I’ve been tracking the proportion of baby girls and boys given top ten names in the U.S. for the past few years. It’s a remarkable shift. You can see the figure below through 2016 in the first chapter of Sociology NOW, 3e. We have an entire section of the introductory chapter that uses baby name trends to teach students how to think sociologically – and this is among my favorite examples from that section. Simply put, popular names used to be a whole lot more popular than they are today. It’s not just which names were popular that change, but how popular they were that has changed as well.
More than 1 in 20 boys born in the U.S. in 1880 were given the name John. The same was true of Mary for girls. And while the most popular names in 2017 are different (Liam and Emma), it’s their frequency that has interested me so much. While Liam was the most popular boy’s name in 2017, it was only given to 0.9539% of all boys born. So, fewer than 1 in 100 baby boys born in 2017 were given the most popular name. Similarly, the top name for girls last year (Emma) accounted for 1.0528% of all baby girls born. It’s just nowhere near the level of popularity.
Rather than tracking the frequency of the top boy and girl name, I’ve been tracking the proportion of boys and girls given top ten names each year. And the change is really amazing (see below). In blue, you can see the proportion of boys given a top ten boys’ name each year (since 1880), and in pink, you can see similar frequencies for top ten girls’ names.
I’ve always been struck by the erosion of the gender gap. The most popular boys’ names used to be almost twice as popular (among boys) as the most popular girls’ names were among girls. Boys given top ten names in 1880 accounted for 41.26% of all boys born that year. Girls given top ten names in 1880 accounted for only 22.98% of all girls born that year. I’ve written before explaining why the gap used to be so large and how sociologists explain why the gap shrunk.
Ever since I started tracking this, I’ve been interested in collect the data each year they’re released to see just how close the remaining gap is. I updated the figure last year and noted that top ten boys’ names were still more popular than top ten girls’ names – but the gap had shrunk to 0.01% (top ten boy names accounted for 7.63% of all boys born; top ten girl names accounted for 7.62% of all girls born). So, I was really interested to see whether the lines finally crossed in 2017. They did. Below, I’ve zoomed in on the figure above between 2000 and 2017 and truncated the y axis a bit so it is easier to visualize.
It’s a big deal. Since 1880, top ten names have never before accounted for a larger share of births among girls than among boys in any single year. Never. It’s just never happened. But in 2017, it happened. Top ten names were given to 7.48% of boys born in 2017 and 7.66% of girls born.
It’s sort of amazing. What’s also interesting is that the two lines are starting to appear as though they might be on different trajectories moving forward. And it’s interesting to consider what this might mean and what it tells us about gender and gender inequality in the U.S. I’ll continue to follow this. And I may attempt to use a different number of names (like top 20 names, for instance) to see if there’s something funky about 10 that produces the appearance of a change that doesn’t show up when I change the size of the popular names tracked.