Classic Baby Names: 10 timeless choices
Classic baby names can encompass several different categories. There are Biblical names, from Anne to Zachary. There are names rooted in ancient cultures, including Atticus and Juno, which have survived or are being revived today.
And then there are the classic names that have been well-used in English-speaking cultures over the decades and centuries. While classic names by any definition do move in and out of style just like other names, some manage to endure better than others and become, well, the most classic classic names.
Here, our picks for ten of the best classic baby names today.
Catherine — The Duchess formerly known as Kate has done much to swing fashion toward the C-beginning version of this most classic of girls’ names. Catherine, classic in any spelling, has been borne by saints and queens along with some of the most inspiring literary heroines, including Heathcliff‘s Cathy of Wuthering Heights. Greek for “pure,” Catherine comes in countless international variations and with a wide range of nicknames. Most stylish today are Cate or Kate or the vintage-feeling Kay or Kitty.
Elizabeth — Probably the most classic of the classic baby names for girls, Elizabeth dipped out of the Top 25 only once since 1880 — in 1945 — and is back in the Top 10 now after a brief slip. One reason for Elizabeth‘s enduring popularity: Her wide range of nicknames and variations, which carry different personalities and veer in and out of style as Elizabeth herself endures. Betty of a century ago gave way to Beth and Betsy, then to Lisa followed by Liz and Lizzie, while today Eliza and Libby feel more fashionable — with the return of Betty on the horizon.
Jane — After a decades-long slide, not-so-plain Jane is climbing back up the charts, appealing for its simplicity and long history. Jane is a feminization of John borne by the great author Jane Austen and the great literary heroine Jane Eyre, by queens and everywoman — the generic Jane Doe. Fresher once again that sister names Joan and Jean, Jane makes an enduring choice.
Sarah — The Biblical Sarah has an international quality that transcends her Old Testament roots. She can be spelled with or without the final h, varied to Sarai or Zara, shorted to Sally or Sadie or Zadie — diminutives that have a life of their own. Sarah was in the U.S. Top 10 from the late 1970s through 2002. While it’s now slipped to Number 39, that doesn’t diminish its classic appeal.
Sophia — Sophia is a current fashion darling — she’s been the Number 1 U.S. girls’ name for two years running — that has a long and august history. Sophia appeals to a wide range of parents with its blend of beauty and brains: think Sophia Loren crossed with the goddess of wisdom. Sofia is a Latinate spelling widely favored by Spanish-American parents, vaulting the numbers of little girls with the name even higher.
Charles — The name Charles dates back to Charlemagne, and while it’s slipped in the U.S. standings in recent years, it boasts many illustrious bearers, from Charles Dickens to Charlie Chaplin, the Prince of Wales to Charles M. Schulz. Charles may have lost some favor as short form Chuck is seriously out of style while Charlie is now used over 40 percent of the time for girls. Unlike James, full form Charles has not become fashionable, yet its still an attractive and enduring choice.
David — David is the Old Testament name of an eminently appealing hero: the brave young David who defeated Goliath and grew up to become a wise king who was a poet who enjoyed music. What parent wouldn’t want that legacy for his or her son? David, especially in short form Dave, is an everyman name for our times. Contemporary Davids in the limelight include soccer star Beckham and magician Copperfield, musician Bowie and television host Letterman.
Henry — Henry is a newly fashionable classic, having shaken off its Old Time-y dust in the mid-eighties when it was chosen for the young ginger-haired prince better known as Harry. Henry appeals to parents who like boys’ names that combine tradition with a strong dash of quirkiness: Funkier than Edward or William, but more straight-laced than Hayden, say, or Joshua, Henry represents the best of many worlds. Henry has serious royal history along with artistic elan, via writers Henry James, Henry Miller, and Henry David Thoreau. There’s also sports great Henry Aaron and Thomas the Tank Engine’s pal Henry.
James — James is another name that appeals to parents looking to blend tradition and style. The English variation of longtime Number 1 boys’ name Jacob, James has transcended its midcentury Jimmy image and reclaimed its proper form. There have been more presidents named James than any other first name, and its also royal and biblical. Attractive Jameses from Franco to Dean to Bond definitely add to the appeal of this classic.
