Zeitgeist: The Quinn Quagmire (and Other Naming Trends)

Our preferences reflect not only our personal persuasions, but our cultural yearnings as well. PT mined the Social Security Administration’s 2011 data and the latest research to get a glimpse of what’s going on in the minds of parents today.

By Jonah Comstock, Matt Huston, Jane Nussbaum, published on November 5, 2012 - last reviewed on August 10, 2016


The sounds we hear the most influence the names we like the best for our kids.

Our predilection for the seemingly familiar affects our choices big and small—including the names we pick. A team led by Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania found that baby names are more common when the phonemes they contain were popular in the previous year—especially the sound at the start of the name. So if Katie becomes popular, it increases the likelihood that similar-sounding names (think Caitlyn or Karen) will gain traction. To demonstrate that increased exposure to a phoneme boosts the popularity of names containing it, the researchers conducted a second study; this time they looked for correlations between hurricane and baby names. More destructive storm names—which get mentioned more frequently in conversation and the press—indeed influenced naming patterns. For example, following Hurricane Katrina, the number of infants given names starting with K jumped by a striking 9 percent.


In a world of unique names, popularity is relative.

At the turn of the 20th century, there was a 1-in-20 chance that a newborn would be named John or Mary—the top monikers of the day. But in today’s individualistic society, parents are placing a growing value on names that feel distinctive, so the most popular picks are bestowed upon a smaller slice of the infant population than ever before.


Our obsession with baby names is on the upswing.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about names right now is how much we talk about them—which is to say, constantly. Proof positive that they’re of growing interest: Use of the phrase “baby names” itself has skyrocketed in recent decades.


We’re thinking harder than ever to come up with cool choices.

Picking a unique name is increasingly de rigueur, so 21st-century parents are considering an ever larger array of choices in the search for one that is—statistically speaking—outside the norm. The result: Today, some surprising monikers are actually as common as traditional ones, and it’s not always easy to predict a name’s popularity. Test your accuracy by trying to match these names with their current ranking on the Social Security Administration’s popular-names list. (Click to enlarge)


We’re embracing androgyny for all.

American have a long tradition of giving male names to daughters. But recently, a different sort of androgynous choice has emerged: gender-neutral names for girls and boys. Which way will these new options ultimately swing? We asked Cleveland Kent Evans, president of the American Name Society, Pamela Redmond Satran, cofounder of nameberry.com, and Laura Wattenberg, the creator of babynamewizard.com, to predict the fate of four trending titles.

Emerson: #276 for girls #387 for boys

While Emerson has gradually been growing in popularity for both sexes over the past decade, Evans notes that Allison and Madison have (ironically) thrown names ending in “son” into the girls’ camp. Add in parents’ search for hip variations on Emma and Emily and you get “a very clever girl’s name,” he says.

Evans: Female

Satran: Female

Wattenberg: Female

Verdict: Girl’s name

Jayden: #4 for boys #292 for girls

Though it’s in the top five for boys, Jayden still crosses the gender line, perhaps because it contains the traditionally feminine sound of “Jade,” Evans suggests. Names that rhyme with “Aiden” are a big trend across the board, but this is especially true for boys, Wattenberg points out.

Evans: Male

Satran: Male

Wattenberg: Male

Verdict: Boy’s name

Dakota #297 for girls #313 for boys

Just 16 rankings apart on the boy and girl lists, Dakota earns the title of Most Unisex among our picks. Why are parents so split on it? Place names stay neutral longer, says Satran. Meanwhile, a cowboy association keeps it cool for boys, and starlet Dakota Fanning boosts its appeal for girls, Evans adds.

Evans: Male

Satran: Unisex

Wattenberg: Female

Verdict: Too close to call

Quinn #188 for girls #297 for boys

This name was beginning to trend male when a barrage of female TV characters (most notably Quinn Fabray on Glee) took it in the other direction. Will it stick? Quite likely. Satran and Evans both emphasize Glee’s popularity among today’s teens—the next generation of baby namers.

Evans: Female

Satran: Female

Wattenberg: Unisex

Verdict: Girl’s name



  1. Sophia
  2. Isabella The top name of 2009 and 2010, this one has already peaked.
  3. Emma
  4. Olivia
  5. Ava


  1. Jacob Has occupied the top spot since 1999.
  2. Mason
  3. William
  4. Jayden
  5. Noah First time cracking the top five!