Every parent likes to think that they chose a unique and original name for their baby. But science tells us that’s not the case; trends in naming are better understood as a group phenomenon. And those same trends show that, when it comes to baby names, it’s getting increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.
In a study conducted at the University of Edinburgh and published in PLoS One, a team of researchers used a tool derived from biosciences, known as network analysis, to spot trends in the names given to more than 22 million babies born in the UK between 1838 and 2016. Using this tool, they built graphics that visualized the large dataset of names they had access to, allowing them to spot several distinctive trends in naming patterns in England and Wales over the past 180 years.
The researchers found that naming choices in the UK centered mostly around biblical characters until the mid-to-late 20th century, when the decline of religiosity, and the cultural impact of immigrants coming to the UK during the Industrial Revolution, led to distinctive changes. There has been very little stability in naming patterns since.
The study’s authors examined how some names cycle in and out of fashion between generations or become ‘fads’—popular because of a positive association with a public figure or event, such as the early 2000s surge in Mileys, after the rise of teen star Miley Cyrus. As spikes in popularity for certain names became more frequent in the 21st century, those names also eventually fell out of fashion because of overuse.
With names cycling in and out of vogue, parents are increasingly searching for ones that will help their kids stand out. That, the scientists write, is why hyphens and variant spellings have increased substantially in recent years. But, as they explain, those names also have to be recognizable, which is why contemporary naming patterns are characterized by “a balance struck between recognizability and rarity.” The speed with which contemporary names fall in and out of favor likely reflects the inter-connected global network that allows names to circulate and gain exposure—a phenomenon that has only intensified in the age of social media and increased travel.
These findings illustrate the fact that the very important choice of what to name a child is not made in isolation, and that this choice has concrete, real-world implications for children. As the authors write: “As a representation of self-identity, a name acts as a template for the development for self-image, indicating the child’s position in status hierarchies of gender, race, and social class, thereby influencing the behavior of others towards them. Names act as identity stereotypes and affect perceptions of moral character, professional competence, educational ability, and physical attractiveness.”
Lead study author Stephen Bush, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, says understanding what external conditions influence what parents pick provides important insight into changes in societal values, personal tastes and ethnic and cultural diversity.
The study authors created an interactive database that can be used to track the popularity of any given baby name.
An earlier version of this article contained an image that was not appropriate for the topic. It has since been updated.