William — William may well have claimed the crown from John as the most classic boys’ name, in the Top 5 until 1950 and now back there again, perhaps thanks to the popularity of the young British prince. Originally a German name meaning “resolute protection,” it was introduced to England by William the Conqueror and has long been a royal name there as well as a presidential choice in the U.S. Famous Williams who add different dimensions to the name include William Shakespeare and William Faulkner, Bill Gates and Will Smith.
Do you agree that these are the ten most classic names? What would you add or subtract?
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on September 23rd, 2013 at 10:37 pm
Great list. Just wanted to add that Will Smith is actually a Willard, not a William.
on September 24th, 2013 at 12:01 am
I think there are better choices than Jane and sophia, lovely names but I think Maria would be more classic ? And I also was looking for more biblical boy names Paul and John.
on September 24th, 2013 at 12:59 am
I’m surprised centuries chart-toppers John or Mary didn’t make the list.
on September 24th, 2013 at 2:12 am
I’m not a classic name person. I find all of these boring except James and Jane.
on September 24th, 2013 at 2:44 am
Great post ! Personally I would replace Sarah with Mary and David with John.
on September 24th, 2013 at 5:14 am
Margaret. Edward. Anne. Joseph.
on September 24th, 2013 at 5:17 am
I wouldn’t say Sophia is a classic. I’d replace that with Mary.
on September 24th, 2013 at 6:19 am
I love that you have Jane, but I wouldn’t have included Sophia.
on September 24th, 2013 at 6:43 am
Yes, Sophia has a classic, elegant feel, but it was definitely considered an old-fashioned name not that long ago and will probably sound dated to the early 21st century to the next generation, who will no doubt want to name their kids anything but! I realize it’s difficult to find completely trend-proof names, though.
on September 24th, 2013 at 6:47 am
I absolutely adore classic names and I don’t find them boring at all. My own top 10 would be:
David, Joseph, Peter, Thomas & William and Alice, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Emma & Jane
Not exactly the most popular, but they’re all favourites of mine. If I was to do ‘core classics’:
James, John, Robert, Thomas & William and Anne, Elizabeth, Jane, Mary & Sarah
But there are so many other beautiful ones that miss out!
on September 24th, 2013 at 7:54 am
Oh, this blog is my baby! I love the classics, and Elizabeth and James have been my favorites for a long, long time. I would have included Margaret or Mary rather than Sophia, though. There are great vintage nicknames to be derived from Margaret or Mary, of course, like Elizabeth: Molly, May, Maisie, Millie, Maidie, Maggie, Meggie, Meg, Daisy, Polly. I’ve seen some of these applied to either, historically.
I’ve witnessed Sukey used as a Sarah diminutive, although more commonly, of course, for Susannah or Susan.
While classics for males have been commonly adopted the past few decades in their long form, I do witness the mid-century short forms in use for little boys in Irish-American neighborhoods, for one: Jimmy, Ed, Johnny, Billy, Dan, Joe. I love the long forms, but also enjoy the mid-century America associations of the diminutives.
on September 24th, 2013 at 8:23 am
I would also replace Sophia and Sarah with Anne and Margaret. Great blog though!
on September 24th, 2013 at 8:24 am
and Mary too, of course..
on September 24th, 2013 at 8:55 am
As a mom to a Sofia and a James, I clearly adore the classic names. As a name nerd, I first hesitated to give our kids “popular” names but after much thought, I realized I would rather give them classic names with a strong history behind them rather than something unique that may become trendy a few years down the road.
on September 24th, 2013 at 9:47 am
I agree with most of these choices as classics except Sophia. Like someone else pointed out not long ago it was an old lady name and now it feels very trendy. I think Victoria, Margaret, Mary, Claire or Rebecca seem more like true classics. But I feel that there are more classic names for boys than for girls. I think my favorite classic name for boys is Andrew, but I may be a bit biased as it is my husband’s name. 🙂
on September 24th, 2013 at 9:49 am
A lot of good points. It’s definitely hard to limit to ten and there are excellent arguments for all the names people suggested adding.
on September 24th, 2013 at 12:01 pm
Love this post! Two of my five children’s names are on this list. I have a James and a Katharine. You’ve boosted my courage to push for Sarah if this next little one is a girl.
on September 24th, 2013 at 3:59 pm
Ah I love this post!!
