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Think Olivia is a popular baby name? Hold my beer, says Jennifer, and Jenny, and Jen

If you’re a parent and think your child’s daycare is overstuffed with Olivias, Noahs and Olivers, please spare a thought for the moms and dads of the 1980s.

Back then, you couldn’t throw an alphabet block without hitting a Jennifer or a Michael.

This week, as the Alberta government released the latest rankings of baby names given last year, CBC Calgary looked over a database of popular (and not-so-popular) baby names going back more than four decades, compiled by the province’s vital statistics unit. 

One thing stood out when comparing the Top 10 lists of then to now, besides the near-complete absence of Jennifers in contemporary Alberta nurseries.

The popular names of today are way less popular than the big baby names of yesteryear were. 

Let us illustrate.

Olivia was announced Wednesday as the top newborn girl name for the 11th straight year, according to Service Alberta.

Over that span, there have been 2,744 Olivias — more than enough to fill the Jubilee Auditorium. But that’s nothing compared to the more than 3,000 girls named Jennifer in only four years, including 1982, when Alberta reached Peak Jennifer and 882 sets of parents announced to the world their little Jen/Jenn/Jenny.

To put it another way: the 210 Olivias recorded last year would have only been good enough for 10th place in the 1980 rankings, bumping the 191 Heathers off the charts but remaining just behind the 215 Angelas. (Or is the plural Angelae?)

Meanwhile, Noah was last year’s top boys name, with 276 newborns in the province.

But back in 1980, the earliest year data is available, that wouldn’t have even been good enough to crack the Top 10. Not with 732 Michaels, 633 Christophers, 537 Jasons and all those Daniels and Kevins.

We created this racing bar chart to give you a better sense of how popular baby names evolved, rose in popularity or fell off the map (or all three rather quickly, for the Amandas):

And here’s the same chart for the baby boy names. Brandon had his day, until the 1990s ended.

Baby names come and go in popularity, and always have, as your Grandma Betsy could tell you. But why have baby names become so much less homogenous over the past 43 years? Why are the most common birth names less common?

Surely, something has changed as our world has expanded from the three-channel bunny-ear days back then, on through the cable system to the 500-channel satellite galaxy and on to our current online social-media multiverse?

Diversity seems to have been a game-changer, in a few respects.

Western Canadian society had far less non-European immigration back then; our maternity wards have more Muhummads, Mohameds, Yaras and Inayats.

Also, parents are broadening their horizons in a way they never did in 1980s Alberta, with different names and spellings. There were 2,140 different boy names in 1980, but 6,630 last year, provincial stats show. 

The variety of girls’ names chosen also doubled, from 3,305 at the start of the ’80s to 7,129 last year. Alongside all those Sophias last year were dozens of Sofias, as well as girls named Sofiah, Sofija, Sofiya, Sophiara, Sophina and Sophy.

Scanning the data from the year Pac-Man was born (not in Alberta, however, according to provincial data) to now, allows us to also view how the mighty names have fallen over time. 

Here are the top girl names of 1980, and how many there were that year versus last year:

  • Jennifer 705 then; 9 last year
  • Amanda 551; 14
  • Melissa 316; 15
  • Lisa 290; 6
  • Sarah 284; 46
  • Michelle 281; 8
  • Nicole 252; 18
  • Erin 249; 2
  • Angela 215; 5
  • Heather 191; 2

Meanwhile, the top baby names of last year barely showed up in 1980, and in some cases not at all:

  • Olivia 210; 11
  • Amelia 145; 6
  • Sophia 138; 6
  • Charlotte 135; 12
  • Emma 133; 9
  • Isla 120; 0
  • Evelyn 114; 5
  • Chloe 101; 1
  • Violet 101; 0
  • Ava 99; 3
  • Emily 99; 44

Let’s do the same for boy’s names, to see just how far beyond Jason (and Christopher) new parents have ventured:

  • Michael 732 then; 71 last year
  • Christopher 633; 17
  • David 537; 77
  • Jason 526; 23
  • Ryan 511; 63
  • Robert 363; 22
  • James 360; 136
  • Matthew 336; 65
  • Daniel 311; 111
  • Kevin 305; 17

That’s right. James was the only baby name in either gender to crack the Top 10 both in the year that Dolly Parton’s film 9 to 5 came out in theatres and in the year she released a ripping cover of  Stairway to Heaven with Lizzo and Sasha Flute.

And let’s compare today’s popular boy names, now and more than a generation ago in 1980:

  • Noah 276 last year, 3 back then
  • Liam 181; 8
  • Oliver 178; 8
  • Theodore 173; 7
  • Jack 153; 7
  • Henry 146; 12
  • Lucas 140; 21
  • Benjamin 137; 130
  • James 136; 360
  • William 133; 163

While Benjamin and William have maintained their relative numbers from back then, neither name cracked the top 25 in the year Lipps Inc. sang about taking you to Funkytown.

But even though pop culture plays a part in the phenomenon of naming a human being, it’s not the only thing influencing parents’ choices.

What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name — like Ethan or Emma — smell just as sweet?

Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard and creator of the Namerology website, has been studying baby names for over two decades. It began as a passion project, but evolved into a career.

“The entire English-speaking world has fallen in love with the name Olivia,” Wattenburg said, adding that it’s all about the vowel-heavy sound and the name’s traditional appeal. She’s entirely unsurprised the name has reigned for yet another year.

But what about the monopoly Jennifer had in Alberta?

She says the name Jennifer is a victim of its own success, peaking in global popularity in the 1970s. This was reportedly inspired in part by a character in 1970’s film Love Story.

By 1988, two baby-name authors sensed a growing wariness with hyper-popular children’s names. Their bestselling book was Beyond Jennifer and Jason: An Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby. (I learned about this book as an undergrad, from my second consecutive girlfriend named Jennifer. — Jason M.)

Robson Fletcher, CBC Calgary’s resident data journalist, has created a baby name bot, a proudly nerdy side project that only a data journalist would create in order to help name his own two children. 

One can use it to track names over the years. According to Fletcher’s albertababynames.com, the Jennifer decline started in the mid-’80s and has been mired in a lull for most of this century. 

So, Jennifer — you may have been just too popular. Let this be a lesson to you, Olivia.

a screenshot of a line graph that says "alberta baby names bot."
Robson Fletcher, CBC Calgary’s resident data journalist, has created a baby name bot. The website is based on the same Alberta baby name database we used to write this piece. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Baby name boom and bust

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as baby name trends, according to the baby name wizard.

But today, not even baby names are safe from the rapidly changing trend cycle, and Wattenburg believes it’s because parents are pushing for something more original.

“We’ve switched from a culture where parents are worried about their kids fitting in, to a culture where parents are determined for their kids to stand out,” she said.

And long before Jennifer and Michael, Johns and Marys ruled the English baby-naming world. (And I’m a Gen Z Lily with two best friends named Mary, so it’s clear that trends totally do cycle.)

“When you’re choosing a baby name, you look around and say the names of your own generation are too ordinary. The names of your parents’ generation are boring, your grandparents are old, but by the time you get back to your great-grandparents’ generation, things start to sound interesting again,” said Wattenburg.

Plus, Wattenburg says there’s less of a style gap between “boy” and “girl” names these days as society becomes less attached to the gendered divide.

It seems as though not even baby names are safe from Alberta’s boom and bust cycle.

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