I have a new online love, one that swallows me up for hours at a time. It makes me laugh; it's a looking glass into history, giving names to soldiers storming the beach on D-Day, to lovebirds cruising in a 1957 Thunderbird, to girls wearing capris and blowing big bubbles, to all of us who will never forget the picture of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on that awful plane ride back from Dallas, and to everyone who wore — or refused to wear — tie-dyed shirts; it forces me, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, to "puzzle and puzzle until my puzzler is sore" and it makes me blurt out, more than occasionally, "what the heck (or a reasonable facsimile of heck)?"
And I never, ever get bored.
It's the "most popular baby names" tool at ssa.gov (where, of course, you also find endless useful information about your benefits and other Social Security-related issues). I know, I know: You're probably no longer in the business of having to choose baby names. Well, neither am I. The beauty of this tool is that you don't need to be. All you need is a curiosity about the most popular names of today for babies born in the United States in 2011 — and how they compare to the most popular names every year all the way back to 1880.
You can sort by year: Choose your birth year, or your kids' or grandkids' birth years, or your parents' birth years, and see what names were most — and least — popular, from 1 to 1,000. Or choose a name, and see how its popularity has changed every year since 1880. Slice it by state (Red vs. blue? East vs. West? North vs. South? States with large Hispanic, Asian American, or African American populations?), or find the most popular names for twins (in 2011, Olivia and Sophia for girls, Daniel and David for boys). And so on … and on … and on … and ….
Sorry about that. I got lost in the tool again — not "I-don't-know-where-I-am-and-I'm-scared" lost, but "This-is-so-cool-I-never-want-to-leave" lost.
Once you're in, you'll find your own fun facts. Here are a few of mine:
- Whatever the opposite of "trend-setters" is, my parents were it. Since the year I was born, when it was a respectable No. 129, my first name has plummeted down the charts, to the point that it's no longer even in the top 1,000 for boys' names. Here is a short list of first names that were more popular in 2011 than Bernard for newborn boys: Malaki, Kyron, Odin, Hamza, Bodhi, Adonis, Alvin, Vihaan, Hendrix (but not Jimi), both River and Phoenix — and, along with Phoenix, a host of other geographical names: Zaire, Houston, Dakota, Branson, Memphis, London, Boston, Dallas, Kingston, Princeton, Trenton and Camden (while we're in New Jersey, can I at least get a shout-out for Bernardsville?) — several presidents (Carter, Nixon, Clinton and Reagan), Harley, Jagger, Kobe and Bryant, Michael (of course; more on Michael later) and Tyson, and four of the Champ's names: Cassius, Clay, Muhammad and Ali. Fine names all, I hasten to add.
- Speaking of champs, Mary's record is probably untouchable. It was the No. 1 girl's name every year from 1880 to 1946; fell to No. 2 behind Linda from 1947 to 1952; was No. 1 again from 1953 to 1961; and slipped to No. 2 again (behind Lisa, which was No. 1 from 1962 to 1969) until 1965. But now Mary is No.112, and in a nod to the country's changing demographics, was overtaken by Maria in 1996.
- The popularity of girls' names is infinitely more variable than that of boys' names. (We'll leave it to the sociologists to tell us why.) Of the top 10 boys' names in 1925, at the beginning of the pre-boomer "Silent Generation," four are still in the top 50, and only one — Donald, at 376 — was lower in 2011 than No. 165. Conversely, of the top 10 girls' names that same year, only one — Elizabeth, at No. 11 — is still in the top 50, with one more (Margaret, at No. 187) in the top 200. Three (Betty, Mildred and Doris) are no longer in the top 1,000 at all, and another — Dorothy, at No. 937 — is barely hanging on.
- The relative stability of — or, to look at it through another prism, the lack of imagination with — boys' names continued from the peak of the Baby Boom through today. In 1957, the year with the most births in U.S. history, the top 10 boys' names were Michael, James, David, Robert, John, William, Mark, Richard, Thomas and Steven. Four of these 10 — William, Michael, James, and David — are still in the top 20, and another three — John, Robert and Thomas — are in the top 65. The farthest any of the Boomer Boys' top 10 has dropped is Mark, at 159 (having been surpassed by Marcus, at 145). Girls' names are a totally different story: The 1957 top 10 of Mary, Susan, Linda, Debra, Karen, Deborah, Cynthia, Patricia, Barbara and Donna have fallen, for the most part, far out of fashion. (Ever wonder why there were so many girls named "Debbie" in your elementary school in the mid-1960s? Look no further than the 1957 list, with both Debra and Deborah in the top 10.) After Mary at No. 112 and the resilient Karen at No. 287, only one other of the 1957 top 10 names came in higher than No. 592 in 2011: Cynthia, at No. 430.
- Barring a resurgence in popularity, 1957 top 10 names Debra and Donna might remain out of the top 1,000 list next year, and Deborah, Barbara and Susan might also fall out. And Linda; poor Linda. It basked in the glory of a few years at No. 1 in the early Baby Boom; it's now at No. 592 and in free fall. But Linda can still look down its nose at Lisa, which went from eight years as No. 1 in the 1960s all the way down to No. 703 in 2011.
- Michael is the male equivalent of Mary — but, unlike Mary, it's stayed in favor consistently. Since 1880, the lowest it's been is No. 59 (in 1892), and since cracking the top 10 in 1944, it's never left. It was No. 1 almost every year from 1954 to 1998, dislodged only by David in 1960. And while it's still No. 6, that's Michael's lowest point since the year that Harry (No. 709 in 2011) defeated Thomas (No. 63 in 2011) for president. (That was 1948, but you knew that already.)
- And if all these top 10 lists bring another name to mind, my final fun fact (for today, at least): In 2011, the boy's name Casey was No. 423. Kasem, like Bernard, was not on the list.
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