The Wonderfully Wacky Baby Naming Trends Defining The 2020s, According To A Baby Naming Expert
We sat down with a baby naming expert to talk about the baby name trends defining the past decade and beyond. Here’s what to know.
What do the baby names we choose and love say about us, our culture, our values? And how can we avoid pop-culture traps, hidden trends, and dead ends when we’re in the middle of “namestorming” the best moniker for a future child — a name that helps a kid stand out today but that ages well over the decades?
Jennifer Moss, who has a background on data mining and information technology, and is also the founder of BabyNames.com, has been thinking obsessively about these questions for nearly 30 years. Before the internet existed — who can remember such a time? — Moss was a software developer who collected a database of names and meanings that she used for a software program she was writing. Then, in 1996, she used those data sets to create BabyNames.com, the original baby-naming website. (Moss also just published her site’s official predictions for 2024’s most popular baby names and baby name trends — check out our write up of those predictions here.)
“It just snowballed from there and became a family business,” she says. Her daughter works on content creation for the site, and she’s recruited “almost everybody” in her family to help her with it. Today, the site is one of the premier baby-naming resources, providing inspiration and in-depth analysis of naming trends.
It’s clear to Moss that the way we name our babies has changed drastically since we were babies ourselves. No longer do parents feel beholden to following top-10 lists or conforming to tradition. Instead, unique is in. Moss talked to Fatherly about the major baby-naming trends defining the past, present, and future — and she shares her best tips for parents trying to choose a baby name that will make their kid a unique superstar.
When you look at the past few years of baby names and baby-naming conventions, are there trends that dominate?
It's really interesting, being a data person. I love compiling what people are putting on their favorite name lists, creating the top names of the year, and seeing what's going to be trending for next year — because our users are either pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant. Our data tends to predict the naming trends of actual births in the U.S. Social Security list by one to three years.
First and foremost, parents are looking for more unique names. They don't want a top 10 name, which was so important back in the '50s, '60s and '70s — to have a name that conformed to the norms. I have a top 10 name on my own, Jennifer, obviously.
Now, the culture has shifted. We're seeing parents look outside the norms. They may be choosing random dictionary names as names. That's a huge trend that's been rolling up this year and will go into the next couple of years.
What are dictionary names?
For example, Zodiac or Crimson or Winter — just choosing words from the dictionary that mean something to them or that they think sound great. I don't know if you remember when Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. I think that was 18 years ago, but that blew up because that was so ridiculous back then. And now, it's almost become the norm. I don't think people would bat an eye.
We're seeing people using alternate spellings, creating different spellings of more popular names, or combining different name elements — like Emberlynn, using ‘Lynn’ and putting it on the backside of a word.
Do you see the top 10 most popular baby names for boys or girls getting shaken up in a meaningful way soon?
I think so. There’s going to be a quicker turnover. Names for girls like Charlotte, Aurora, and Violet and Amelia are the top four that we put out for the middle of the year that were trending for our users. And for boys, it was Ash or Oliver, Theodore, and of course, Liam. But already we see Liam dipping in popularity — but not dipping fast. So they'll start going down one or two spots, and then eventually just fade away.
I mean, there's so much to talk about trends and baby-naming trends. But it’s like fashion — the newer stuff starts in the larger cities and on the coasts and the more metropolitan areas, and then make their way into the more rural and less populated areas. The same thing goes for baby names: What's really popular and starts in New York and L.A., then makes its way across the country for five to seven years. There will still be many boys named Liam, I would predict, for the next five to seven years. It's going to be in the top 10 for a while unless somebody, like a serial killer, happens.
Are there other names gaining in popularity that you think could be similar mainstays or newly dominant?
Aurora for girls, Asher for boys, and names that are a little more British [or Irish] like Silas and Declan.
On the girls' side, Aurora is what we call a space name. We've got Nova, Aurora, and Orion. With the new space programs, people are also looking to the stars. We've even seen Jupiter as a name.
And then, of course, gender-neutral names are becoming really popular too.
Why do you think you’re seeing these huge changes in baby-naming conventions?
I think it's because our culture has changed so dramatically. We are heading into where it's acceptable to be diverse, and we welcome diversity and difference. That gives parents a little more freedom, whereas before, they were worried about their kids getting teased, or that they wouldn't fit in if they had a “strange” name. I just don't think that is a concern anymore.
By the time that you hear a name in the general public and you think, "Oh, that's cool," so has everybody else.
Which trends have surprised you the most this year?
One of the trends that I think is really surprising is title names, like Bishop, Mayor, or Queen. People use that to instill some power into their child. That started right around the pandemic and forward. I don't know if it was related or not. But our opinion is you have to be really careful to not use military titles because we feel that those are earned, and it's unfair to just slap it on a baby.
What's the hallmark of a truly trendy name?
