January 8, 2018

Long tail of baby names

The Dept of Internal Affairs has released the most common baby names of 2017 (NZ is, I think, the first country each year to do this), and Radio NZ has a story.  A lot of names popular last year were also popular in the past; a few (eg Arlo) are changing fast.

If you look at the sixty-odd years of data available, there’s a dramatic trend. In 1954, ‘John’ was the top boy’s name, with 1389 uses. In 2017 the top was ‘Oliver’, but with only 314 uses — not enough to make 1954’s top twenty. According to the government, there were nearly 13,000 different names given last year, so the mean number of babies per name is under 5; the most popular names are still much more popular than average. But less so than in the past.

Here’s the trend in the number of babies given the top name

and the top ten names

and the top hundred names

That decrease is despite an increase in the total population: here’s the top 10 names as a percentage of all babies (assuming 53% of babies are boys)

and the top 100 names

The proportion with any of the top 100 names has been going down consistently, and also becoming less different between boys and girls.



Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar
    megan pledger

    My Irish ancestors (mostly) followed the Irish naming pattern – boys are named for
    1) father’s father
    2) mother’s father
    3) father
    4+) brothers in age order
    (and similarly for girls)
    and so as family sizes got smaller you’d kinda expect first names to get less variable rather than more.

    I wonder if first names had to become more unique as surnames began dieing out e.g. no males in a family means the surname doesn’t pass on.

    1 week ago Reply

  • avatar
    megan pledger

    FreeBMD gives counts of birth registrations for England and Wales.

    [It has a small issue that if the doubly entered data doesn’t match then both entries go into the database until they can be adjudicated. It’s a problem mostly on obscure names and I would guess from a quick look that it’s less than 1 in 20. The counts will be wrong but percentages should be ok-ish.]

    For 1850 the top boys’ names and their percent in the population were
    William 13.7
    John 12.9
    Thomas 7.9
    George 7.0
    James 7.0
    Henry 4.7
    Charles 3.9
    Joseph 3.8
    Robert 2.8
    Edward 2.5

    and girls
    Mary 14.6
    Elizabeth 9.0
    Sarah 7.8
    Ann 5.3
    Jane 4.2
    Emma 3.5
    Eliza 3.4
    Ellen 2.8
    Margaret 2.5
    Hannah 2.4

    And the top 10 account for 66% of boys’ names and 56% of girls’.

    Roughly 1 in 7 girls had first name Mary.

    1 week ago Reply

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