The Top Girl Names of All Time
Since the Social Security Administration began tallying the popularity of baby names, there have been —believe it or not—only ten girls’ names that managed to hit the top spot on the list. Some stayed on for decades—predating the SSA stats– while others only held the title for a couple of years. Here are those ten most popular girls, in chronological order—four of them reaching Number 1 since the Millennium.
Mary, the quintessential New Testament name, is the mother of all girls’ names, the most popular and enduring female Christian name in the English-speaking world for centuries. At the point when the SSA started keeping records, it was still Number 1 and remained there into the 1940s. In 1900, there were 16,707 girls named Mary, which was 5.25% of girl births. (This at a time when the US population was 70 million, compared with 318 million today.) In 2014, Mary ranked at 120, close to its lowest point ever—but we’re seeing some renewed interest in it, perhaps thanks to the strong character of Lady Mary in Downton Abbey.
Just when everyone thought Mary was invincible, along came more modern sounding little Linda who succeeded in managing to surpass her in 1947, staying at the top for six straight years and remaining in the Top 10 till 1966. Although I have a vested interest in the name, there’s no clear-cut explanation, except that its popularity coincided with that of actress Linda Darnell (born Monetta) and is also a Spanish word for ‘pretty’ and Linda is certainly a pretty girls’ name. There were a whopping 99,680 Lindas born in 1947 (vs 71,684 Marys), or 5.4% of the new girl population. Current ranking is 615.
Lisa, a short form of the European Elisabeth, didn’t even appear in the Top 1000 till the late 1930s. Then, partly due to the popularity of the hit song ‘Mona Lisa’, it started spiraling upwards. By 1962 Lisa had reached the top, where it remained for eight years. getting a royal stamp of approval when Elvis used it for his only child in 1968. In 1962, there were 46,083 newbie Lisas, 2.2% of girl babies born. Current ranking: 750.
JenniferThough she was at the top for just 14 years, from 1970 to 1984, no name came to be seen as quite so epidemic or to signify a generation of girls as Jennifer did. During her reign, there were 859, 112 little Jens born in the US (2.8% of 1984 girls)—enough for online identity-loss support groups to emerge as they grew up. This once obscure Welsh name shot to fame first via actress Jennifer Jones (born Phyllis Isley), but even more by way of the tragic heroine of the film Love Story, released, yes, in 1970. Current ranking is Number 220.
When Jennifer began to feel overused, Jessica jumped in to take her place as another 3-syllable J name, though Jessica had a much more classic, Shakespearean heritage. Jessica had two split turns at the top, from1985 to 90 and then from 93 to 95, for a total of nine years. In 1985, there were 48,346 baby Jessicas, 2.6% of girls registered. She’s now at Number 179, somewhat higher than Cousin Jennifer.
Ashley started life as a mild-mannered, British-inflected male surname name, as in Gone With the Wind’s Ashley Wilkes, played by Leslie Howard. Then came the strong Hemingway character Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. But the main catalyst seems to have been a popular soap opera character, Ashley Abbott, who debuted on The Young and the Restless in 1982 (and is still going strong). Ashley held the Number 1 spot for two years, 1991 and 1992, with 43,482 girls given the name in 1991, 2.1 of the new girl population. Current ranking: 87.
When baby namers started to tire a little of the J-juggernaut, the Em– Era began, with Emily taking the throne in 1996 and crossing into the 21st century with a reign that lasted till 2007 in several other countries as well as the US. Emily, with its combination of daintiness and dignity, and literary namesakes like Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, proved irresistible to 25,149 parents in 1996, 1.3% of all baby girls born that year. Emily is still a popular choice at Number 7.
Just as Jessica replaced Jennifer, so did Emma follow Emily, if only for two scattered years, 2008 and 2014. Emma, feminine but streamlined, royal and literary, was given a boost by its choice for Rachel and Ross’s baby on Friends in 2002 and is now borne by three of todays’ hottest young stars: Emmas Watson, Stone and Roberts. In 2014, there were more than 20,000 girls christened Emma, 1.07% of the new female population.
Isabella had a two-year run, 2009 and 2010, introducing a more feminissima vibe to first place (Olivia was also near the top). This Latinate version of Elizabeth had a direct pop cultural inspiration—Isabella ‘Bella’ Swann, the lead character of the phenomenally popular Twilight series. Although it had always shown up on the list, Isabella had sunk down close to the bottom in 1990, but that changed rapidly after the publication of the first book in 2005. By the year 2009, more than 22,000 babies were given the name, which was just 1.1% of girl babies born.
Sophia managed to edge in there for three years, from 2011 to 2013, before Emma made a return last year. Exotic, romantic, but not as frilly as Isabella, it’s closely linked to Italian screen goddess Loren—who was born Sofia. An author favorite since the days of Tom Jones, Sophia has been on the US list since at least 1880 and has also been a royal name in several countries. There were 21,816 Sophias born here in 2011, 1.1% of girls, showing how much smaller percentages of girls today get the #1 name.