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The most popular and time-honored names of the 20th century have been chosen by generations of parents. This article explains how a list was compiled and calculated over data from the past 100 years. The findings are both interesting and surprising.

Top Baby Names of the 20th Century

Of all the lists of baby names, one stands above the others in terms of sheer magnitude - the most popular baby names of the 20th century. To make it onto this list, a name has to be more than just a one-year, or even one-decade, wonder. It has to be a name chosen by generations of parents. Every name on this list can truly be said to be "time-honored."

How was the list compiled? It is based on data from the U.S. Social Security Administration - specifically, on birth registrations in the United States, going all the way back to 1880. To calculate the most popular names of the entire 20th century, we simply took the raw numbers for each name in every year from 1900 to 1999, totaled them and ranked them.

One thing you see immediately, when you look at this entire list, is the wide range of girls names compared to boys names. Over the period of one hundred years, the top ten boys names added up to almost 35 million. The top ten girls names, by contrast, only accounted for 15 million names. Simply put, there were a lot more girls names in usage over the course of the century, even though the actual number of boys and girls was fairly equal.

Not surprisingly, biblical names appeared frequently throughout the 20th century — a trend which continues today. For boys, six out of the top ten names of the century had biblical origins. For girls, it was two out of ten. The prevalence of biblical boys names is also something that continues today.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from this list of the top names of the century is that five of the boys names from the top dozen of the last century are still in the top dozen as of 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available. The five names include William, Joseph, Christopher, Daniel and Michael. By contrast, the only girls name to show that kind of staying power is Elizabeth, which was number 11 in 2006.

It is in the girls column, in fact, that the top of the 20th century list reveals names that were once wildly popular - names like Mary, Sandra, Linda and Barbara, for example - but are in baby name oblivion today.

So what were the Top Baby Names of the entire 20th Century? Here are the top ten for each gender:

Boys:

  1. James
  2. John
  3. Robert
  4. Michael
  5. William
  6. David
  7. Richard
  8. Joseph
  9. Charles
  10. Thomas

Girls:

  1. Mary
  2. Patricia
  3. Linda
  4. Barbara
  5. Jennifer
  6. Elizabeth
  7. Margaret
  8. Susan
  9. Dorothy
  10. Betty

It is astonishing how contemporary the boys list looks, and how dated the girls list appears. For parents who are mulling over baby names for girls, there is a cautionary tale here - as fast as girls names can rise in the popularity charts, they can fall just as quickly. Given the ever-increasing range of girls names — 45 variants of McKenzie at last count — parents should be aware that a trendy girls name today may look a little "dated" tomorrow.

Article by Neil Street. Neil Street is co-publisher of Baby Names Garden, a website for everyone who loves baby names. He writes frequently on this topic.