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What's In a (Baby) Name?

So many end-of-the year lists detail something trivial. But sometimes those lists can help us appreciate something obvious. has just released their list of the most popular names for American babies in 2011.

The most popular girl's names: Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia, and Ava, which sound like they could be lifted, letter by letter, from 1960s movie marquees. The most popular boy's names: Aiden, Jackson, Mason, Liam and Jacob, which could be the name of a Boston or Chicago law firm.

Lily, Chloe, and Madison follow in the girl's names. You know the 21st century is well underway when Ashley is no longer even in the top 100, but Brooklyn is 21. There is no Bronx or Queens. Jayden, Ethan, Noah, Lucas, and Logan follow in the boy's list.

What used to be considered signature American names still sound familiar, but maybe a touch plain. The most popular names for girls in 1955 were Mary, Deborah, Linda, Susan, and Patricia.

Mary is 137 now. Maria is higher, at 84.

The most popular boy's names in 1955 were Michael, David, James, Robert and John. David and John are still popular, but rank lower now than Zachary, Grayson, Ryan, Connor, and Dylan.

Despite all the airing they get, Kim, Khloe and Kourtney with a K — as in Kardashian — are not especially popular names. Parents seem to appreciate that naming your child is not voting for American Idol, but a lifetime choice. They choose names to last, which may be why biblical names, including Sarah, Hannah, Gabriel, Joshua and Elijah are among the most popular.

Madison has been among the top ten girls' name since 2000. But its popularity doesn't trace back to the fourth president of the United States or the capital of Wisconsin ... but the mermaid Darryl Hannah played in the 1984 film, Splash, who saw it on a New York street sign. Real Madisons growing up today can make new stories for that name.

A lot more 2011 baby names seem to have a stamp of ethnicity — but not necessarily their own ethnicity. I wonder how many American girls named Sophia are from Greek or Italian families, how many Isabellas are Spanish or Italian, or how many Aidens, Ryans and Conners are even a scintilla Irish.

Family names are still passed between generations. But a lot of Americans pointedly give names to their children that aren't tied to their past or taken from their family. They mix, invent and come up with names that ring with new hopes and dreams. That's why lists like this change and are worth reading. They remind us that Americans name their children for the people they hope they'll be.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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