Baby Names

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Name Popularity Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

And you can start by looking at where you live.

A lot of thought goes into naming a baby: Parents will consider heritage, name meaning, personal history, and, of course, how popular it is. “I just don’t want her to be one of five kids in her class with that name,” says a hypothetical Jennifer, who went by Jen P. at school since that was the only way to distinguish her from Jennifer C., Jennifer M., and Jenny J. When it comes to finding out how popular a baby name is, the best place to look is the Social Security Administration’s Baby Names page. You can go back as far as 1880 to find the top 20 boy and girl names of any given year, or search for the popularity of a specific name from 1900 onward.

But one feature on the site often goes unnoticed : You can look at the popularity of a name on a state-by-state level. These lists not only tell us something about different regions of the country, but they might help parents find the name of their dreams — even if it at first it looked too overwhelmingly popular across the country.

States have more in common than not.

Generally speaking, if a name is in the the top 10 or 20 nationally you’re also going to see it on the list for your state, and the vast majority of names that make it on a state’s top ranking list are among the 50 most popular names nationally.

In fact, on average, there are only three names on a state list that don’t appear in the top 20 at a national level, and 29 out of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have between zero and three differences. Olivia and Liam are the number one girl and boy names on a national level and that’s also true in 27 and 20 states respectively. However...

There are plenty of names that are not common everywhere.

Let’s take, for example, the name Bridger. It ranks number 738 on the national SSA list of baby names, so you might think to yourself “Perfect: he’ll never meet another Bridger.” And he probably won’t. That is unless you live in Wyoming, where Bridger tied for the 9th most popular boy’s name in the state. (The far more nationally popular Benjamin shared that ranking.)

The truth is that a name that’s nationally obscure could enjoy a great deal more popularity in different states. Juniper (#114), Kingston (#128), Mary (#136), and Kaia (#225) are far from ubiquitous, but if you live in Vermont, Mississippi, Alabama, and Hawaii respectively, these are top 10 names.

Even “common” names aren’t overwhelmingly common.

Perhaps the most important lesson to take from any ranking of names is that there is a lot more name diversity in the US than there was a generation or two ago. Gone are the days when you, Jennifer Smith or Christopher Johnson, would be one of 15 Jens or Chrises in your graduating class. Olivia and Liam, nationally speaking, account for approximately 1% of all baby boys and girls born in 2022. In contrast, Jennifer and Michael, the number one names in 1985, accounted for 3% of all births that year. By the time you get to the 10th most popular name in the US in 2022, it’s only .5% of births.

This is even more starkly apparent when you drill down to the state level. Remember how Bridger is the 9th most popular name in Wyoming? Well, there were still only 17 Bridgers born there in 2022 out of 6,050 births. That’s .002%.

In other words: please don’t get too worried about whether your desired baby name is “too popular,” especially if it’s not in the top five names in your state. Because, statistically, it’s probably not.

You can tell a lot about a state’s culture based on its names.

Subtle differences in baby names across the country can be illuminating. For example, New York, a state with a much higher-than-average Jewish population, has very traditionally Jewish names in their top 10, such as Jacob, David, and Leah. (None of these are popular nationally.) States with sizeable Hispanic populations, like California, Texas, and New Mexico, count distinctly Hispanic names like Santiago and Jose as popular. Babies in the Southeast are more likely to have “old-fashioned” names (think John, William, Mary), likely due to the longstanding Southern tradition of naming children after parents and older family members. The names Kai and Kaia are only in the top 10 in Hawaii, which makes sense since it means “sea” in Hawaiian.

Speaking of that lovely South Pacific state...

Hawaii, Mississippi, & West Virginia: Built Different

Remember when I said that most states only have about three names on their top 10 that aren’t on the national top 10? Well, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Hawaii routinely break the mold. In Hawaii, only four boy names fell within the top 20 boy names nationally. (The top 10 Hawaiian girl names were more in line with national averages, with two exceptions.) Mississippi boasts three boy names and four girl names that fall outside of the national top 20, and West Virginia includes five boy names and two girl names that fall outside of that average.

Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, & Virginia: Ya Basic

Most baby names on these states’ top 10 list fell within the national top 10, but all fell well within the national top 20. To be fair, eight other states — Ohio, North Carolina, Nebraska, Missouri, Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, and Connecticut — only have one name outside of the the national top 20.

Coming soon to a preschool near you...

There were a surprising number of names that, while not in the national top 20, nevertheless kept popping up on state lists. Maverick, for example, which is #40 for boys nationally, was among the top 10 boys names in Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Paisley (#53) was a top pick for Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia. These names were frequently clumped together in a geographic region, but there were two big exceptions: Hazel and Hudson. These names, both #27 on national lists for girls and boys, are among the top 10 in 11 and 17 states respectively across the country. Both names have been steadily climbing the charts in the past 25 years, and based on state-by-state information it doesn’t appear as though its peaked. So keep your ears open because there’s a good chance you’re going to be hearing more of these two. Depending on where you live.