Some parents choose their baby's name based on its meaning. Others look for the stand-outs: popular boy and girl names that will please any ear. And then there are parents that search for something unique — think Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter Apple.
Baby name choices aren't made in a vacuum. Without intending to, parents gravitate toward trendy sounds. In recent years, the most popular girl names have been melodic and vowel-filled, such as Sophia, Isabella, Olivia and Ava. A popular trend for boys has been the -en ending: Both Jayden and Aiden made the top 10 boy names in 2011.
Trendy sounds aside, popularity is more likely to sink a name than to send it skyrocketing. [Sophia's Secret: The 10 Most Popular Baby Names]
"Parents are terrified their kids' names will become too popular," Laura Wattenberg, author of "The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby" (Three Rivers Press, 2013), told LiveScience in 2012. "Everybody wants their kids to stand out. Nobody is worried about them fitting in."
Most popular girl names
The drive for uniqueness is particularly strong with girl names, as parents seem to feel free to give female bundles of joy names ranging from traditionally masculine (Madison) to light and sweet (Mia). Between 2007 and 2011, four names held the top spot for girls: Emily, Emma, Isabella and Sophia.
Other top-10 girl names from the 2000s include Hannah, Abigail and Alexis.
The most popular girl names of 2012 were:
Most popular boy names
Parents have traditionally been a bit more conservative with boy names — Jacob, for example, ranked as the most popular boy name in the United States between 1999 and 2011. Other traditional favorites, including Michael, Joshua and Matthew, have crowded out newcomers in the top 10.
There are signs that this male traditionalism is crumbling, however. In 2011, Mason shot up from No. 12 all the way to No. 2. Mason is a traditional tradesman surname-turned-first-name, a popular trend in boy names today. (Other examples include Cooper and Tanner.) Brand-new names have made their way to the top, too: Jayden ranked No. 4 for boys in 2011. The name was possibly driven up the charts by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, who chose to name their son Jaden in 1998.
The most popular boy names of 2012 were:
Unique baby names
Celebrities sometimes help drive baby-naming trends. Occasionally, a celebrity name catches on among the general public; other times, celebrity creativity helps push typical parents toward less-popular choices. If traditionally named Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise can get away with naming their daughter Suri, the average mom or dad might figure they can dig into the odd-name archive, too. Doesn't little Edmonia or Delmer sound cute?
Names far below the top-10 list can reveal intriguing trends about what American parents want in a name. Mila, as in actress Mila Kunis, jumped from No. 364 in 2010 to 174 in 2011. The name is different, but not too different, from appealing top-10 name Mia, according to Pamela Redmond Satran, who helps run the baby-naming website Nameberry. The popularity of Spanish soccer player Iker Casillas apparently drove the name Iker up 267 places on the U.S. name list in 2011.
Unique baby names can sometimes grate, however. In 2011, Wattenberg did an informal survey of hated baby names and found that Nevaeh, or "heaven" spelled backward, was the most commonly cited as a hated name. The name was invented in the 1990s and became the 31st most popular in the United States in 2007.
Then again, some people hate popular names, too. Madison, which has ranked in the top 10 since 1997, was another oft-mentioned hated name. Madison-haters said the feminization and popularity of the name annoyed them.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.