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The Most Popular Baby Names of All Time
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The Social Security Administration releases its list of the most popular baby names for boys and girls from the previous year annually. Last year, Jacob and Sophia topped the list. And, with only slight variability, the list has looked roughly the same in recent years (Ethan, Alexander, Emily and Ava continue to rank high as well.)
But if you look at the most popular baby names in America over time—over the last 100 years—the landscape looks entirely different. Only two names from that list—Michael and William—remain in the current top 10. Still, these top monikers from the last century are the ones that have endured; they are classic, solid choices that have resonated with more parents than any others.
Top 10 Girls’ Names of All Time
In the first half of the century, Mary not only appeared in the top 10, it dominated the list. And by sheer numbers, it takes the cake, too; more than three million girls were named Mary in the last 100 years. In recent years, as a trip to the playground will tell you, its popularity has declined, but the name hasn’t totally disappeared. Mary remains a simple and sweet pick—and, as the name of the most important female figure in the Christian world, it packs major cultural significance.
Pair it with another name to make it feel more modern (and a tad Southern, too)—Mary Frances, Mary Margaret or Mary Kate—or choose it as a way to honor a relative if you had an important Mary in your family.
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Serious-sounding Patricia enjoyed its heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Perhaps because of its heft and notable lack of sweetness, many parents bestowed it and then shortened it to nickname form: Pat, Patty, Tricia or Trish. Modern-day contemporaries might be Peyton, Piper or Paige—or try Patsy for a retro pick with a similar vintage feel, but a greater sense of fun and playfulness.
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Although Elizabeth is a name for the ages, somehow it never feels old-fashioned. It’s truly a timeless, classic choice, equally appealing in full or nickname form. While it has often appeared in or hovered around the top 10 or 20 names, it never cracked the top five once in the last century. Two famous associations—the Queen of Britain (times two) and legendary beauty Elizabeth Taylor—give this girls’ name big-time regal clout.
- David Shankbone, Wikimedia (CC Licensed)
Jennifer dominated the list of popular baby girls’ names in the 1970s and into the ‘80s, coming in at number one from 1970—1984. Less popular now, it’s still a sweet choice that’s traditional but not dated. For a modern update, try an alt-spelling—think adorable actress Ginnifer Goodwin—and super-cute nickname Ginny.
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Extremely popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and making its last appearance in the top 10 in the ‘60s, Linda holds very little modern-day appeal—although it could be seen as an early precursor to the “a”-endings seen on so many popular girls’ names today (Sophia, Emma, Olivia.) While the name has seen a sharp decline in the last decade, try contemporary updates like Liza, Lindsay or Lila.
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A quintessential American name—think The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” and iconic toy Barbie—Barbara saw the height of its popularity in the ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s. By the time the 1960s rolled around, it had fallen to number 21. Famous Barbaras include former First Lady Barbara Bush and superstar Barbra Streisand. Names with a similar but more current feel might be Brooke, or the tomboy-cute nickname Bobbie.
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Susan peaked in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but by the ‘70s had fallen to number 27. But it’s classic in a way that other names on this list aren’t, and one of its modern-day sisters—Susannah—could gain in popularity just as Hannah and Savannah have. Other similar, traditional “s” names parents have continued to love over the years: Samantha and Sarah.
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Like Elizabeth, Margaret is a classic name that continues to endure without sounding old-fashioned or dowdy. It’s sweet and sophisticated and comes with nicknames—Maggie and Meg—that are cute and playful. It was most popular in the early 1900s, along with Mary, Helen and Ruth, but the name hasn’t seen the sharp decline of Barbara, Linda or Susan in more recent decades. Modern parents drawn to uber-popular Madison or Mia could consider Margaret as a more traditional but not overused option; expectant moms and dads who like “M”-names with a vintage feel but less traditional flair might eye Mamie or Maisie.
- The Wizard of Oz
More than any other name on this list, Dorothy is stuck with the dowdy vibe (sorry!). Popular from the early 1900s through the ‘30s, the name—along with nickname Dottie—is full-on retro. The only cool Dorothy we know in pop culture was from the Wizard of Oz (at least she had some rockin’ shoes!). Far more popular D-names with a contemporary feel include Destiny, Danielle and Diana.
