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A Historical Look at Naming Patterns

Popular Baby Name Trends

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Updated January 30, 2013

Name patterns

Elizabeth has maintained fairly consistent popularity.

Jennifer White

Call me a geek, but this name nerd has to admit that looking at how baby names shift in popularity over time fascinates me. Why is it that certain names never seem to loose popularity, while others that were intensely popular for a short time are rarely given to babies a decade or so later? Taking a historical look at naming patterns might help you decide on a name for your baby.

Seeing Naming Patterns With Baby Name Graphs

A great way to get a visual picture of the crests and dips in popularity of baby names over time is to look at a baby name graph. Many baby name websites offer a graphic chart of the popularity of baby names. My favorite name graphing website is Name Voyager from Baby Name Wizard. Type in a name and see how frequently the name has been used since the 1880s. When you look at baby names graphs, you can sort many of them into the following categories. Where do your favorite baby names fit?

Eternal Classic Baby Names

There are some names, though they have their peaks and dips in popularity over the years, which have pretty much stayed in the top 100 names year after year (See graph of Elizabeth as an example). These names are fairly consistent in usage, not considered unusual, unique, or odd. I tend to think of these names as being timeless. You hear the name, and you think of your favorite great aunt, a high school friend, and your best friend's daughter who share the name.

People who tend to like classic baby names might find the timeless nature of the name appealling. These names are rarely mispronounced as they are so well-known. On the other side, some may find classic names dry, boring, or far too common.

Interestingly, it would seem that there is far more turnover on the top 100 baby girl names than the top 100 boy names. There tends to be far more baby boy names that remain popular over an extended period of time. Here are a few examples of classic baby bames for girls and boys.

Classic girl baby names:

  • Anna
  • Catherine
  • Elizabeth
  • Sarah
  • Mary

Classic boy baby names:

Period Names

Period names are names that primarily carry popularity for a pocket of time. Cheryl is a solid example of a name primarily used during a span of 20-30 years (See graph). These are names that were previously rarely used, suddenly boomed in popularity, and then after a decade or two were once again low on the baby name charts. Can you think of some names that you hear and associate nearly exclusively with a particular age group or generation? Here are a few example.

Period Girl Names

  • Ashley (1980s-90s)
  • Cheryl (1950s-60s)
  • Donna (1950s-60s)
  • Doris (1920s-1930s)
  • Heather (1970s-80s)
  • Jennifer (1970s-80s)
  • Jessica (1980s-90s)
  • Karen (1950s-60s)
  • Kimberly (1960s-70s)
  • Michelle (1960s-70s)
  • Linda (1940s-50s)
  • Lisa (1960s-70s)
  • Patricia (1940s-50s)
  • Phyllis (1930s-40s)
  • Sandra (1940s-50s)

Period Boy Names

  • Brian (1960s-80s)
  • Dennis (1940s-50s)
  • Donald (1930s-40s)
  • Gary (1940s-50s)
  • Harold (1910s-20s)
  • Jason (1970s-80s)
  • Jeffrey (1960s-70s)
  • Jerry (1930s-40s)
  • Kevin (1960s-70s)
  • Larry (1940s-50s)
  • Mark (1950s-70s)
  • Roger (1940s-50s)
  • Ronald (1930s-50s)
  • Scott (1960s-70s)
  • Tyler (1990s-2000s)
  • Zachary (1980s-2000s)

Those who love period baby names might be drawn to the contemporary feel to the name. Others who shy away from period names might complain that these names feel dated as the child grows into an adult.

It certainly makes me wonder which "new" baby names are going to become this generation's equivalent of Phyllis and Larry. Time will only tell, but my bet is on names like Hailey, Madison, Mackenzie, and Neveah and Aiden, Connor, Gavin, and Mason.

Recycled Baby Names

Another marked naming pattern is what I am chalking up to "recyled" baby names for lack of a better term. These are names that were once used, then dipped way down in popularity, but are currently back on the resurgence of popularity 2 to 3 generations later. Sneak a peak at the graph of Emma for an example of this.

Perhaps the reason some of these names get "recyled" are because they are family names, and the parent is looking to honor a beloved ancester. Another possibility for the reclaimed popularity might be related to Hollywood. Period, historical films re-introduce us to "older" names that the audience falls in love with all over again. (Case in point, Noah from The Notebook or the birth of Emma on Friends.) Whatever the case, here are several names that may have once been thought of as "old people" names, but are certainly finding themselves on many an elementary school desk name tag.

Recycled Girl Names

  • Amelia
  • Audrey
  • Caroline
  • Charlotte
  • Claire
  • Emma
  • Ella
  • Evelyn
  • Grace
  • Lillian
  • Sophie

Recylced Boy Names

  • Benjamin
  • Eli
  • Henry
  • Isaac
  • Jack
  • Noah
  • Oscar
  • Oliver

Thinking about how a name has been popular over an extended period of time might influence your opinion of the name. What's your pleasure? Traditional classics with timeless appeal, contemporary period names, or retro throwbacks? Or perhaps your interested in names that are altogether different.

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