When putting together a dictionary of names, it is useful to know the origin of names, as well as their relative popularity. No book (in print anyways) can have an unlimited number of names, and thus popularity can be useful in determining whether or not a particular name should be included. One very useful resource for name popularity in the US, is the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s Popular Baby Names section of their web site.

The site included names that have been registered with the SSA for the purpose of receiving a social security number. There are a few caveats to the data. First, the data does not include the names of everyone born in the US, but everyone who registered for a social security number. While most babies do receive social security numbers today, its not a complete database (but statistically it’s probably good enough). Second, Social Security didn’t start until 1935, and even then was more geared to those working. Thus while most people in the US today receive social security numbers, the earlier data skews heavily towards men, and is incomplete (not everyone registered). Data on names goes back to 1880, probably because that year is 55 years before the starting year, and I would guess people over the age of 55 probably could not register at the time. Lastly, the database is strict in terms of spelling, which means that if a name has five different spellings, it will show up 5 different times in the database. This obviously lowers the overall ranking of names with many spellings, but it does help see which specific versions of names are trending. I’ll give some good examples of that in a minute.

The reason this post is about the names of girls, is that it turns out girls names are much more interesting than boys names (I hope to write about boys names in a future post, however). Out of the top 50 boys names, 40 of them were in the top 1000 names in the SSA database a hundred years ago. Out of the top 50 girls names, only 26 existed in the top 1000 names. In other words many more girls names came into common usage more recently than boys names. One thing more recent names enable, is figuring out the origin of the names popularity. While I’m sure one can figure out why names became popular 100 years ago (they had celebrities then too), it is considerably easier to figure out why a name became popular with one’s lifetime.

Let’s start with a nice chart. This chart shows the popularity of the currently 10 most popular baby names for girls (as of 2012), over the past century.

Top 10 Female Baby Names in US, 2012

Top 10 Female Baby Names in US, 2012

You’ll notice there are some gaps in some of the lines, and some lines don’t start until fairly recently. That reflects the fact that names like Isabella and Ava are old names, but dropped out of the top 1000 for extended periods (thus the gaps), and that names like Mia entered the chart in 1964 and Madison only entered the chart in 1985.

I mentioned earlier that the spellings are strict, and thus multiple spellings show up as separate names. Let’s look at a few examples. Take a look at the table at the bottom of this article to see all the names in the top 50.

Number 9 on the 2012 list is Madison. Also on the list are Maddison (350), Madisyn (504) and Madyson (598). That follows a common pattern of one spelling of a name being much higher than other spellings.

I did notice a few exceptions to this pattern, however. Sophia is the number 1 on the list, while Sofia is number 18. Zoey is  number 20, while Zoe is number 30. Interestingly Zoe (the less popular version) is an old name, while Zoey (the more popular version) only debuted in the top 1000 names in 1995.

Chloe is number 11 on the list, and Khloe is number 55. Chloe shows up in the first year of the data, 1880, and declined in popularity until it disappears from the list in 1940. Chloe reappears in 1982, and rises until its current position of 11. Khloe only emerged in 2006 on the list. Oddly, the most famous Khloe, Khloe Kardashian, debuted on the television show Keeping up with the Kardashians in 2007. Was she famous a year before her family’s television show? Is there another explanation for the emergence of this rare variant just one year before the television show? I’m not enough of an expert on popular culture to determine that, but it seems reasonable that the popularity of Khloe and the emergence of Khloe Kardashian as a celebrity would be linked.

One interesting girls name is Brooklyn. The name debuted on the list in 1990. In 1995 the variation Brooklynn shows up as well. Brooklyn is currently at number 29 on the list, and Brooklynn is at number 137. Interestingly the most famous Brooklyn is Brooklyn Beckham, the son of famous footballer David Beckham and his wife Victoria Adams (famous as Posh Spice of 1990’s girl band the Spice Girls). Brooklyn Beckham was born in 1999. Brooklyn is not on the popularity chart as a boy’s name, however.

