The US has more baby names than ever—but they all sound the same

Bet you can guess the last letter of his name.
Bet you can guess the last letter of his name.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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The more parents try to get creative with baby names, the less distinctive they become.

The US Social Security Administration recently released data on all the common names given to babies in 2017. (Common names are those used more than five times.) The data reveal that Americans are increasingly adventurous when it comes to naming their babies. In 1991, it took fewer than 100 girl’s names to make up more than 80% of all common names given to girls. Today, it takes over 250. For boys, that number has jumped from less than 50 to over 140 during the same period.

If you think that means that parents are getting more creative and individualistic, you are wrong.

Laura Wattenberg is the preeminent expert on US naming trends. Her website, Baby Name Wizard, is a treasure trove of insights on the fascinating choices parents make when naming their kids. From the rise of the “andro-girly” name to the massive decline of the name “Isis,” her findings are often strange and always illuminating.

In 2007, Wattenberg made what I believe to be her most incredible discovery. One of the keys to understanding baby name trends, she wrote, is looking at the final letter. Although people may use many different names, if they end in the same letter, they will still share a similar character. When she analyzed the final letter in names over time, Wattenberg found that for boys there has been a striking outbreak of groupthink. Take a look at the the three charts below—from 1900, 1960, and 2017—and you will see what I mean.

We live in the age of names ending in “n.” Logan, Benjamin, Mason, Ethan, Aiden, and Jackson are all among the 20 most common boy names. The share of girl names ending in n has also risen, but not quite to the same degree.

“What you have here is a story of two competing impulses,” Wattenberg wrote in 2008. “American parents love the idea of unusual names, but our tastes are still as much like our neighbors’ as ever. The inevitable result is hundreds of tiny variations on a theme. We carve out tiny niches of uniqueness—’that’s Jaidyn, not Jadyn’—and end up sounding more alike than ever.”

For some parents, an increasingly popular way to distinguish their baby is to not just go with one final “n,” but two. Names like Quinn, Finn, Flynn, Brooklynn, Adalynn, and Adelynn, have been rising up the list of common names. They now make up about 2% of all names given to babies in the US.

While still common, the trend towards given your child a name finishing in “n” appears to be cooling off. The share of last letter “n” names fell from a peak of 33.6% in 2011, to 31.6% in 2017.  Surely, American parents will find some other new way to conform, while seeming like they are not.