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Jessica was the heir to Jennifer, first inching its way near the top 10 in the ‘70s and dominating the list for most of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. Daintier than Jennifer, and with that soft “a” ending, the name was still in the top 10 by 2000, but it has dropped significantly in the last decade. Its nicknames—refined Jess and tomboyish Jessie—still hold appeal. Alyssa, currently in the top 20 for girls, might be the modern-day stand-in for Jessica.
- East of Eden trailer
Top 10 Boys’ Names of All Time
Perennial fave James, much like the popular female name Elizabeth, is a solid choice that carries with it royal resonance. Popular in the early part of the century, often landing in one of the top three spots, it holds steady today and is consistently in the top 20 names for boys. In the last century, almost five million American boys were named James. Dignified but not dated, it’s a less trendy option than Jayden or overused Joshua. Actor James Dean lends cool cache; if it’s too traditional-sounding for you, try Jameson instead. Either way, who can resist a Sweet Baby James?
- Sex in the City
Popular Biblical name John is simple but solid, and hovered near the top of the list for boys for the better part of the 1900s. It has fallen in popularity over the last decade, but it’s still very widely chosen. Traditional and not in the least bit trendy-sounding, it has an attractive namesake in popular culture: The mysterious first name of Carrie’s smooth, swoon-worthy love in Sex and the City, Mr. Big, is John. For a hipper, updated option, try Jonah.
- LBJ Library photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto (CC Licensed)
Like John, Robert was popular throughout most of the last century. Robert F. Kennedy leaves an enduring association with this name, though one that resonates less over time. Nicknames Robbie or Bobby, short and sporty, hold more appeal than the full form of this name does now. Ryan and Riley are two popular “r” names for boys that feel more current.
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More than some other names on this list, Michael has enjoyed a great deal of modern-day popularity—it has been the number one name for boys, or very close to it, throughout most of the 2000s. Nickname Mike errs on the mature side, but the full form feels timeless and will probably continue to be widely chosen by new parents long after Max, Milo and Mason have fallen out of fashion.
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Popular in the early 1900s, sweet, sophisticated William is a traditional boy name that not only has never gone out of style, but has actually been on the rise recently. Last year’s royal wedding of Prince William to Catherine (Kate) Middleton will keep the momentum going. If you have a William in your family and want to honor him by picking the name, you can do it without your choice sounding the least bit unfashionable. Bonus: Nicknames Will and Liam sound just as good as the original.
- Joe Atomn, Wikimedia Commons (CC Licensed)
This Biblical name is undeniably one of the most popular boy names in this country; it held the top spot in the late 1960s and has consistently been in the top 20 in more recent years. Simple, sweet, and unpretentious, it’s a classic, trend-averse choice. Famous associations run the gamut, from Michelangelo’s masterpiece David to rocker David Bowie.
Unlike William, Michael and John, Richard sounds a bit formal for today’s tastes and its popularity is on the decline. Often chosen by parents in the ‘30s and ‘40s, its starchiness no longer resonates with modern parents. Nickname Dick is a rare choice these days, but Richie and Ricky add a little lightness to this otherwise heavy moniker. A similar, serious vibe that feels more fashionable can be found in names such as Alexander and Anthony.
- Baseball Digest, Wikimedia Commons (CC Licensed)
Joseph’s a Biblical name of enduring appeal—extremely popular in the early 1900s and consistently in the top 20 in recent years, though now it has been overtaken by Jacob and Joshua. It is plain, sweet and solid, as are nicknames Joe and Joey. If the name’s traditional aspect appeals to you, consider it over trendy Jayden; for something more unconventional, try Joss or José.
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At its height in the 1920s, Charles is a sturdy name that has remained popular, but less so than other perennial faves like Michael, William or David. It’s weighty and has a regal association with England’s Prince Charles; nickname Charlie softens the feel and holds more appeal as an endearing name for a little boy.
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Likable and enduring, Thomas is the one boy’s name on this list that never made an appearance in the SSA’s list of Top 5 Names in Each of the Last 100 Years. Still, parents admire it, and obviously have chosen it since it’s on the list of top names of the last 100 years. It’s an appealing choice with a bit of a British flair, and doesn’t sound unfashionable. Bonus for train-obsessed boys: They would share a name with that beloved cheeky little blue engine from the Island of Sodor.