NOT on the list.

I love discovering new names as much as any red-blooded name junkie. Our two-part series on How to Pick a Creative Name That isn’t Crazy was designed to help parents find good names outside the Top 1000, but even avoiding the top 1000 has risks.

The risk is twofold:

  1. The name is so bizarre there’s a good reason it’s outside the top 1000 or
  2. Any name with any ounce of appeal will end up in the top 1000 eventually, and once the name charts it will probably take off.

Consider this:

  • For exactly 40 years Isabella was outside the top 1000 from 1949 to 1989.
  • Chloe was outside the top 1000 from 1944 to 1981, nearly as long as Isabella.
  • Fifty years ago, Mia had never been in the top 1000.
  • Thirty years ago, Madison (on a girl) had never reached the top 1000.
  • Twenty years ago, Aiden and Jayden had never reached the top 1000.

Also consider:
William my have gone up two places to #3 in 2011, but is actually at its lowest use ever in terms of percentages. Back in 1880 William stood at #2 and was given to 8% of newborn boys. Over a century later, in 2011, William stood at #3 and was given to 0.9% of newborn boys. Go back 131 years and eight times as many boys were named William yet William was a top 3 name both then and now. Rankings are only relative.

As these past examples show, you never know when an outside-the-top 1000 will hit the dreaded top 10. And those in the dreaded top 10 are less popular than ever before.

In light of this information, the fear of the next Jennifer or Michael seems unfounded. On the surface, it’s an irrational fear to which I can definitely relate. I instinctively felt a pang of remorse seeing some of my favorites, Felicity, Hugh, and Thaddeus rise in 2011.

Why do many of us have this irrational fear? Because emotion is more powerful in shaping opinions than logic. Maybe, based on real numbers, Sophia will never be as huge as Mary was during her prolonged #1 run. Yet to many parents, Sophia, while a lovely name, feels generic. We fear our favorites, which feel so personal to us, will become generic too. If Sophia can become generic, why not Gemma? If Isabella can become generic, why not Adelaide?

Exclusivity breeds intrigue. You want your friends intrigued by your kids’ names, but you don’t want your friends copying them. It’s sort of like discovering a little hole-in-the wall restaurant with bold flavored food. You want to bring a few friends and share your discovery with a select crowd, but when you learn The Phantom Gourmet has just featured your place, and the place begins to win awards in the local paper, you fear fame will change your little secret.

You thought Frankie’s Chowder Hut was your place! Now you can barely find parking, much less a table. You thought Declan was your discovery and your five-year old’s name! Now Declan shares his name with three babies born in the past year.

Suddenly what makes  Frankie’s Chowder Hut enticing could be compromised to accommodate a growing fan-base. Food that was once bold becomes bland and ordinary. Names that seemed cosmopolitan morph into the clichéd girl-next-door. Admit it, some of you found Madison appealingly off-beat on a girl 20 years ago. I did.

The truth is, if you have good tastes, the top 1000 will rarely elude your names. I’ve learned to celebrate the rise of Felicity, Hugh, and Thaddeus.

However, a conversation I had with Rob proves when it comes to my own kids, I’m still hopelessly afflicted with irrational popularity avoidance syndrome:

Me: “Did you know Fiona’s name went down this year? I was pleasantly surprised. I knew Paul would go down, but I thought Fiona would go up. Fiona went down 9 places and Paul went down 10 places. I’ve accepted Fiona’s name will get more popular, but there’s hope her name won’t get too popular too quickly.”

Rob: “That’s cool.”

Me: “Here I am giddy that our kids’ names actually went down in popularity. Does that make me a dork?”

I might as well asked Rob if I looked fat. There was no right answer. Poor guy.

Rob: “Yes? Was I supposed to agree?

Any name could become the #1 name including your kids’ names – if you have kids – and my kids’ names. But do you know what makes me feel good? The other day Fiona told me, “Mom, I like being Fiona.”

And that’s all that should matter.

Readers: Do you suffer from irrational popularity avoidance syndrome?

Photo credit


  1. yes! i definitely suffer from it. 🙂 the husband and i plan to name a future boy “Weston”, so I was sad when it was on the rise + to hear a celeb had used it this last year too. we’ve had it in our name bank for years.

  2. Great post. And I love that you shared your name conversation that you had with your husband. I tried telling my husband about how Mason made a surprise jump to #2, but he really wasn’t interested. 😛 I also updated him on our kids’ names (two rose, one stayed in the exact same spot.) He wasn’t too interested in that either.

    I do find it surprising that so many girls are named from out of the top 1000. Perhaps with all of the baby name books and websites, it’s easier to find names that aren’t ranked there (yet).