Classic names are so gorgeous. They’ve stood the test of time and despite being popular never gain trendiness and just feel effortless. I disagree with many about Sophia I think she classic yes she’s gained popularity and many consider her trendy but for me she’s a classic. For Europeans Sophia is on many family trees, for many American’s the name is on family trees, she has the elegance of Catherine and the strength of Elizabeth – she is a classic.
on September 24th, 2013 at 4:04 pm
My mother wanted to name my sister Sarah, but Dad vetoed her. She was happy because in first grade there were like three (or four) Sarahs in her class, but only one of the other name.
My first grade teacher was old and said in the 60’s she once had a class with five Davids.
I prefer Michael to David. It has more nicknames like mike Mikey mickey, mick etc.
David though is less overused now.
Great list and great theme!
on September 24th, 2013 at 5:16 pm
The key word here is “timeless”. No one would ever know the year your child was born if you give them such classic names as Elizabeth and William. These names endure because they are appropriate for any age and can withstand any trend.
on September 24th, 2013 at 6:13 pm
I agree with these names but would swap Sophia and Sarah and add Mary, Margaret, or Anne. Catherine is really growing on me lately.
As an aside I met three young brothers this weekend William, Charles and Henry ( no nns ) Wonder if she has a girl if one of these will be #4!
on September 24th, 2013 at 6:46 pm
Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Catherine been in steady DECLINE over the last few years??? Hmmm…
Anyways, I love Elizabeth and James!!!! I mean… LOVE. If I had a girl right now she would be either Elizabeth or Aurelia. James is my front runner for a son. I can’t think of one way to tease a James. It’s the perfect name IMO
on September 24th, 2013 at 6:50 pm
Also, even though Sophia is a very old name, I don’t see it as a timeless name. It hasn’t had the enduring popularity of names like Elizabeth, James and William. I’m not sure how it qualifies.
In fact, right now it feels extremely trendy. In 20 years it will be dated and no longer in fashion
on September 25th, 2013 at 7:58 am
I agree with EmilyVA’s suggestion of Michael as a classic. It recently (20th century) achieved classic status, though, but I wager it’s here to stay.
I forgot to mention Thomas yesterday. I’ve heard it diminutized, boldfacedly, to Tommy for Irish-American youth.
One word about classics returning in recent decades in their full forms. It seems that after countless numbers of middle-aged Bills, Toms, Johns, Bobs, Jims, Dans, Joes, etc., the short forms became mundane, almost generic, and later generations naturally embraced the formal versions as fresh. The longer forms do have a more historic, earlier American appeal, and I think that is part of the pull. In keeping with the last observation, some of the pre-mid-century vintage short forms are being applied such as Will over Bill, Jack instead of Johnny, and I’m predicting, Ned or Ted over Ed. Give it some time, though, and mid-century diminutizations will be back. I’ve recently witnessed an under five called Mick.
on September 25th, 2013 at 8:13 am
“One word about classics returning in recent decades in their full forms. It seems that after countless numbers of middle-aged Bills, Toms, Johns, Bobs, Jims, Dans, Joes, etc.,”
I meant to say “Johnnys” instead of “Johns.”
on September 25th, 2013 at 10:28 am
James and Elizabeth are my in-laws, William is my grandfather and Jane is my aunt. Love this post.
on September 25th, 2013 at 7:15 pm
I think Mary is glaringly omitted from this list!
on September 25th, 2013 at 7:57 pm
This is a great post! I love all of the names you selected, although I’m not sure I would call Sophia a classic. And where is Mary? (Downton Abbey, anyone?)
on September 27th, 2013 at 9:33 am
Having Sophia instead of Mary is just silly.
on September 27th, 2013 at 10:13 pm
Charles is completely unattractive these days, I wouldn’t put it in the same category as James.
In reference to another poster above, all of these names could be teased. If kids want to tease your kid, it doesn’t matter if he/she is called James, William or Sarah, they’ll get teased. Just like I know guys named Ashley and Courtney that have never been teased. It’s all in the personality
on September 28th, 2013 at 8:40 am
What about Caroline ?! Or even Abigail ? They are both more classics than Sophia.
on September 29th, 2013 at 6:21 pm
Victoria should replace Sophia. Caroline is another classic.
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