Toby Birney’s daughter Sofija is a one-of-a-kind. She rode her bike earlier than her older sisters ever did, is wise beyond her seven years, and loves to go outside when it snows. Michelle Stanley’s daughter Sofia is also her own person. Three years old, she likes to make trouble and boss around her older brother. Of her “iron-willed” little girl, Stanley says she wouldn’t have it any other way. Little Sophia O’Brien is another one-in-a-million child; the strident partner to her quieter three-year-old twin, Olivia. Sophia likes to jump off things and tell fanciful stories about dragon and shark bites. All these Sophias (and Sofias, and Sofijas), unique though they are, will enter school to hear their name all over the playground — the most popular girls’ name of 2017, per Social Security Administration data.
So what do parents make of stumbling into a universe of Sophias? Of finding that their cherished little girl must share her name with an army of other little girls? And what does the name say about them as parents?
I rounded up a few parents-of-Sophias — they were no further than arm's reach — to find out.
“I don’t know any adult Sophias, I didn’t have any friends when growing up named Sophia,” Selma O’Brien tells me of choosing the name. She liked that the name was a blank slate. “If I’d known other people considering the name, I would have chosen a different one!” she says. In fact, she has since learned of two more sets of 2015 twins with the same names as her own — Sophia and Olivia (Olivia was the second-most popular girls’ name of 2017).
Bernie DeLeo didn’t realize that he was jumping into the middle of what he describes as a 'Sophie/Sophia wave.'
Sophia comes from the Greek word for “wisdom,” which might be why so many people gravitate toward the name. Or perhaps it’s the rich legacy of naming: there’s the city in Bulgaria, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Or maybe it’s the name's aristocratic associations. Or maybe it's the power of that ubiquitous French teething giraffe that swept the U.S. in 2011, when the name first jumped to the top of the charts (it stayed there until 2013 per Social Security data, with 21,193 baby Sophias born in the U.S. in 2013 alone).
The authors of the book Freakonomics wrote that we “tend to choose names that first become popular among high-education, high-income parents”; comments on BehindTheName.com note the regal and elegant associations of "Sophia," which could help explain its popularity. It is currently the most popular choice for girls in eight different countries and in the top three in 20, per the website BabyNameWizard. And that's before you account for all the different spellings (in 2016, Sophia was #4, Sofia was #14, and Sophie was #109 in the U.S.). Laura Wattenburg, BabyNameWizard's founder, said back in 2015 that the similar sound in multiple languages could be part of its popularity (although in the U.K. there is also the variation of So-FY-a).
Certainly the name’s possibilities for personalization are alluring. A Sophia could also be a Sophie or even a Soph (😍). One dad said he loved the name because it reminded him of both Sophie Tucker and Sophia Loren: sass and beauty in one package. And in the literary realm, there is of course brave little Sophie in the beloved children's book The BFG.
'I’m obviously biased,' he says, 'but my Sophie is not only gorgeous, but she is feisty, forthright, bawdy, and hilarious.'
Bernie DeLeo didn’t realize that he was jumping into the middle of what he describes as a “Sophie/Sophia wave” and that he would soon hear the name all over playgrounds and classrooms. He and his wife liked that their baby would have a choice with her name; he says that he thinks of his daughter as a combination of the only Sophie he’d heard of, comedian Sophie Tucker, and the only Sophia, actress Sophia Loren. Plus, they thought the name worked well with their decidedly Italian last name. “I’m obviously biased,” he says, “but my Sophie is not only gorgeous, she is feisty, forthright, bawdy, and hilarious. She speaks her mind and makes me laugh — a lot.”
DeLeo’s Sophie is at the front of the wave, now in college, having been named when Sophia was less of a thing. He says that “she can be the hard-headed Italian and we used to push each other’s buttons and clash quite a bit when she was a teenager.” Like so many other bearers of the name, this Sophie definitely has a mind of her own.
How is it that so many Sophias seem like Sophias? Even those of us skeptical of one-size-fits-all astrology readings are susceptible to the idea that certain faces just “look” like a Jennifer, or a Mark, or an Andrew. And social psychologists have theorized that names may actually affect a person’s physicality.
Researchers from the Hebrew University explained in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that “Each name has associated characteristics, behaviors, and a look, and as such, it has a meaning and a shared schema within a society.” And as Quartz reported, their experiment, which had participants guess people’s names from their photo, found that “common notions of how a person with a certain face would look were correct — there was a ‘right’ name for a type of face.” Does this explain why so many of the Sophias in this article are described as outgoing and headstrong? It's a strong perhaps... emphasis on the “perhaps.”
As Quartz surmised, “The researchers concluded that monikers are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Once a baby is named, the child may well develop into an adult who looks and acts the part.”
Michelle Stanley was aware of the popularity of the name Sofia at the time of her daughter's birth and simply didn’t care.
She gave popular names to both of her kids — Sofia’s brother is a Jacob — because she wanted strong, timeless names, regardless of how many other people also chose them. Looking toward the future, she and her husband wanted a name that would fit not only the child she is now, but the woman she will become — one that would be equally appropriate on a bike’s license plate as on a future resume. For her, that name was "Sofia."
Plus, she jokes, referencing another fiery namesake, “I’m a huge Golden Girls fan!”
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.