Your baby is unique, but her name isn't

By Laura Wattenberg
Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Friday, the Social Security Administration announced that Jacob and Emily were the top baby names of the decade. These classics may seem like reassuring signs of continuity across the generations.

Don't believe it for a second. Over the past generation, the way we name babies has changed radically.

Look through the rest of the top 100 names of the decade, and you will find names that were essentially unknown a generation ago, such as Brooklyn and Nevaeh ("heaven" backward). You will find formerly exotic names that have become commonplace (Xavier, Aaliyah) and formerly male names that have become female (Addison, Riley). On the boys' list, you'll find six different names rhyming with Aidan. But what you won't find are the English classics Edward, Margaret, George and Anne. In 2009, even Mary -- the most popular name in the history of the English language -- fell out of America's top 100 for the first time.

The new variations, more than Jacob and Emily, are the names that define this era, an era marked by an unprecedented desire to give our children names that are different, even rare. We're all in this battle against popularity together, whether we realize it or not. I've lost count of the parents who have told me that they just happen to have a taste for names that aren't too common. Rich and poor, black and white, red state and blue state, we're all bound by a shared desire to be nothing like one another.

Baby names are a heartfelt expression of parents' deepest hopes for their children. This makes them a kind of fossil record of Americans' thoughts, values and dreams at a given point in time. You can see it with specific names, such as Liberty, which spiked in 1918 (the World War I armistice), 1976 (the bicentennial) and 2001 (the Sept. 11 attacks).

Names didn't always go in and out of style, though. In England, John, Mary, James, Elizabeth and the other royal favorites dominated for centuries. But in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, in a world of newly mobile populations and mass communication, name fashions bloomed. Victorian ideals of womanhood swept in floral and gem names for American girls, such as Lily and Opal; a pre-WWI Germanic fad gave us a generation of Gertrudes and Hermans.

In the 1960s, a new cultural emphasis on individuality started us down the path we're on now. More and more, parents wanted their children's names to stand out, not fit in. Fewer and fewer children were given names in the top 25, and as the years went on, the No. 1 name in the country represented fewer and fewer babies. (While the '70s powerhouse Jennifer seems ultra-common today, it never came close to the heights of earlier No. 1 names John and Mary. As for Jacob and Emily, they wouldn't have even cracked the top 10 in John and Mary's heyday.)

Then, in the mid-1990s, two forces turbocharged the dramatic diffusion of American baby names that we've seen over the past decade. The first was the Internet. Online life altered parents' basic concept of name individuality. People started to think about names in the context of unique usernames and e-mail addresses. A century ago, one Amelia Jenkins might live a few towns from another Amelia Jenkins, and they would neither know nor care. But on the Web, we're all next-door neighbors. Prospective parents of an Amelia Jenkins now type the name into Google or Facebook and freak out. They find dozens of Amelia Jenkinses. The name is "taken."

The second big change came courtesy of Michael Shackleford, an actuary in the Social Security Administration who in 1997 took it upon himself to tally up and publish online a list of the most common names on newborns' Social Security number applications. In past generations, parents were left to guess (often unsuccessfully) at name trends and popularity. Now, there is an official ranking.

The result of all this has been a sort of reverse arms race, with parents across the country desperate to make sure that their chosen name doesn't come out too near the top. Half a century ago, 39 percent of all babies born in this country were given a name in the top 25. Today that number is down to 16 percent. The trend cycle is speeding up, too, as parents patrol for the new and the different, staying alert not just to a name's current popularity but also to which way it is trending. Names rise fast, but they also fall fast. Miley/Mylee was one of the fastest rising names of 2007 and 2008; by 2009, it was one of the fastest fallers.

In eras past, name choices were aimed at an audience of family or community. We named babies after relatives, for instance, to honor them and to please those who loved them. Today, we leave the homages to middle names and approach naming more like an exercise in branding: We're trying to position our new entry to give it the best possible advantage in life's marketplace. That means standing out.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to uniqueness. We may like the idea of distinctive names, but our tastes are as alike as they ever were. Even parents with different name sensibilities are influenced by the same underlying name fashions: Vowels, especially long vowels, are good -- think Owen and Ava. The -n ending is also good, as in Kaitlyn and Mason. But clusters of consonant sounds are bad. (Sorry, Gertrude and Herman.)

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