10 Most Popular Baby Names of All Time
By: Kim Williamson
In Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet,”Romeo asks, “What’s in a name?” Unfortunately, the answer was “a lot,” and things didn’t end well for the young lovers. All drama aside, parents today don’t usually have to consider family feuds when naming a baby. But just like Romeo and Juliet, a name is a big deal. Here are just a few factors to consider:
The popularity of a name is also important. Some people swim against the tide while others follow the flow. If you were one of five Jennifers in your class, you may name your children something unique; if you had flower children parents who named you Rainbow, Michael or Susan may be your preference.
A 2003 study reported in Britain’s Daily Telegraph looked at why certain cultural ideas, such as naming trends, take hold. The answer? There’s not always a rational reason but imitation is a key component of our society. So if an idea gains a foothold, it can potentially skyrocket.
When you decide to name your baby, will you look for the uncommon or the popular name – and how can you know which ones might stand the test of time? While the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) may not be touted for managing retirement funds, they’ve done a great job of tracking names over the last century. Read on to see if your name made the Top 10 of 1911-2010.
While Thomas has never been a top five name in any decade, over 2.1 million baby Thomases have been born in the last century. The name, meaning “twin” is a classic, traditional name, given to presidents, saints, and generals. However, it’s also got a everyman aspect to it, popular enough to coin the phrase “every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
Thomas plays well with others, standing as a first name, a middle name or shortened to Tom or Tommy. You can even find Thomas in initials like TJ, JT or RT.
Famous Thomases include Jefferson, U.S. president and Declaration of Independence author and inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Film aficionados love Tom Cruise, Tommy Lee Jones and Tom Hanks, while sports fans cheer for Tom Brady.
Jessica holds 10th place with Thomas. Jessica, meaning “God’s grace” in Hebrew, didn’t gain popularity until recent decades, reigning as the most popular girl’s name from 1985-1990 and 1993-1995). Jessica is a more modern name, so you won’t find many Queen Jessicas or Lady Jessicas, but Hollywood has several, like actresses Lange, Biel, and Alba and pop star Simpson.
There’s no single story on what made Jessica so popular, but famous Jessicas in the ’80s include Baby Jessica, the 18-month- old who was trapped in a pipe for almost three days in 1987 and Jessica Hahn, the church secretary who brought down televangelist Jim Bakker after their 1980 sexual affair went public. But regardless, Jessica reigned supreme until Emily came along in 1996.
In British royalty, names tend to get passed down. But did you know that various ruling houses introduced different names to the royal name pool? For example, the Lancasters and Yorks gave the Royals Roger and Blanche while the House of Tudor introduced classic names like Anne, Charles, and Jane.
If these names sound like your great-grandparents, it’s because they haven’t been popular since before World War II.
Before anyone saw the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion on the big screen, Dorothy was a hit. L. Frank Baum’s book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” was first published in 1900 and perhaps Baum’s Dorothy spawned the popularity of the name.
From 1912-1919, Dorothy, meaning “gift of God,” was the third most popular name trailing behind Helen and Mary. From 1920-27, Dorothy ousted Helen, taking second place but by 1935, Dorothy disappeared from the top five for good.
You won’t find as many Dorothys today as in the early 20th century, but some famous ones include Dorothy Hamil, the ice skater; Dorothea Dix, a nurse who made great strides in the area of mental illness; and even Nickolodeon’s Dora the Explorer (yes, a variation on Dorothy)!
Charles was also popular in the early 20th century. From 1918-29, it held a steady 5th place, but hasn’t been in the top five since — but don’t tell the Queen of England!
Charles’ origin comes from the GERMan, “free man” and Old english, “manly” so it’s no surprise this name befits royalty like the Prince of Wales and Charlemagne, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire. Another famous Charles is Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution. On a lighter note, the nickname, Charlie, gives us the fictional Charlie Brown and actors Chaplin and Sheen — never boring but not quite the definitions of manly and strong.
In the eighth position, there’s Joseph and Margaret. The name Joseph means “Jehovah increases.” While the Biblical Joseph (Jesus’ father) led his family to Egypt, Joseph Stalin led a nation to Communism and Joseph Kennedy raised his sons to lead the United States.