It’s funny, because a lot of people you see online are like, "Oh, I have this really unique name," and it's Owen: “We're going to name him Owen. We've never heard of that." And yet I'm looking at the data and I'm like, "Oh, yeah. That's going to be top-five in two years."
By the time that you hear a name in the general public and you think, "Oh, that's cool," so has everybody else. It's hard to see what the trends are unless you go to a site like ours. We try to publish names that are trending for 2023 and you can see what's going to be on the birth charts for 2024. We publish the stats almost in real time — what's trending for the week and what's trending for the month. You can see what people are putting on their name list. And somebody might get an idea from that and say, "Oh, I like that idea." Then there are also Facebook groups and TikToks as well.
Is there a way for expecting parents to determine when a baby name is too trendy?
I mean, there are evergreen names, like Laura and Elizabeth. Those are names where you can't really explain why they're always up there in the top 100 and they won't ever go away. A lot of that probably has to do with names that are either biblical and still are important to people who follow the Bible in any way, or names that are passed down from families.
There are reasons for names to go out of style. But if there's not a reason, like, say, Elizabeth, that's a name that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. And now that people have access to their family trees, they might want to choose a name that's important to the family. It means something to them.
What we call the dictionary or word names are going to be super popular.
Obviously, I'm an Elizabeth, and it was a family name. My best friend is also named Elizabeth. So that's one of those too where there were a million Elizabeths in my childhood.
But even Laura — it seems pretty basic, but it's a beautiful name. Somebody said that that's the little black dress of names that never goes out of style. I love that analogy.
Do you see certain baby-naming trends coming into play in 2024, or are there names that you think will start to get really popular next year?
We're going to be doing some posts in December about that, so I don't want to reveal what we're going to be publishing. But in terms of trends, definitely the dictionary names. What we call the dictionary or word names are going to be super popular. Similarly, unique spellings. And created names — names that you might have heard from television shows or character names, because pop culture has a huge influence on baby naming.
How is pop culture shaping the baby-naming arsenal?
The internet has had a huge influence on baby-naming. Not only are you getting pop culture in your face 24/7 — we've never really had that before, without choosing to watch a television show or pick up a tabloid. Now it's just there. That has an influence on baby naming trends. And you’re affected by people who are not in your bubble. You're opened up to other cultures and people from all over the country that you wouldn't necessarily be bouncing your baby names off of. You have more of an input and a wider variety of cultures and people that can influence you, basically.
So, for example, Hazel became popular after The Fault in Our Stars, specifically when the movie came out. Twilight was a huge phenomenon in baby naming, and the names that came out in Twilight are still popular — like Alice, Jasper, and Esme. Those were never on the charts before Twilight. Even 20 years after that whole phenomenon happened, we're still seeing the effects of that. So yeah, it does have a huge effect on baby naming.
Are you seeing certain names falling out of fashion right now? What are those names like?
The names that are falling out are names that have been super popular in the past. I think what's going to happen is as parents shy away from the top 10 or the top 20 most popular names, the names are going to roll over quicker.
Back in my day, Jennifer was number one for 15 years. That's not going to happen anymore. If they hit the top of the charts, they're already out nowadays. So I think we're going to see more of a turnover of the top names. Names that are falling out for boys are like Leo and Levi — those that were popular in the last five to seven years, like Caleb, and then the more traditional ones, like James and Luke. For girls, it's going to be those that are oversaturated, like Arya, which was trending because of Game of Thrones and Pretty Little Liars. As those series age out, I think those baby names are going to age out as well.
What do you think parents are trying to do when they give their baby a name?
I think it really is instilling characteristics — like putting names like Honor and Queen and Majesty and things like that. Sometimes, we call them “expectation names.” It instills expectations into the child or just a wish on what the parents hope that they become. So I think that has taken hold, which is not necessarily fair to the child, you know?
Everyone has a different opinion about it. They can say it's instilling something positive and something to live up to. But then again, it's something to live up to.
Is there anything you’re seeing in baby naming that concerns you?
We've seen a rise in weapon names. I don't know how to attribute that. But we've seen Rifle. And there's knife names, and Wesson and Remington, brands of guns and things related to knives and things like that. I don't really understand the trend. That's something that we would advise parents against. You don't want to instill anything violent into your baby's name, and I just don't think that's fair to do to children. Like Machete, for example. And of course, it’s mostly for boys, so it's maybe trying to instill some kind of tough or violent characteristic into your little boy. And again, not fair to do to a child, or any person.
What are your tips and tricks for parents looking for slightly more unique baby names?
We have tens of thousands of names on our website, almost 30,000, from all different cultures. Look in your family tree, because you'll find some really interesting names. Also, think of what has had a positive influence on your life — like the street you grew up on or favorite teachers or things like that, maybe some books that you love. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a character. It can also be a title. Think about that. Think outside the box. We call it “namestorming.” Have sessions with your partner.