THE BLOG
04/15/2013 12:29 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

What Is a Popular Baby Name? (Spoiler: There Are Fewer Than You Think)

Today, I'm going to try to answer a fundamental question about baby names -- a question that parents care deeply about but never ask.

What IS a popular name?

When a restaurant or a vacation destination is described as "popular," that's usually considered a compliment. A popular spot is an attractive and crowd-pleasing choice. Yet, in the world of baby names, "popular" has become the least popular designation around. I regularly hear from parents-to-be, anxious that the names they love are poised to become "popular."

Have you ever wondered what that actually means? When does a name qualify as popular (or "TOO popular"?) Is there a dividing line? And, if you don't know what a popular name is, how can you avoid it?

National name rankings are easy to find, but what's needed is a functional definition: Will your child have classmates by the same name? Will other parents find your name choice fresh and intriguing, or say "Oh, I have two different nieces with that name!" That functional popularity is what most of us really care about, rather than knowing that 12 other boys' names rank above Elijah.

Functional popularity is tricky to pin down, since it's shaped by two slippery factors.

1. The community multipler. The names Adam, Jaxon and Jesús are close in frequency nationwide, but in a given community or social set, their usage levels are likely to be very different.

2. The psychological multiplier. You notice every time there's another Caroline in your daughter's class, team or playgroup. The episodes stick in your mind and pile up. But the routine absence of another Caroline doesn't register at all. The result is that we perceive name doppelgängers as much more common than they really are. This effect -- a psychological "availability bias" -- is pervasive and powerful. (Believe it or not, even Jennifer, a name that parents hold out as an emblem of over-popularity, was never as common as it seems.)

Despite these challenges, we can make a rough translation of national popularity charts into functional terms. The number of names that qualify as functionally popular may surprise you.

I've divided names into six popularity levels based on current U.S. name usage. If you tend to share tastes with your friends and neighbors, you may want to adjust for the community multiplier. Choose from the name sets one or two levels below your popularity comfort threshold. If meeting another kid with your child's name seriously bugs you, do the same for the psychological multiplier. And if you're focused on unfamiliar names rather than just currently uncommon ones, try applying these thresholds to the historical peak ranks on the NameVoyager.

Super-Popular Names: One in Every Classroom
(1 out of every 25 babies born)
Good news! NO names are that popular. Not even close. Even the most popular name in America is given to just one out of every 177 babies. The #1 name in your home state may approach 1 out of every 100 babies.

Very Popular Names: One in Every School
(1 out of every 100-1,000 babies born)
This functional level corresponds roughly to today's top 100 boys' and girls' names. If your favorite name is out of the top 100, it's not "very popular." Surprisingly, this applies to your state's top 100, too; the #100 names for boys and girls in your state are given to about one of every 1,000 babies.

Popular: You Wouldn't Be Surprised to Meet One
(1 out of every 1,001-5,000 babies born)
The name Gregory has fallen far from its peak, but you wouldn't bat an eyelash at a young Greg. You've probably never met a Kyla, but that name wouldn't surprise you either. And even if the name Angelo isn't common in your community, you know there are plenty of Angelos out there. These are the names ranked in the #101-400 range.

Not Especially Popular: Oh Yeah, That Name
(1 out of every 5,001-10,000 babies born)
There are tons of babies named Jackson and half-tons named Jaxon, so it figures there would be some Jaxens. And while the name Linda has dropped off the trend radar, it figures that it hasn't disappeared completely. Some of the names in the #401-700 range may be genuine surprises (Sincere for a boy and Phoenix for a girl?), but most will look familiar in one way or another.

Uncommon: Huh, That's an Interesting One
(1 out of 10,001-20,000 babies born)
Old Testament names and presidential names are hot, but Hezekiah and Nixon? When's the last time you met a baby Ernest, let alone an Elvis? And how did they spell that, Charleigh? Add in some names that may be well-known within a particular ethnic group but unfamiliar outside of it (Belén, Vihaan) and the names ranked #701-1,000 bring you to the realm of the unexpected.

And Then There's...
...everything else. Think about it. We reached the level of genuinely unexpected names without even leaving the top 1,000 lists. More than a quarter of baby names chosen today lie beyond.

If you fall in love with a name that's almost never heard, that should give you confidence to follow your heart. But if you gave up on the name Calla because a ranking of #1,911 seemed too common for your unique and precious child, I'd strongly suggest you reconsider. When a frequency of 1 occurrence per 39,000 babies born overrides all the other qualities you look for in a name, you may be putting too high a premium on uniqueness -- or losing sight of what "popular" really means.

PS: Do you have an ear for name trends? Test your savvy: guess the fastest rising and falling names in the annual Baby Name Pool by April 20!