When bringing a baby into the world, parents face a daunting decision—giving their child a name. It’s an identity the child will have for the rest of their life.
Brittny Gainey is familiar with the responsibilities of naming a child: She is the mother of two sons.
“People define themselves by their name. A name lets you know who you are and where you come from,” said Gainey, a licensed clinical social worker from the Tidewater area.
In 2013, she gave birth to a son and named him James. To Gainey, it was important for her first-born child to carry on a family name.
Gainey’s son shares a commonality not only with family members but with many other Virginians. Since 1910, more than 148,000 boys born in Virginia have been named James, making it the most common male name in the commonwealth during that time period.
Although the name James has fluctuated in popularity in recent decades, it was the third most common male name for babies born in the state in 2016.
The U.S. Social Security Administration annually tracks the most popular names of babies born nationwide as well as in individual states. The agency recently released its data for last year’s births.
Over the past century, the diversity of baby names has grown exponentially, and the popularity of certain names has shifted.
The Social Security Administration includes in its data any name given to at least five babies in a single year. For boys born in Virginia in 1910, there were 183 such names, ranging from Aaron and Abner to Willis and Wilson. But last year, 1,127 different male names were associated with five or more births; they vary from Abdul and Alberto to Zayden and Zymir.
In 1910, the five most common male names in Virginia were James, William, John, Robert and George. For boys born last year, the most popular names were William, Noah, James, Liam, and Mason. (John was No. 18, Robert was No. 44 and George was No. 101.)
The changes in girls’ names have been even more radical.
In 1910, the data showed, 287 female names were given to at least five babies in Virginia, ranging from Agnes and Alberta to Winifred and Zelma. Last year, the database included 1,384 girls’ names, from Aaliya and Addyson to Zariyah and Zuri.
The most common female names in 1910 were Mary, Virginia, Elizabeth, Ruth and Margaret. In contrast, the most popular names for girls born in Virginia in 2016 were Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte and Abigail.
Only Elizabeth remains among the top 10 female names (at No. 9). Mary has dropped to No. 70; Virginia, to No. 91; Ruth, to No. 115; and Margaret to No. 69.
Researchers say the first piece of information we learn about a person is their name —and on that basis, we may subconsciously form judgments about the individual. These judgments can trigger positive or negative feelings about someone.
Baby names can increase or decrease in popularity in response to popular culture or politics. The name Dorothy was the seventh most popular female name in Virginia in 1939—the year “The Wizard of Oz” was released.
Mark Hinkle, acting press officer for the Social Security Administration, has seen nationwide trends regarding particular names as well.
“Kehlani rose 2,487 spots on the girls’ side to number 872, from number 3,359 in 2015. Perhaps this can be attributed to Kehlani Parrish, a singer/songwriter who was nominated for a Grammy in 2016,” Hinkle noted in a press release.
After having James four years ago, Gainey gave birth to another boy in 2016 and named him Jabari. Jabari means “brave one” in Swahili. Gainey said parents should think carefully about all that encompasses naming a child.
“A name is something that people can never take from you, and you carry it with pride and joy,” she said.