If being a Joseph sounds like too much responsibility, there are always variations like Joe or Joey. Joe DiMaggio was a famous baseball player who married Marilyn Monroe. Joe Pesci and Joe Piscopo are actors and Joe Strummer was a founding member of the punk rock group The Clash.
Similarly, there’s Margaret, meaning “pearl.” A popular name in the earlier 20th century, famous Margarets include Mitchell who wrote “Gone with the Wind”; anthropologist Mead; and Britain’s former prime minister Thatcher. These ladies, born between 1900 and 1925, all broke new ground in their fields.
However, if Margaret is the overachiever, then Meg and Maggie may be the fun ones. The world fell in love with actress Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally”, and Maggie Simpson of Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons” cartoon has captured hearts since day one.
Susan, meaning “lily,” is another name that had its heyday in the mid-20th century, dotting the top five from 1948 to 1967. According to the Social Security Administration, there have been more than 1.1 million babies named Susan in the last century — not bad for a name that never made it to No. 1.
Susan B. Anthony, the famous suffragette, was ahead of her time in women’s rights and in her name’s popularity. But others, like actresses Sarandon and Lucci came around at the start of the Susan wave. And Scottish singer Susan Boyle arrived near the end of the trend.
Susan’s counterpart in the seventh spot is Richard. One of history’s most famous kings is english King Richard the Lionheart, a crusader, and like many kings, at the center of plots to overthrow and be overthrown. Medieval royalty may have its challenges, but so does U.S. politics. Enter one of America’s most famous Richards — President Richard Nixon. Nixon was the 37th president and the first ever to resign. Thanks to the Watergate scandal, Nixon will forever have the nickname, “Tricky Dick.” Other Richards include actors Gere and Burton, TV personality Dick Clark and racecar driver Richard Petty.
David, which means “beloved”, has been a popular name since Biblical days when David killed Goliath and then became one of the most famous kings of Israel. From 1948, David was in the SSA’s Top 5 list, occupying every spot at some point, until 1989, an astonishing 45 years.
Famous Davids include frontiersman Davy Crockett, and a whole slew of Davids in the arts — TV personality LettERMan, magician Copperfield, musicians Cassidy and Bowie and actors Duchovny (“The X Files”) and Schwimmer (“Friends”). David also has some infamous representation in Son of Sam David Berkowitz and cult leader David Koresh.
The other name in the sixth spot, Barbara, is not a name you often hear anymore. This name, meaning “foreigner” or “stranger” was fashionable in the 1930s and ’40s, and was second only to Mary back then. However, once 1952 came along, Barbara disappeared as one of the top five names. Former First Lady Barbara Bush and country singer Barbara Mandrell are two famous Barbaras, as are interviewer extradonaire Barbara Walters, and singing sensation Barbra Streisand who dropped the extra “a” from her name to make it more unique.
As with Barbara and Susan, Linda is a trendy name from the mid-1900s that has quietly slipped away. The name is somewhat bipolar, meaning “pretty” in Spanish and “serpent” in GERMan. This lovely snake had the top spot from 1947-52, and dabbled in other positions throughout the ’40s up to 1960. Linda boasts several talented women like actresses Lynda Carter, aka Wonder Woman who made little girls want to be a superhero and Linda Blair who put the fear of God into viewers in “The Exorcist.” Musically inclined Lindas include Rondstadt and McCartney, former wife of Beatle Paul.
William, on the other hand, is experiencing something of a comeback. According to the SSA, more than 3.7 million Williams have been born, primarily between 1927 and 1949, but the name hit the top five again in 2009 and 2010 thanks, in part to Prince William’s popularity. A fitting name for a future king, since it means “resolute protector.”
Other famous Williams include:
In 1988, authors Linda Rosencrantz and Pamela R. Satran published their baby name book, “Beyond Jason and Jennifer.” If the intent was to steer new parents away from the name Jennifer it worked – Jennifer left the top five after that year. But not before a 14-year reign at No. 1 from 1970-1984. No wonder everyone knows one — or five.
Like many trends, there’s no one story as to why this name became so popular, but many attribute it to the 1970 hit movie, “Love Story,” with its main character named Jennifer Cavilleri.
Since it’s a contemporary name, there aren’t many Saint or Queen Jennifers around but as a variation on Guinevere, Jennifer did have a place in Camelot. Famous Jennifers include a slew of actresses and musicians like Aniston, Lopez, Hudson, Hewitt and Grey.
