The Friday Fillip: That’s My Name Too

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,
That’s my name too.
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout,
“There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!”
Da da da da da da da da . . .

D.C. ad nauseam

Naming has been problematic ever since Adam got the job of dubbing a billion or more different creatures. For one thing, you run out of options, or your imagination fails. For another, you want the name to be distinctive, perhaps, but not abstruse or downright daft. Brains get cudgelled and books get consulted. What shall we call the baby?

I started thinking about this because of an interesting graphic on the website Jezebel, portraying the most popular names for girls in the United States over the last sixty years. (It’s an animated GIF, and because all that flashing is a bit distracting, I’ve parked a copy here, where you can see it in a popup window.) The uniformity that this chart revealed quite startled me — check out, for example, the “Jennifer years,” a six year run of complete domination in all the states, with a pretty powerful few years of lead up and tail off.

I wondered how we fared up here in Canada, so I went hunting and found Ontario’s open database, “Ontario top baby names (female),” covering the period from 1917 to 2010. I became quite fascinated as I played with the data, downloaded as a CSV file, in my spreadsheet program. And I learned that yes, we too are very much herd animals (or should I say gregarious) when it comes to naming our children. And just as in the US, popular names come, stay for a while, and are replaced by runners-up.

Over the thirty year period (arbitrarily picked) from 1980 to 2010 only seven names made it to the top in Ontario (the US names for the corresponding years are in grey following them): Jennifer (1980-84) [Jennifer]; Ashley (1985) [Jessica]; Amanda (1986) [Jessica]; Jessica (1987-96) [Jessica 1987-90; Ashley 1991-92; Jessica 1993-95; Emily 1996]; Emily (1997-2002) [Emily]; Emma (2003-08) [Emily 2003-07; Emma 2008]; and Olivia (2009-10) [Isabella]. So much for our distinctiveness — on this index, at least.

What you only get a hint of here is the degree to which the year’s popular name in fact dominates. Thus, for example, in 1980 the first two names — Jennifer and Amanda — account for 10% of all girl births registered, and the first five names for fully 17%. After that, in a lovely display of something like the power law, there’s a long tail of rapidly diminishing instances, to a total of 781 different names for 42068 registered girl births. Things seem to change somewhat as we approach the present, with 991 names used in 1990, 1024 names in 200, and 1356 names in 2010. The year leader has taken a diminishing share each year, until in 2010, Olivia and Emma, the two top names, claim a mere 4% of all registered girl births, and the top five account for only 9%.

Still, there’s no doubt that if you want your child to be the only one in the classroom to raise her hand when a name is called, you’d do well to check the historical data for your province, because, as the charts below for Emma and Olivia show, you can see the next popular names clearly, as they rise in the ranks. And, besides, you’ll find a wealth of other names to consider in the lists.


[I should add that I only recently learned that there’s also a Jezebel chart for US boys’ names. Ontario has also made the historical data available for boys names, of course.]


  1. For further information, check out Behind the Name, which has statistical data from many places around the world. You can also view popularity maps for some individual names. The Winnipeg Free Press also did a feature on the Manitoba data from 2006-2011 last year.