Since the Social Security Administration began tallying the popularity of baby names in the late 1800s, only ten girls’ names have managed to hit the top spot on the list. Several stayed on for decades, while others only held the title for a few years. Here are those ten most popular girls’ names, in chronological order.
Mary, the quintessential New Testament name, is the mother of all girls’ names, the most popular and enduring female Christian name in the English-speaking world for centuries. When the SSA started keeping records around 1880, it was still number one and remained there into the 1940s. In 1900, there were 16,707 girls named Mary, which was 5.25 percent of girl births. This at a time when the U.S. population was 76 million, compared with 322 million today. In 2014, Mary ranked at 120, close to its lowest point ever — but there’s some renewed interest, perhaps due to the popular character Lady Mary in “Downton Abbey.”
Linda managed to surpass Mary in 1947, staying on top for six straight years and remaining in the top 10 until 1966. There’s no one clear explanation for the name’s rise except that its popularity coincided with that of actress Linda Darnell (born Monetta) and is also a Spanish word for “pretty.” There were a whopping 99,680 Lindas born in 1947, or 5.4 percent of the newborn baby girls that year. Its current ranking is much lower, at 615.
Lisa, a short form of the European Elisabeth, didn’t appear at all until the late 1930s. Then, partly due to the popularity of the hit song “Mona Lisa,” it started spiraling upwards. By 1962 Lisa had reached the top, where it remained for eight years, getting a royal stamp of approval when Elvis used it for his only child in 1968. In 1962, there were 46,083 newbie Lisas, 2.2 percent of girl babies born. Current ranking: 750.
This name was at the top of the SSA’s list for 14 years, from 1970 to 1984 and, as a result, no name came to be seen as quite so epidemic or to signify a generation of girls as Jennifer did. During her reign, there were 859,112 Jennifers born in the U.S. This once obscure Welsh name shot to fame first via actress Jennifer Jones (born Phyllis Isley), but even more by way of the tragic heroine of the film “Love Story”, released in 1970. Current ranking is number 220.
When Jennifer began to feel overused, Jessica jumped in to take her place as another three-syllable J name, though Jessica had a much more classic, Shakespearean heritage. Jessica had two split turns at the top, from 1985 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1995, for a total of nine years. In 1985, there were 48,346 baby Jessicas, 2.6 percent of girls registered. She’s now at Number 179, somewhat higher than Jennifer.
Ashley has had several iterations over the years, from Gone with the Wind‘s Ashley Wilkes to Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. But the main catalyst for the name’s popularity is likely the soap opera character, Ashley Abbott, who debuted on “The Young and the Restless” in 1982 (and is still going strong). Ashley held the number one spot for two years, 1991 and 1992, with 43,482 girls given the name in 1991, 2.1 percent of the baby girl population. Current ranking: 87.
When baby namers started to tire of the J-juggernaut, the Em-era began. Emily took the throne in 1996 and crossed into the 21st century with a reign that lasted until 2007 in several other countries as well as the U.S. Emily, with its combination of daintiness and dignity, and literary namesakes like Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, proved irresistible to 25,149 parents in 1996, 1.3 percent of all baby girls born that year. Emily is still a popular choice at number seven.
Just as Jessica replaced Jennifer, so Emma followed Emily, if only for two scattered years, 2008 and 2014. Emma was given a boost as the choice for Rachel and Ross’s baby on “Friends” in 2002 and is now borne by three of todays’ hottest young stars: Emmas Watson, Stone and Roberts. In 2014, there were more than 20,000 girls christened Emma, 1.07 percent of the female newborn population.
Isabella had a two-year run IN 2009 and 2010. This variant of Elizabeth had a direct pop cultural inspiration: Isabella “Bella” Swan, the lead character of the phenomenally popular Twilight series. Although it had always shown up on the list, Isabella had sunk down close to the bottom in 1990, but that changed rapidly after the publication of the first book in 2005. By the year 2009, more than 22,000 babies were given the name, which was just 1.1 percent of girl babies born.
Sophia managed to edge in there for three years, from 2011 to 2013, before Emma made a return last year. It’s closely linked to Italian screen goddess Loren — who was born Sofia. An author favorite since the days of Tom Jones, Sophia has been on the U.S. list since at least 1880 and has also been a royal name in several countries. There were 21,816 Sophias born IN THE U.S. in 2011, 1.1 percent of girls, showing how much smaller percentages of girls today get the number one name.
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