Name Change

Them young’uns have different names than they used to!  Stateside, a century ago, you couldn’t spit without hitting a John, William, or Mary.  My grade school literally brimmed with Jasons and Jennifers.  But nowadays, at the playground, more than anything else, you’ll hear Ethan, Jacob, Emma, and Isabella.

Which is fine by me – I like the new names.  However, I wonder: did each bygone moniker selflessly pass the baton to the next generation?  Lose a back-alley scrap with a gang of unsavory whippersnappers?  Or simply succumb to the inexorable march of time?

Our answer comes from the Social Security Administration, which mined their archives to produce an extensive online list of popular baby names for each year from 1880 onwards.  It’s tempting to be cynical about the government, but in this case, your tax dollars have worked quite wonderfully!

From the SSA data, we extracted the historically most-often-bestowed first names, one-hundred-and-fifteen per gender, and then charted their relative ratios by year, arranged with the older towards top and bottom and newer in the middle.

Let’s take a gander at the boys graph first, and be sure to click to see it big:

Popular U.S. Boys Names, Ratio By Year Given, 1880-2008

The namespace flows in more-or-less steady state until 1925, when the newcomers begin to arrive in well-metered fashion.  Most follow the long, smooth trajectory of their human counterparts: from birth to youth to middle age to retirement, when they gracefully hand over the reins to their apprentices.  Yeah, there’s a few blips: the 19th-century mini-fads of president Grover Cleveland and war hero George Dewey, a bump for JFK, and the brief and undoubtedly-hazy acceleration of the early ’70s.  Notably, Thomas and Joseph maintain much of their original appeal over the entire twelve decades, garnering a joint Honorable Mention for their Special Achievements In Consistency.

The girls graph looks the same, but different:

Popular U.S. Girls Names, Ratio By Year Given, 1880-2008

The basic structure – a period of quietude followed by steady change – mirrors the boys.  However, the girls names burst onto the scene much more emphatically and quickly outshine their predecessors.  After peaking, many have a half life of maybe two decades, tops – if they’re lucky.  Consider the cautionary tale of the ephemeral Brittany, which, from triple-digit rank in 1981, skyrocketed to 1989’s third most popular name, and then fell all the way back down over the next dozen years.  Yow!

The rock of the girls names would have to be Elizabeth, and post-2000, Ava, Mia, Addison, and Chloe make a sturdy debut.  Also, notice the recent retro comeback, wherein five long-lost favorites – Ella, Anna, Emma, Lillian, and Grace – have emerged from obscurity to reassert their vintage charms.  Could Ida, Minnie, and Bertha be next?  Time will tell!