If Jennifer was every girl’s BFF, Michael was their first crush. Why? It was the No. 1 boys’ name from 1954 to 1998, interrupted only once in 1960 by David. And it’s still in the top five today. Michael comes from the Hebrew, meaning “who is like God,” which is ironic considering the near-godlike domination the name has had.
It’s no wonder that famous Michaels are easy to name, starting as far back as Biblical times with Michael the Archangel and moving into the Renaissance with Michelangelo. Today’s Michaels include athletes like Jordan and Phelps; businessmen like Bloomberg and Dell; actors like KeATOn, Douglas and J. Fox; and the lovable Disney character Mickey Mouse.
Robert and Elizabeth make quite a strong pair, and not just as the famous english poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Additionally, Robert and Elizabeth could probably win a contest for the most derivatives. How many can you name off the top of your head?
Robert, meaning “one who is bright with fame” is indeed famous. It’s the name of European kings, Civil War hero Robert E. Lee, politician bobby Kennedy and literary giants like Robert Louis Stevenson. Today’s Hollywood has plenty of Roberts with Duvall, Redford and Downey, Jr.
Elizabeth holds an impressive place in history. Biblically, it’s the name of Jesus’ relative and part of the famous story where John the Baptist first leaps in her womb at the arrival of Mary, pregnant with Jesus. Elizabeth I of England established an entire Elizabethan era, and other Queen Elizabeths have followed. Entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden helped women feel beautiful. And Hollywood has also had its share of Elizabeths with Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Grable, Betty White and “Bewitched’s” Elizabeth Montgomery.
In 1800, six names accounted for 50 percent of english babies born. Not so today, with books like “The Baby Name Countdown: 140,000 Popular and Unusual Names.” But baby-moniker expert, Laura Wattenberg cautions that many parents now have “name remorse” because their unique baby names get mispronounced or misspelled.
While they sound like a cute couple from County Cork, John and Patricia are the second most popular names of the last century. From the 1930s-50s, Patricia consistently ranked in the third and fourth spots. While that may seem low, the more than 1.5 million Patricias born beat out Elizabeth by 100,000 baby girls.
Like Elizabeth, Patricia has great nicknames, ranging from Pat and Patty to Tricia and Patrice. Coming from the Latin word for “noble,” Patricia may be dignified but hasn’t been trendy in recent decades. Famous Patricias include Patty Hearst — the infamous kidnapping victim, actress Patty Duke, author Patricia Cornwell and singer Trisha Yearwood.
John Doe is often used as the symbolic, everyman name – and it’s no wonder with close to 5 million Johns born in just the last century. This name, meaning “God is gracious” should also mean “copy me” because there have been Johns as far back as there have been people, ranging from John the Baptist to Pope John Paul II.
Famous Johns from the last century include J.D. Rockefeller, the first American billionaire, Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the big leagues, U.S. president John F. Kennedy, mobster John Gotti and Beatle John Lennon. Of course, you can’t forget John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, whose name has become synonymous with signatures.
So what were the most popular names of the last 100 years? Keep reading!
Here’s the big reveal: If you haven’t already guessed, the most popular names of the last century are James and Mary.
Collectively, these names represent more than 8 million babies! Mary was the No. 1 girl’s name for eight decades, from the 1880s to the early 1950s. James only occupied the top spot from 1940 to 1953, but was in the top five from the 1880s all the way to 1980.
It’s fitting, even karmic, that James means “supplanter” or someone who replaces another, because this name replaced every other boy name to gain the top spot. Six U.S. presidents, at least two Declaration of Independence signers, plus numerous saints and kings have had this name. Modern-day Jameses include actors Cagney, Dean, and Earl Jones; athletes Jim Thorpe and Jimmy Connors; musicians James Brown, James Taylor and Jimi Hendrix — and this barely touches the tip of the iceberg.
Mary is by far the most popular girl’s name of all time. The Bible alone mentions four Marys in the New Testament, including Jesus’ mother. In the Christian church’s early days, the name was considered too sacred to bestow on a person but around the 12th century, people began using it again. There have been famous Marys in every walk of life — history, religion, science, literature, politics, royalty — even on ships and in nursery rhymes.
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10 Most Popular Baby Names of All Time