Project Namesake: Americans wear names like fashion

For decades, certain traditional American names like John or Ann were so widely used, they became “common names.” Today, we still think of those names as common names, but it isn’t necessarily because they are commonly used. In fact, common names are losing the popularity contest.

Researchers Todd Gureckis, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, and Robert Goldstone, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University-Bloomington, analyzed127 years of data from the Social Security Administration.  They found that between 1880 and1905, common names tended to fluctuate in popularity from one year to the next, going up one year, then down. But between 1981 and 2006, names tended to be like fashion: they become wildly popular, only to be abandoned for more trendy names years later.

“Parents in the United States are increasingly sensitive to the change in frequency of a name in recent time,” the authors noted. “Names that are gaining in popularity are seen as more desirable than those that have fallen in popularity in the recent past.”

The trends are so strong that you can often tell someone’s age by their names. If your name is Ashley or Brittany, it’s likely you were born in 1990. If your name is Emma or Isabella, you are probably about a year old.

The table below compares the fashionable names in 1990 to those in 2008. You’ll see how girls’ names seem to be more susceptible to trends. Half of the male names have maintained their Top 10 ranking between 1990 and 2008, while only one female name has done so.

The most common baby names of the 21st century, Emily and Jacob, account for just over one percent of girls and boys named since 2000. In 1955 about one-third of boys and one-fifth of girls were given one of the 10 most common names of the century. Today, fewer than 10% of boys and girls are given one of the 10 most common names.

Interestingly, some of America’s most successful people tend to have common names. The names John, Robert and James are more prevalent among the 972 male CEOs on the 2009 Fortune 1,000 list than they are among the boys who were born between 1940 and 1960 (when most current CEOs were born), according to USA Today. The names Richard, Paul and Edward are also more statistically prevalent among CEOs than among the general population.

My name, Kurt, has not made the top 100 popular boys’ names at any time in the past 60 years (the closest it got was 109 in 1964).  Still, I have always liked the name Kurt because, while unique enough to usually be the only one in the class, it was never a target for teasing (except when some smart aleck told me to “curtsy Kurtsy”).  It’s a strong name, hard to mispronounce, and looks respectable on a business card. Plus, it puts me in some lofty company: actor Kurt Russell, author Kurt Vonnegut and rocker Kurt Cobain.

What about your name?  What has it meant to you?

To check out the popularity of your name over the past 100 years, go to