100 Years of Data Reveals America’s Most Common First Names
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo asks the question, “What’s in a name?” He likely had no idea just how much a name really stands for — historically, all names were derived from words that had meaning. Today, however, the etymology of names doesn’t play such a big role in society.
Names are fascinating — and some are more popular than others. We took a look at the 20 most popular male and female names for babies born from 1917 to 2016. The sample below is based on Social Security card application data as of March 2017.
Keep in mind these names aren’t the necessarily the most consistently popular monikers from each year. For instance, James is the most popular male name from the past 100 years, but at times it has ranked as low as No. 19. To find out the meanings behind the most popular names, we turned to the website Behind The Name. Look for your name on the list — if you find it, learn what it means.
There are approximately 4.8 million people in the world named James. Derived from the Hebrew name Jacob, the name James has been used since the 13th century in England. It later became more common in Scotland.
When James VI, king of Scotland in the 17th century, inherited the English throne the name really became fashionable. Famous people named James include English explorer Capt. James Cook, Irish novelist and poet James Joyce, and six U.S. presidents.
Next: The most popular female name will surprise you.
Roughly 3.4 million women in the world are named Mary. The name is the English form of “Maria,” derived from the Latin name Mariam and Greek name Maria. The name Mary likely goes back as far as Egyptian times and comes from either the word mry, which meant “beloved,” or mr, which meant “love.” Christians loved the name because of the Virgin Mary, and the name was used since the 12th century in England.
Two queens of England — as well as a queen of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots — have had the name. Famous people named Mary include author Mary Shelley, former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, actress Mary Tyler Moore, and singer Mary Wells.
Next: You probably know more than one person with this name.
There are around 4.6 million males named John, a moniker derived from the Hebrew name Yochanan, which means “Yahweh is gracious.” Although many Eastern Christians in the Byzantine Empire used the name, it became even more popular in Western Europe after the First Crusade.
It was also popular in England in the later Middle Ages, when around a fifth of all English males bore it. Famous people named John include American Founding Father and U.S. President John Adams, actors John Wayne and John Travolta, President John F. Kennedy, and musician John Lennon.
Next: A name too sacred for mortals
Patricia is the feminine form of Patrick, from the Latin name Patricius, which means “nobleman.” Approximately 1.6 million people have the name today, which Saint Patrick adopted in the fifth century. The name was used a lot all over Europe during the Middle Ages.
Patricia didn’t become fashionable in Ireland until after the 17th century — people believed the name was too sacred to give to mere mortals. Famous people named Patricia include actresses Patricia Arquette and Patricia Clarkson; American authors Patricia Cornwell and Patricia Highsmith; and American jazz singer, songwriter, pianist, and bandleader Patricia Barber.
Next: 4.6 million men claim this name.
Around 4.6 million people are Robert today, a name derived from the Germanic name Hrodebert, which means “bright fame.” Introduced to England by the Normans, the name became very popular across the pond. Famous Roberts include author Robert Browning; poet Robert Frost; Civil War Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee; and actors Robert Redford, Robert De Niro, and Robert Downey Jr.
Next: A name for a magical being
Jennifer is the Cornish form of the Welsh name Gwenhwyfar. Approximately 1.5 million women go by the name, which roughly translates to “fair, white, phantom magical being.” Famous women named Jennifer abound, including actresses Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lopez, and Jennifer Aniston; pop singer Jennifer Hudson; Instagram star Jennifer Tran; and tennis player Jennifer Capriati.
Next: A name fit for the gods
Michael comes from the Hebrew name Mikha’el, which translates to “Who is like God?” Nine Byzantine emperors were named Michael, and the name was common in Western Europe and Britain during the Middle Ages and 12th century, respectively. Famous people named Michael include musician Michael Jackson, basketball player Michael Jordan, actor Michael J. Fox, swimmer Michael Phelps, and jazz singer Michael Bublé.
Next: A queenly name
Elizabeth is derived from the Greek version of the Hebrew name Elisheva, which means either “my God is an oath” or perhaps “my God is abundance.” Hungary’s Saint Elizabeth, a 12th century king’s daughter, popularized the name.
When Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in the 16th century, the name became wildly popular in England. Approximately 1.4 million women go by the name Elizabeth today. Famous people named Elizabeth include the current British Queen Elizabeth II; actresses Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Hurley, and Elizabeth Banks; politician Elizabeth Warren; and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Next: A kingly name
Around 3.7 million men have the name William, which comes from the Germanic name Willahelm. Willahelm comes from the words wil, which means “will, desire” and helm, which translates to “helmet, protection.”
After William the Conqueror became the first Norman king of England in the 11th century, the name became very popular. Other famous people named William include authors William S. Burroughs and William Faulkner, dramatist William Shakespeare, actor William Shatner, and pop singer William Singe.
