The anatomy of a popular name: The top names then and now

Like fashion trends, certain names come in and out of style, changing from generation to generation. Norma and Gertrude recall the early turn of the century, while Brenda and Dexter hark back to the poodle skirt and hair gel years of the ‘50s.

While many parents would like to think that their child’s name is unique, in most cases the name you choose is indicative of the generation in which that child was born. Even today, there are certain naming trends that will define the early 2000s for decades to come—trends that are so subtle that they extend to the very structure of each name.

So what defines a name today? MooseRoots looked at the top 200 male and female names of 2014 to pick out specific trends and attributes. They then compared these characteristics to the top names exactly 100 years earlier, in 1914, to see how popular names have changed over time. The data comes from the Social Security Administration.

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First, let’s take a look at the most popular names of each year. In 1914, the top male names were John and William, and the top female names were Mary and Helen. In 2014, those names changed to Noah, Liam, Emma and Olivia. Some names endured over time, like John (dropped from most popular in 1914 to 26th in 2014) and Elizabeth (dropped from 8th to 1914 to just 14th in 2014). Curiously, there are exactly 46 boy and 46 girl names that remained in the top 200 in both 1914 and 2014.

Names have become much less homogenous as time has gone on. In 1914, the percent of male and female newborns with names in the top 200 were 82% and 80%, respectively. Today, only 59% of male newborns and 47% of female newborns have popular first names.

This could be for a number of reasons. Americans have become more culturally and ethnically diverse, so their names are reflective of other cultures. Also, Internet access allows parents to explore options that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. In 1914, your only baby-name guides were the people that you knew and the few books you read. Now, you can be inspired by names outside of your immediate circle.

Now, let’s look closer at these baby names. Overall, girls tend to have longer first names. In 1914, the top baby boy names had an average of 1.8 syllables, compared to 2.1 today. Baby girl names have mostly kept the same cadence, with an average of 2.2 syllables in 1914 and 2.5 in 2015. Baby girl names gained a letter (6.06) in 2014, while boy names stayed around five letters in both years.

Of the most common boys’ names, the most popular first letters have stayed the same (“J”and “A”), but the names themselves are wildly different. It has become more popular to give girls names that start with the letter “A” over time, but “M” and “E” names have remained in style:

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And these are the most common first two letters of the top 200 names:

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What will define a name a century from now? Only time—and creative parents—will tell.