Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Where have you gone Nancy and Joe?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
January 13, 2013 -- Updated 1552 GMT (2352 HKT)
The '60s may have been the last decade when
The '60s may have been the last decade when "standard" American names, like Joe, Barbara, Donna reigned, says Bob Greene
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: The Social Security Administration keeps track of evolving baby naming trends
  • He says for decades, "standard" American names held sway--your Tom, Dick, Nancy. Not now
  • Even names like Joe have moved way down the list. Starting In the '70s, names transformed
  • Greene: Ethnic, cultural shifts probably reason. Now: Joe? Say hi to Jayden. Mary? Meet Sophia

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- "Hey, Joe!"

There was a time in American life that if you shouted those words on a busy street, or on a factory floor, you might see dozens of people turning expectantly toward you.

Joes were everywhere. For much of U.S. history, Joseph was one of the top 10 names that families gave to their newborn sons.

Today, Joe no longer even makes the top 20.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

America is ever-changing, in any number of ways, and one of the most fascinating of them can be found in the names mothers and fathers give to their sons and daughters. The Social Security Administration, in addition to sending checks to older Americans, keeps track of the names of the youngest Americans: newborns.

The agency does this for bookkeeping purposes: the babies will someday, during their working lives, be a source of revenue for the SSA, and later (assuming Social Security survives) will be recipients of retirement income. In the meantime, by compiling the names and their ranking in popularity (the list goes back to the birth year 1880), the agency paints a perpetually in motion portrait of what we are called.

Read more: Mohammed retakes top spot in English baby names

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And what we are called is no longer, in the main, what we were once called. This is probably a good thing -- it is an affirmation of the vitality of a nation moving always into the future.

Yet some of the particulars would undoubtedly startle just about every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Whose three names, as emblemized by that time-honored phrase, were, for much of the 20th century, on the tip of America's tongue. But, according to the SSA's most recent compilations, Thomas no longer makes the top 50 names for newborns. Dick (formally, Richard) has dropped out of the Hot 100. Harry comes in all the way down at No. 709.

The evolution in names has been building in strength for quite a while; it kicked into high gear in the 1970s, '80s and '90s when, according to SSA records, Tylers and Brandons, Brittanys and Kaylas, Ryans and Megans and Heathers and Jasons began to join and supplant the names that had for generations dominated the all-but-static lists.

And by now the iconic names of the seemingly not-so-distant past appear destined to be iconic no more. John? John of Johnny Carson, John of John Wayne, John of Johnny Unitas? John of Johnny Depp (who was born in 1963, when John was the No. 2-most popular name)? John has fallen out of the top 25. Maybe Johnny Football will help him come back.

Jolie: We are all Malala
CNN Trends: Monday, December 3, 2012
China's Child Naming Regulation

Goodnight, David, goodnight, Chet? David, once a No. 1 champion, misses the top 15; Chester is not listed in the top 1,000.

Bob (formally, Robert) was a longtime (1924 to 1939) No. 1, but today he fails to crack the top 50. In the words of a great mid-'60s song by the Everly Brothers, he's "Gone, Gone, Gone."

Read more: Does your name shape your destiny?

(As are the first names of Don and Phil Everly themselves, as far as current popularity goes. Donald comes in at No. 376; Philip -- or Phillip, with the extra "l" -- is at No. 406 and/or 378.)

So if those once-standard names have vanished from the top 10, who, according to the SSA, are some of the guys who have replaced them in today's top 10?

Say hello to Mason.

Meet Ethan.

Hi there, Jayden.

Nice to make your acquaintance, Aiden.

And the change is even more dramatic for girls. Mary, the most popular female name ever, including an uninterrupted 66-year streak at No. 1, from 1880 through 1946? Mary has dropped down to No. 112.

The pattern holds for many of the other female names that were, in the middle of the 20th century, utterly commonplace. Nancy is at No. 541 today. Deborah is at No. 808. Patricia is at No. 667. Barbara is at No. 764. Sandy (as in Sandra) is at No. 614. Carol? No. 972.

And then there's Donna. In the late 1950s she was No. 5, as America danced to "I had a girl, Donna was her name" and watched "The Donna Reed Show" on television.

Today Donna has fallen all the way out of the top 1,000.

To be replaced in the current top 10 by, among others, Olivia, Ava, Abigail, Madison, Mia and Chloe.

Read more: Parents name child after Facebook 'Like' button

What accounts for the changes in names and tastes? There are probably as many individual reasons as there are names themselves -- everything from shifts in ethnic patterns, to actors, actresses, athletes and singers who inspire new parents mulling over names, to people simply becoming tired of the sound of the old litany of names.

Giving a child a name is perhaps the most personal decision a mother and father ever make. It is an act of absolute freedom. The government can't tell you what to name your child, your employers or extended family can't force your hand -- coming up with a name is a parent's first and biggest choice.

One to be celebrated -- as is the country's constant impulse to evolve and start anew. There's no logical reason to long for the days of John and Mary, of Nancy and Joe. That train has left the station.

Guided by its pair of trusty engineers, Jacob and Sophia.

Currently the No. 1 names for the youngest members of the American family.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT