Naming humans

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things

– Phil Karlton

Naming things is hard. So is naming humans. In fact we don’t even attempt to give humans descriptive names. Else I would go by ProgrammerGymnastMale Rudolph. Instead parents choose names based on myriad socio-historical and personal factors.

Given how many different forces influence parents when naming their children, it’s interesting to trace how names drift in and out of popularity in the United States. Below is a graph of the top 1000 most popular names during a given year since 1950.


Click on graph to zoom

It doesn’t take long to realize how your own life fits into this model. In fact, my mother, Jill, and father, Jeffrey, both have popular baby names for the 50s and 60s, while I have a popular name for those born in the 80s and 90s.

Jill (born 1957) Jeffrey (born 1956) Benjamin (born 1990)
Jill Jeffrey Benjamin

At times we even joke that all my mother’s friends are named Cheryl. Turns out, Sheryl was popular back in the day and dropped off the map later in the century.



While it’s interesting to look at how the naming patterns have changed over time, it’s also interesting to look at patterns across state borders. The map below shows the popularity of a name in a given state for the year 2015. The darker the color, the more popular the name.

The prevalence of some names can signal a demographic trend for certain states. Jesus, a common name in families with hispanic backgrounds, is markedly more prevalent in states with a large Hispanic population. On the other hand, Chaim, a Jewish name, is more common in New York and New Jersey – areas that have larger Jewish communities.

Leo Chaim Jesus
Leo Chaim Jesus

One particularly noticeable trend in this data set is that the share of the top 1000 most popular names decreases over time. This could stem from the confluence of many factors, including a proclivity as a society for more unique names for our children, or that the tradition of naming children after a certain person or family member is decreasing. But perhaps most feasibly, this trend could stem from the fact that the US is more diverse now than it ever has been in the past, and is projected to continue to diversify. More diverse communities, more diverse names.

What then, are some of the rarer names that one would find in the United States? Below is a table with a random selection of the 300 rarest names in the dataset for the year 2015.

The list includes a favorite of mine, Kingdavid. Must be a strong child.

Sometimes when naming something, it doesn’t help to look at any resource. No graphs, no images. If you just need a godforsaken name, use the button below and a random name will be chosen from a list of 10,000 names. Happy naming!

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Published on September 15, 2017