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Most Popular Baby Names in 2021 vs. 1971

Liam and Olivia take over from Michael and Jennifer

 A grade-school child stands in front of a black chalkboard. "My Name is" is written on the board.

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If you were born 50 years ago, you probably went to school with quite a few kids named Jennifer and Michael, the two most popular baby names of 1971. Those names have long dropped off the list of the top baby names. Children born in 2021 will have a lot of friends named Liam and Olivia.

Michael and Jennifer, meet Liam and Olivia

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has released its list of the most popular baby names of 2021. Olivia, which has been the most popular girl’s name since 2019, when it pushed Emma aside, remains on top, as does Liam, the most popular boy’s name since 2017, when it slipped past Noah into first place.

Olivia — Latin for “olive tree” and the feminine form of Oliver — first hit the list of the 10 most popular baby names in 2001. It was number 543 in 1971.

Liam is an Irish name meaning “strong-willed warrior.” It’s short for Uilliam, and made its debut on the top 10 list in 2012. Theodore is the only new entry on the 2021 list, coming in at number 10 among boy’s names and replacing Alexander.

Top 10 baby names of 2021

Rank Male name Female name
1 Liam Olivia
2 Noah Emma
3 Oliver Charlotte
4 Elijah Amelia
5 James Ava
6 William Sophia
7 Benjamin Isabella
8 Lucas Mia
9 Henry Evelyn
10 Theodore Harper

The most popular names of 50 years ago have slipped in popularity — particularly girls’ names. Jennifer, an Anglicized version of the Welsh name Guinevere and meaning “fair complexion,” reigned as the top girl’s name from 1970 through 1984. It’s number 493 now, just below Edith. Tammy, which ranked sixth in 1971, has vanished from the list of the 1,000 most popular names.

Michael, a biblical name meaning “who is like God,” reigned as the top baby name from 1961 through 1998. It’s 17th on the list for 2021, just above Mason.

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What’s in a name?

From time to time, a hit song will inspire a popular baby name. Rosanna, for example, shot up to number 439 in 1982 from 821 in 1981. The song “Rosanna,” by the band Toto, was released in 1982. Similarly, Windy hit the list of the 1,000 most popular names in 1967, the year The Association had a hit of the same name. It ranked number 786 that year and has dropped off the list of most popular names.

A popular person will also inspire baby names. Elvis, for example, peaked at number 404 in 1978; it was 904 in 2021. Beyonce ranked 700 in 2021, the only year the name made it into the top 1,000. Jesus has been in the top 500 names since 1900; Muhammad has been steadily gaining in popularity since 1976.

The movie Rocky was released in November 1976. The name Rocky rose from number 383 that year to 328 in 1977 and peaked at 302 in 1979. The name hit its popularity peak in 1955, at number 240, up from 954 in 1942. One possible explanation: Boxer Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, held the world heavyweight boxing championship from 1952 to 1956.

Where you live and when you live has a bearing on what you’ll name your children. Parents in the Northwest, for example, are the least likely to choose the most popular names for their children. In Wyoming, Liam and Olivia are at the top of the most popular baby names for 2021, but Wyatt, Asher and Levi are among the most popular names for boys. Paisley, Charlotte and Mia are the most popular girls’ names in Wyoming.

Other names tend to reflect the age. A 2003 paper by Matthew W. Hahn and R. Alexander Bentley argues that unusual times bring unusual names. The popularity of new and unusual names rose in the 1920s, they say, but plummeted in the 1940s and 1950s.

Still other names may have fallen out of use because they seem old-fashioned. Homer, for example, was a reasonably popular name in the early 20th century, ranking 80th in 1900, according to the SSA. Its last appearance on the SSA’s list was in 1983, well before the debut of the popular television show The Simpsons, which probably doomed the name for decades to come.

The government agency’s baby names database contains names dating back to 1880. The SSA began compiling its lists of the most popular baby names in 1997.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and  USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's  USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.