Why popular baby names boom then bust

Names that were once in fashion are nowhere to be found as old favourites take the top spot
07 June 2022

Interview with 

Mitchell Newberry, University of Michigan


Perhaps there’s been a recent birth in your family? If so, are the new parents being swayed by popularity trends? Mitchell Newberry is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, and he explained to Julia Ravey what drives the popularity of baby names…

Mitchell - As soon as a name gets about one in 500 or 100 babies, people really don't want to use it anymore. And if you look at the most popular names at any given point in time, they're probably part of these boom bust trends. And so those names get more popular than any other names really do.

Julia - So you mentioned there, there were these boom bust cycles with names. What exactly are those?

Mitchell - Some names, like for example, Britney, just didn't even exist before about the 1950s in the US. And then by 1990, it was the most popular name. And about 75% of people that were named Britney were born between 1985 and 1995. So this name went from something that really nobody had ever heard of to being the most popular name. And then the trend went out as quickly as it had come in.

Julia - And why do you think we steer away from names once they reach a certain frequency in the population?

Mitchell - Well, it's probably just what it is to be a name. We wanna be able to identify ourselves. And so being unique as part of what a name is, and I don't know about you, but my elementary school classes had two or three Jessicas per classroom. You know, so maybe that's annoying

Julia - Are the names that retain a certain frequency in the population?

Mitchell - Yeah. So not all names are boom bust. There's plenty that are perennially popular, maybe because they're just in this cultural repertoire. So we've noticed for example, names that are in the Bible tend to be given a little more often than other names.

Julia - Does it also coincide with instances in popular culture? So if a film comes out?

Mitchell - Yeah. So names do respond to popular culture. And one of my favourite examples of this is Maverick, which didn't used to even be a name. It was a last name, but there was a cattle rancher in Texas who refused to brand his cows and the cows that didn't have a brand became Mavericks because they were renegades or, you know, this Maverick character, he wasn't mainstream. So it started to refer to a personality type. And then Tom Cruise in Top Gun got Maverick as a nickname. And then gradually over the last 30 years or so Maverick gradually became a name that people would actually name their babies. And today it's the 50th most popular name in the US.

Julia - Oh my goodness. Are we seeing, as we become more individualistic as a society with, you know, the rise of social media, all of us are being sort of driven to be these individualized selves. Have we seen changes in the frequency or uniqueness of names like this Maverick example, a name just sort of coming out of nowhere?

Mitchell - Yeah. Well, we're able to kind of measure at what frequency in the population a name really starts to be rejected because it's too common and that frequency has somewhat declined over the last hundred years in the United States, but we've actually also been able to show that people's sensitivity to how common a name can be before they start to reject. It has also changed. So people are more sensitive to how common a name is than they were in the past.

Julia - Right now in the UK, the most popular girl's name is Olivia and the most popular boy's name is Oliver. So how long do you think they'll sit on the top spot?

Mitchell - That's so interesting because a friend of mine asked me to consult with them about naming her baby. And she gave me a candidate list of names and they actually included Olivia. And I looked up the whole list of names in the database and found that my friend is actually quite on trend. All of the names that she gave me are trending upwards right now in popularity, but they all had a curious similarity that they had also had big trends about a 100 to 120 years ago. And so some of these trends that are currently happening, like I said, if any name that's the top name at any given time is likely to be a trend. And so it's likely to fall out of fashion, roughly the same way that it fell in, but these names that are popular now and Hazel and Emma are some other examples were also popular a hundred years ago. And so these trends kind of cycle on these long intergenerational timescales.


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