What Baby Names Say About America

“Emma” rules the West Coast, while “Liam” reigns supreme in the American Midwest.

In the southeastern part of the United States, parents prefer the name “William” for boys and “Ava” for girls, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration, which compiled a list of 2018’s most popular baby names.

At the top of the list nationwide are “Liam” for boys (for the second year) and “Emma” for girls (continuing a 5-year streak). The names “Noah” and “Olivia” come in second.

While naming a child might feel like one of the most personal decisions a person can make, that choice is often heavily influenced by outside forces.

“Names say more about the parents than the kids,” Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told VOA in an email. “How unique parents want to be, where in the country they were when the child was born, and what influences around them shape their lives.”

Today’s digital media-saturated world means new parents are exposed to a much broader range of potential baby names than ever before. They might be influenced by celebrities or characters from movies and television shows.

For example, the name “Arya,” from a beloved character on the “Game of Thrones” television series, ranked 119th on the list, well ahead of traditional names like “Angela” (264), “Jennifer” (345) and “Alexis” (179).

“Khaleesi,” another iconic character from the hit show, was the 549th most popular name for newborn girls, beating names like “Lisa” (891), “Christine” (926) and “Anne” (599).

“Increasingly, parents may feel that they want to — and are able to — make their own choices about forenames for their children in an expression of their sense of their own individuality and the desire to endow a distinctive and unique individuality in their children as they grow up,” sociologist Jane Pilcher, an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University in England, told VOA via email.

She refers to names as “workhorses” because they can reveal significant information about a person. But that can also have a downside.

“A forename can tell us about a person’s sex and gender, ethnicity and nationality, social class and cohort,” Pilcher says. “These social identities, unfortunately, are each linked to discrimination and inequality. So, a forename can very much impact upon a person’s experiences and opportunities.”

A 2012 study found that when science faculty from research universities were given identical applications for a laboratory manager position, they rated candidates named “John” more highly than candidates named “Jennifer.”

A person’s name often reflects their culture, and is a marker of when and where they lived, and of the prevailing social trends at the time of their birth.

Berger found that names starting with “K” became more popular after Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage in New Orleans in 2005. Parents heard the name on the news so often, that its sounds or syllables became more familiar and therefore more appealing.

“Names are more likely to become popular when other, similar names have been popular recently. So, if ‘Katy’ and ‘Katherine’ have been popular, other names that start with a hard ‘K’ like ‘Kevin’ are more likely to take off,” says Berger. “Hearing a name more often makes people like it more, but if something is too popular, people avoid it.”

So, ultimately parents look for the comfort of familiarity, while also searching for a name that stands out.

American-born Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, recently named their son Archie, a name which ranked 992nd in the U.S. in 2018. It remains to be seen if that royal seal of approval will influence Archie’s U.S. popularity in 2019.

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