Use the Social Security Database to Name Your Baby

By Mark Skoultchi

May 8, 2013

Social-Security-LogoForget baby naming books. Look to the Federal government to help name your baby. Really. The Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names website offers the best baby naming tool you’ll find anywhere. In this guide, I’ll offer some tips for using these tools to pick the perfect name.

Data Mining for Baby Names

The Social Security Administration has a record of pretty much everyone’s name in the United States for the last 100+ years. That’s quite a treasure trove of information, and they’ve made that information surprisingly easy to search and analyze.

This information is useful in many ways. It can both provide naming ideas as well as let you research the history of names you are considering. Even if you have already decided on a name (or already named your child), the database provides fascinating information on the history of names in the United States.

Cross-Out Elimination Method: Narrow the Universe of Names

This is my favorite method for naming a baby. It’s the one I used for my own children and works best for people looking for more common names but it can be modified to find some more unusual appellations.

1. Generate a Master List of Possible Names
Click on the “Popular Names by Birth Year” tab and select a year. If you are looking for a more common name, select the latest year. If you are open to more unusual names, you’ll want to run this search several times with several years.

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Once you’ve selected the year, use the pull-down tab to select the number of names to list. You should choose at least 500 names, and may even want to go as high as 1,000. Once you have the list generated, print it out or even better export it to a spreadsheet.

2. Eliminate the No-Go Names
Go through this list one-by-one crossing out any name you don’t like. Find the name of your elementary school’s worst bully? Cross it out. Come across the name of your best friend’s child? Cross it out. Cross out any name that for any reason you don’t like or can’t use. Then, hand the list over to your spouse and let them do the same thing.

3. Create a Short List of Favorite Names
After you’ve both gone through the list, you’ll be surprised how much you’ve narrowed down the universe of names. From the names left over, you can each pick your five favorites, and see if there is any overlap.

Researching Your Favorite Names

Once you have your list of candidate names, the Social Security website offers some amazing tools for researching the history and geographical range of those names.

1. Track Popularity Over Time
Click on the “Popularity of a Name” tab and select the number of years you’d like to see. This will generate a list of years, showing how popular the name was for each year.

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Many names show dramatic changes in popularity. For instance, “Emma” is one of the most popular girl names of the last decade. However, in the 60s, 70s and 80s it fell completely out of favor, after being one of the most popular names in the first half of the century. Many names go through popularity cycles like this. It’s worth knowing where a candidate name is on this cycle, whether you want to be firmly in the mainstream or leading the charge to rehabilitate a currently unpopular name.

2. Track Regional Differences
The tools here are a little harder to use, but it’s possible to see which names are popular in which states. You certainly will want to check your candidate names to see how popular they are in your own state, but you might want to pick a sample of other states to compare. The only way to do this is to generate a list of popular names by state and comb through that, looking for your candidate names.

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For some names, regional differences are minor. For instance, “Jacob” was number four in popularity in Alabama in 2011 and number five in Connecticut. “Elijah,” however, was number eight in Alabama and number 36 in Connecticut.

More Tips for Using the Database Effectively

  • Remember, the database doesn’t group together alternate spellings of a name. So “Kristina” and “Christina” are counted separately.
  • Since the database is separated into boy and girl names, you can use it to figure out how often androgynous names are used for either sex.
  • Go back 60 years or more to find once-popular names that are ready for revival. Those names probably seemed old-fashioned when you were a child, but now they may be retro-cool.

Getting the Name Just Right — For You

There’s no right way to use this database to help name a baby. Some people want a unique baby name, others want to get lost in the crowd. Having this data at your fingertips lets you choose the name just right for your family based on what matters to you.

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