Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Where have you gone Nancy and Joe?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:52 AM EST, Sun January 13, 2013
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
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT