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The Other Popularity List: Top American Baby Names of 2012, Reframed

In the United States, this weekend is Mother’s Day. And while this means a number of different things to different people, in my dissertating household for the last few years, the biggest news of Mother’s Day weekend has been that it’s when the Social Security Administration releases the lists of the most popular baby names from the previous year.

I’ve been a name nerd for a long time, but recently, I actually acquired the credentials to call myself an official one. As I think I’ve mentioned here before, my dissertation (now officially filed! Hip hip hurrah!) was on baby names. Between 2010 and 2012, I interviewed 71 families about how they chose their children’s names; I looked at a subset of California birth certificate data from 5 years between 1970 and 2008; and I spent a lot of time with the SSA popularity lists. All that goes to say that in the next few weeks, I’ll probably be adding my voice to the clamor of analysts of this new popularity dataset, and maybe talking a bit about the specialized knowledge I’ve picked up in the last few years, too (I’ve linked to a few of the sites that I like most at the bottom of this post, in case y’all are interested enough to want to hear other people’s voices on this whole affair).

But for this first post, which will be relatively short (I’ll probably have a longer non-baby-name-related one in the next few days; have had all kinds of crazy life stuff going on recently, of which filing the dissertation was only a part), I figured I’d keep it simple, and take advantage of the platform to pose a cautionary tale to those parents who take the SSA list as gospel: the official “Top Ten” list may not be the Top Ten you’re most interested in.

As the SSA analysts themselves point out in a website disclaimer, their list records each unique phonetic spelling as an individual name. In other words, Catherine and Katherine (or Aiden and Aidan) each receive their own entry. I can’t argue with this strategy from a validity standpoint; when all you’ve got is printed names, there’s no way to determine whether Leila is pronounced like Lila or Leela, or whether Keira, Kyra and Kira are the same name. But I’ve always found it useful to ALSO draw up a list that combines (probable) homonyms, just to see the difference.

So I here present you that list: the Top 25 boys’ and girls’ names for 2012, in both original SSA and “recalculated” combined-spelling format.

Boys’ names: 

Rank Official SSA list Combined spellings list (most popular spelling first)
1 Jacob Aiden/Ayden/Aidan/Aden/Aydan/Aydin/Aidyn/Aaden
2 Mason Jackson/Jaxon/Jaxson/Jaxen
3 Ethan Jayden/Jaden/Jaiden/Jaydon/Jadon/Jaeden/Jaidyn
4 Noah Jacob/Jakob/Jaycob
5 William Mason/Mayson/Masen/Maison (which, as a French-speaker, I know is not “supposed” to sound like Mason, but I suspect often does)
6 Liam Ethan
7 Jayden Noah
8 Michael William
9 Alexander Liam
10 Aiden Michael/Micheal
11 Daniel Kayden/Kaden/Caden/Kaiden/Cayden/Caiden/Kaeden (the biggest jumper; Kayden’s “official” rank on its own is #99)
12 Matthew Alexander/Alexzander
13 Elijah Matthew/Mathew
14 James Elijah/Alijah
15 Anthony Daniel
16 Benjamin James
17 Joshua Anthony
18 Andrew Caleb/Kaleb
19 David Benjamin
20 Joseph Christopher/Kristopher/Cristopher
21 Logan Joshua
22 Jackson Andrew
23 Christopher David
24 Gabriel Joseph
25 Samuel Logan


Girls’ names: 

Rank Official SSA list Combined spellings list (most popular spelling first)
1 Sophia Sophia/Sofia
2 Emma Isabella/Izabella/Isabela
3 Isabella Emma
4 Olivia Olivia/Alivia/Alyvia
5 Ava Ava/Eva/Avah
6 Emily Emily/Emely/Emilee/Emilie/Emmalee
7 Abigail Zoey/Zoe/Zoie (the second year in a row that a “non-traditional” spelling of this name has beaten out the traditional one)
8 Mia Chloe/Khloe
9 Madison Madison/Maddison/Madisyn/Madyson
10 Elizabeth Aubrey/Aubree/Aubrie/Aubri
11 Chloe Abigail/Abbigail
12 Ella Mia/Miah
13 Avery Hailey/Haley/Haylee/Hayley/Hallie/Halle/Hailee/Haylie/Haleigh/Hayleigh (a slightly problematic category, I know, because some of these are undoubtedly pronounced to rhyme with Allie rather than Kaylee; jumped up from #32 for Hailey on its own)
14 Addison Madelyn/Madeline/Madilyn/Madeleine/Madelynn/Madalyn/Madilynn/Madalynn (jumped up from #67 for Madelyn on its own)
15 Aubrey Lily/Lilly/Lillie
16 Lily Layla/Laila/Leila/Laylah/Lailah/Leyla
17 Natalie Kaylee/Kayleigh/Kailey/Kali/Kaylie/Caylee/Kailee/Kaleigh
18 Sofia Addison/Addyson/Addisyn
19 Charlotte Riley/Rylee/Ryleigh/Rylie
20 Zoey Elizabeth/Elisabeth
21 Grace Natalie/Nataly/Nathalei/Natalee/Nathaly
22 Hannah Aaliyah/Aliyah/Aleah/Aliya/Alia/Aleigha
23 Amelia Avery/Averie/Averi
24 Harper Arianna/Ariana/Aryanna/Aryana
25 Lillian Ella

Even those of you who haven’t spent years poring over these lists probably see a few things here, right? Girls’ names are more likely to spawn lots of alternate spellings. “Y” is often seen as a way to make an androgynous name like Riley or Addison more “girly.” Biblical names (especially Old Testament names) are in for boys, but there are a few of the less traditional multiple-spelling sets in there, too.

The fact is, girls’ names have been “trendy” for a lot longer than boys’ names; although things like the numbers of names with multiple spellings haven’t increased that dramatically over time, there’s always a LOT more turnover in girls’ names than there is in boys’ names. Case in point: looking at the entire set of Social Security Administration data, starting in 1880, there are 5 boys’ names that have appeared in the top 50 every single year (David, James, John, Joseph, and William). There’s only one girls’ name that claims the same honor: Elizabeth.

There’s LOADS of other stuff I can say about all this, but I think I’ll let this post stand on its own for now as an ambassador from the land of name-nerdery. If y’all want more like this, just say so!

Other tested sites of name-nerd-dom (which will surely have LOTS on the new popularity list in the next few weeks):

  • Nameberry: Put together by the 2 women who wrote Beyond Jennifer and Jason in the late 1980s and talked about fashion in baby names before anybody else.
  • Appellation Mountain: Does daily linguistic histories of different obscure and not-so-obscure names.
  • Name Candy: A blog that covers everything from pop culture and celebrity baby names to baby name advice.
  • The Baby Name Wizard: Another pop culture baby name blog.
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  1. update; in 2 days, this post got more than 60 views, more than any other post I’ve ever put on this blog. Guess that means the fans want more! I’ll try for another sociological name post before the end of the week…


  1. Less Popular Popular Names: The Widening Pool of American Baby Names | Sociologist Novelist
  2. 2014 Baby Names — The Other Top 100 | Sociologist Novelist
  3. 2015 Baby Names — The Other Top 100 | Sociologist Novelist

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