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That Viral List of Top Baby Names Is BS

A baby standing by a "Hi, my name is" sticker.
Olivia? Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Olesyam/Getty Images Plus and Passatic/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

As the brother of an Olivia, I was intrigued to see BuzzFeed’s article this weekend announcing that Olivia is the most popular name for baby girls in 2021—a new top American girl’s name! The piece was trending on Twitter and on the BuzzFeed site.

And then I had some questions. First of all, it was published on Nov. 4—isn’t announcing the top baby names of 2021 now a bit like reporting the final score halfway through the fourth quarter? Second, why is BuzzFeed relying on a list of the most popular baby names produced by “BabyCenter,” a resource/forum for expecting parents, when that information is usually made public by the Social Security Administration?* Third, where is BabyCenter getting this data?

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I hope BabyCenter does better work with its pregnancy guides than with these lists, which are bullshit. The site’s “official” baby name rankings, published each fall, “come from hundreds of thousands of parents who share their babies’ names with us in real time, making them a more up-to-the-minute look at what’s trending.” Unfortunately, what’s trending isn’t always what’s accurate, and that’s the case here.

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BabyCenter says Olivia is “the most popular” girl’s baby name in 2021, for example, which BuzzFeed says is big news: “For the first time in over a decade, there’s a new top girl name!”

Except that last year, Olivia was already the country’s top girl’s name, according to the Social Security Administration. And it was also the top girls’ name in 2019.

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In 2020, BabyCenter (and an accompanying article in BuzzFeed) reported that the top 10 girls names were: Sophia, Olivia, Riley, Emma, Ava, Isabella, Aria, Aaliyah, Amelia, and Mia.

In reality, the SSA reported a few months later, the top 10 girls names of 2020 were: Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte, Sophia, Amelia, Isabella, Mia, Evelyn, and Harper. So BabyCenter scored a 7 out of 10 (matching answers bolded), and fumbled the all-important top ranking. C-.

BabyCenter’s top boys names in 2020 were: Liam, Noah, Jackson, Aiden, Elijah, Grayson, Lucas, Oliver, Caden and Mateo. In reality, the SSA reported a few months later, the top 10 boys names were: Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, William, James, Benjamin, Lucas, Henry, and Alexander. Five out of 10 (bolded) for the crew at BabyCenter. Not bad if you were guessing at random, but not great for taking a stab at a top 10 list that was 80 percent the same as in 2019.

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BabyCenter’s top names of 2021, which you may have read about in BuzzFeed this weekend, will surely turn out to be similarly wrong. But don’t expect to hear about it from BuzzFeed or BabyCenter; after getting ahead of the SEO with its “official” list of random names based on its supposed survey data, BabyCenter later quietly incorporates the SSA data into its repository of names (see the entry for Olivia).

So while BuzzFeed’s Mike Spohr can wrongly broadcast that Olivia is a “new number one” girl’s name, because he is using BabyCenter’s erroneous 2020 predictions as a baseline instead of government data from 2019 and 2020, BabyCenter just doesn’t mention it.

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What’s even weirder about this two-step is that the same BuzzFeed writer has been amplifying this same stupid BabyCenter list since at least 2016, when the trusted parenting website announced the year’s top boy names were Jackson, Aiden, Lucas, Liam, Noah, Ethan, Mason, Caden, Oliver, and Elijah. Reality: Noah, Liam, William, Mason, James, Benjamin, Jacob, Michael, Elijah, Ethan. 5/10. A failing grade, but who’s keeping track?

Correction, Nov. 11, 2021: This article originally mislabeled BabyCenter a “store.” While BabyCenter does have a “Products” section, those items are for sale through various retailers, not by BabyCenter itself.

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