Next: Such a pretty name
Today, approximately 1.4 million women go by the name of Linda. The name came into being as a shortened form of medieval and Germanic names that contained the word linde, meaning “soft, tender.”
The Spanish and Portuguese word linda means “beautiful,” which lends another aspect to the name. Famous people named Linda include singer Linda Ronstadt; actresses Linda Hunt, Linda Hamilton, and Linda Blair; Canadian model Linda Evangelista; musician Linda McCartney; and American journalist Linda Ellerbee.
Next: This name means “beloved.”
David comes from the Hebrew name Dawid, which likely came from the Hebrew word dwd, meaning “beloved.” This name dates back to the 10th century B.C. when the second king of Israel — famous for defeating Goliath — bore it. David has been used in Britain since the Middle Ages and enjoyed immense popularity in Wales and Scotland.
Today, approximately 3.5 million men go by the name. Famous people named David include musician David Bowie, soccer star David Beckham, explorer David Livingstone, and actors David Duchovny and David Schwimmer.
Next: This name means “foreign.”
Around 1.4 million people have the name Barbara, which is derived from the Greek word barbarous, which translates to “foreign.” Saint Barbara — the patron of geologists, stonemasons, architects, and artillerymen — popularized the name in the Middle Ages. Famous people named Barbara include politician Barbara Boxer, actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Barbara Hershey, country music star Barbara Mandell, and entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran.
Next: A very brave name
Richard translates to “brave power,” which comes from the Germanic words ric, meaning “power, rule” and hard, meaning “brave, hardy.” The name has been popular since the Normans introduced it to Britain, and three kings of England were named Richard.
Today, approximately 2.5 million men go by the name. Famous people with the name Richard include former U.S. President Richard Nixon, entrepreneur Richard Branson, actors Richard Gere and Richard Burton, and comedian Richard Pryor.
Next: This name means “lily” or “rose.”
The English variant of Susanna, the name Susan is derived from the Hebrew word shoshan, which means “lily” or “rose.” After the Protestant Reformation, the name became quite popular and people began spelling it “Susan.”
Today, nearly 1.1 million women bear the name. Famous people named Susan include women’s right activist Susan B. Anthony, actresses Susan Sarandon and Susan Lucci, diplomat Susan Rice, and journalists Susan Sontag and Susan Faludi.
Next: A famous dictator had this name.
More than 2.4 million men are named Joseph, which comes from the Hebrew name Yosef, meaning “he will add.” Joseph was a popular Jewish name in the Middle Ages and later became fashionable in Spain and Italy when Saint Joseph became more well-known.
Famous Josephs include Polish-British author Joseph Conrad, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, actor Joe Pesci, politician Joe Biden, and American football player Joe Montana.
Next: A lovely name to behold
Approximately 1 million women named Jessica might not know the name originated in the Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice and belonged to Shylock’s daughter. It didn’t gain popularity until around the middle of the 20th century.
Jessica comes from the Hebrew name Yiskah, meaning “to behold.” Famous bearers of the name Jessica include actresses Jessica Lange, Jessica Alba, and Jessica Biel; track-and-field athlete Jessica Ennis; and country singer Jessica Rose “Jessie” James.
Thomas is the Greek version of Ta’oma’, an Aramaic name that means “twin.” The Normans introduced the name in Britain, and it became instantly fashionable thanks to Saint Thomas Becket, the well-known 12th century archbishop of Canterbury. Among the 2.2 million men with the name today, famous bearers include actors Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and Tom Berenger; U.S. President Thomas Jefferson; inventor Thomas Edison; novelist Thomas Hardy; and boxer Thomas “Hitman” Hearns.
Next: A pearl of a girl
There are around 1 million women with the name Margaret today, a name derived from the Latin name Margarita, which came from the Greek word margarites, which means “pearl.” Christians who wanted to honor Saint Margaret, the patron of expectant mothers, used the name frequently in the Middle Ages. Many famous women are named Margaret, including authors Margaret Mitchell and Margaret Atwood; Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon; comedian Margaret Cho; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Next: A manly man’s name
Charles comes from the Germanic name Karl, which loosely means “man.” Charles the Great, aka Charlemagne, popularized the name in Europe, and it later became the name of a wide variety of kings across the continent.
The name became fashionable in Britain in the 17th century, thanks to King Charles I’s reign. Approximately 2.2 million people have the name today — the famous ones include naturalist Charles Darwin, novelist Charles Dickens, French statesman Charles de Gaulle, and American cartoonist Charles Schulz.
Next: A noble name for a noblewoman
Nearly 1 million women named Sarah might not know the name translates from Hebrew into “lady, princess, noblewoman.” It didn’t become popular in England until after the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Famous bearers of the name Sarah include actress Sarah Jessica Parker, comedian Sarah Silverman, politician Sarah Palin, and singer Sarah McLachlan.
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