    I think I’d be more upset if I’d chosen a non-traditional name and then it started to rise. Something like a place name or a last name or a word (Story, Sonnet etc). Seeing as I chose old established names for my children, I really can’t be surprised that they’d rise up the charts – especially Henry. It’s not exactly an unusual choice. I still would be a little disappointed to see his name go top 10. We picked it in 2007, so we were looking at the 2006 stats. He was #95, so we did pick a top 100 name. Now he’s #57 and probably heading higher. Ah well. He actually likes it when we spot other boys named Henry at the library. Though I do hope his preschool class (starting in September) doesn’t have another Henry. Just so he doesn’t have to go by his last initial.

    I’m surprised that Fiona didn’t rise, being a beautiful underused name.

    • I know what you mean about being upset when a non-traditional name rises. While I don’t feel Fiona is as unconventional sounding as Story or Sonnet, it is a name that had never been popular in the U.S. that I picked because I thought it was different. For those reasons, I get nervous when I see it rise. But I don’t even think I would mind seeing Paul rise, considering it’s a traditional name that just happens to be at the bottom of its U curve (was really popular, started to decline, once it reaches its bottom, it will rise again). Paul will come back eventually, probably for our grandchildren’s generation 🙂

      Rose is still surprising as a first name, and I really love it. I like Henry too. I wish Henry wasn’t so popular, but I understand why.

      • Makes sense about Fiona’s name. Definitely a good choice for a name not popular in the US, but still a good traditional name. I think people are looking for names like that these days – maybe checking the UK charts for names like Imogen, Gemma and Pippa.

  3. It’s funny that as popularity becomes more meaningless, parents are giving it ever-increasing weight. I think that’s pretty ridiculous.

    I don’t mind at all if my daughter’s names become #1 in the future (the future! not the present! the more distant future the better!), I would definitely take that as a compliment to my awesome name picking. I’m pretty sure that it won’t happen, though.

    • I agree that I would be ok if my daughter’s name became #1 in the future, but preferably when she’s between 20-30, not when she’s only between 5-15. But it’s not like I have any control over it so I try not to dwell on it now that she’s 5.

      I’m less obsessive about popularity than I used to be. If had any more kids, which isn’t in my plan, I would try to find a name outside the top 200 for a girl and outside the top 100 for a boy, with a history of gradual, not dramatic, popularity shifts.

  4. My mother gave us all different names. I mean, they are not unheard of, but she made sure not to give us a name from the top 100. I am a child of the 80s. My mother has a name that is outside the top 100 in her generation, yet is not unheard of. Her brothers have very common names, however, my mother, myself and my grandmother never really cared if a male name was too popular, it was the popular female names that bugged us. Our opinion was that males tend not to like being saddled with a unique name, while females prefer to stand out in the crowd. Now my grandmother and great-grandmother were name junkies like myself, so perhaps they were different from their generation.

    • I feel the same about wanting a more unique name for a daughter vs a son. 🙂

      • I wanted a unique name for both a daughter and a son, but my son’s name didn’t have to be as unique as my daughter’s. In the end, when we picked my son’s name uniqueness got lower on the priority list as my husband nixed all of my crazy names! We picked Paul’s name primarily for family significance, and that has become more satisfying in the long-term. Popularity, how most people define uniqueness, ebbs and flows, but family significance will never go away.

  5. I have had my baby names picked out since I was in high school. Well, now that I’m thinking about starting a family, my boy name has all-of-a-sudden become popular. Like, really, really popular. Every other boy being born is named Jack. I am so mad. Jack was my name. It was not very popular 15 years ago when I first heard the name and fell in love with it. Now I don’t know what I’ll do if I have a son. I still love the name Jack but I want my son’s name to be unique. I have two backup names but I don’t like them nearly as much as I like Jack. At least my girl name isn’t popular (yet).

    P.S. My brother and his wife almost named my nephew Jack but changed their mind at the last moment. Thank goodness.

  6. I feel like this phenomenon with our generation, wanting to be unique, extends far beyond baby names. All of us 70, 80, 90s kids seem to always be desperately searching for something original and different in our over-advertised, mass-produced world.

  7. This article so hit home with me. For years I LOVED my last name and thought I was so unique in the fact that one day I would love to name my daughter my maiden name. Fast forward and I got married, ever since then I have been obsessed with baby names only to find out that my coveted name has moved up so many spots. The name is Gemma. I still want to name my girl that but I live in fear that it will become number 1 and I will no longer want it because of the mass appeal. Anyway I hope it doesn’t rise that far up but from what I’m reading it could very well be the next sofia. I don’t know if I will be able to honor my wishes if it does become the next Sofia before I get pregnant. My mom named my sister Avery and at the time it was so unique now it is so popular its crazy. I wonder if we all want to be unique why some names almost become so insanely popular because there truly are thousands of names out there….

  8. Yes. I actually know many people who had no idea that their child’s name would become popular. I know a woman named Camelia who came from Romania when she was twenty and has a daughter named Isabella. She wanted to give all her children royal names (hence siblings Kathryn and William) and had chosen the name because she thought it was ‘beautiful and unique’. I love the names Stella and George and know they’re on their way up but I hope they don’t become to popular!

  9. Great article! Here’s another reason to avoid the top 10 – associations:



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