Two more interesting stories of name popularity would seem to be clearer.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Eric Clapton Unplugged (1992)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Eric Clapton Unplugged (1992)

In 1970 Eric Clapton and his band Derek and the Dominoes released the love song Layla. In 1972 the name Layla debuts on the popularity list. By 1979 the name drops of the popularity list. In 1992 Eric Clapton releases his very popular album Eric Clapton Unplugged, which includes a version of Layla. In 1993 the name Layla re-emerges on the popularity chart, where it currently sits at number 31.

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number (1994) and Aaliyah (2001)

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number (1994) and Aaliyah (2001)

Another music-connected name is Aaliyah. The singer Aaliyah came out with her first album in 1994, and her unusual name debuts on the name list the same year. Her name was so unusual that if you look at the first album cover, you can see the pronunciation of her name is shown in the top right corner. In 2001 Aaliyah released her final album to great acclaim, before dying in a plane crash the same year. She was a rising star in both music and as an actress, and the popularity of the name made a huge jump from number 211 in 2000 to 95 in 2001. The popularity of the name has continued to rise, and is currently at number 36.

Savannah Smiles (1982)

Savannah Smiles (1982)

Movies also have an influence on names. Savannah is an old name that shows up in the earliest years of the database, but by 1932 the name disappears from the top 1000 list. In 1983 the name suddenly emerges at position 446 on the list, and rose to a peak of 30 in 2006-2007. So what happened to bring back this traditional name? In 1982, the movie Savannah Smiles was released, about a girl named Savannah. The name currently sits at number 42 on the list.

All of these examples are quite amazing in the staying power of the names based on media releases. The original debut of Layla only lasted eight years on the list, and peaked at number 741 on the list. The current streak since 1993 is 21 years, and the peak is this year at number 31. Aaliyah has now been on the list for 19 years and is also at its peak this year at number 36. After dropping off the list for more than 50 years, Savannah has now been on the list for 30 years, and peaked in 2006-2007 at number 30.

So what do you think? Share your favorite girl baby name stories in the comments. A table of the top 50 names from 2012 is shown below, with the name’s positions in the top 1000 from 10, 50 and 100 years earlier.

Top 50 Female Baby Names in 2012

A look at the top 50 female baby names in the US in 2012, with a look back 10, 50 and 100 years at where in the rankings these names fell in 2002, 1962 and 1912.
Female name2012 Rank2002 Rank1962 Rank1912 Rank
Isabella314Not in top 1000361
Abigail77616Earliest 1939
Mia843Earliest 1964Earliest 1964
Madison92Earliest 1985Earliest 1985
Chloe1125Not in top 1000583
Avery13132Earliest 1989Earliest 1989
Addison14220Earliest 1994Earliest 1994
Aubrey15196Earliest 1973Earliest 1973
Sofia18112Not in top 1000899
Zoey20268Earliest 1995Earliest 1995
Harper24Earliest 2004Earliest 2004Earliest 2004
Samantha269Not in top 1000Earliest 1958
Brooklyn29152Earliest 1990Earliest 1990
Zoe3060Not in top 1000832
Layla31290Earliest 1972Earliest 1972
Hailey3231Earliest 1982Earliest 1982
Kaylee3457Earliest 1984Earliest 1984
Aaliyah3664Earliest 1994Earliest 1994
Gabriella3776Earliest 1974Earliest 1974
Allison3844241Earliest 1946
Nevaeh39189Earliest 2001Earliest 2001
Alexis405850Earliest 1943
Savannah4239Not in top 1000657
Alyssa4412Earliest 1963Earliest 1963
Taylor4618Earliest 1979Earliest 1979
Riley4777Earliest 1990Earliest 1990
Camila48455Earliest 1997Earliest 1997
Arianna49114Earliest 1982Earliest 1982
Ashley506Earliest 1964Earliest 1964
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