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Kobe and Emma rise, Karen and Elon fall: How pop culture has influenced baby name trends

The past 20 years have seen certain names come and go based on movies, sports and even social media memes.

Photo by saiid bel on Unsplash

Baby naming trends are influenced by many things, including popular entertainment.

What's in a name? In the modern day, it could be a favorite movie character, a beloved sports star or even a reality show participant. Pop culture has long influenced baby name trends, but the digital age and the proliferation of news and entertainment sources seems to have amplified the phenomenon.

BabyCenter has been reporting on baby name trends for girls and boys for the past 20 years, and for 2024 the company put together a report analyzing 20 moments over the past two decades that helped define those trends.

It all began with Emma in 2002, thanks to Ross and Rachel giving their baby girl the name on the show "Friends." It skyrocketed in popularity almost immediately, held the No. 1 spot in the rankings from 2004 to 2006, topped the list again in 2008, and hasn't fallen below No. 4 since.

Then came the epic undoing of Karen.


Most Americans grew up with women named Karen in our social circles, as the name peaked in popularity in the 50s and 60s. By the 2000s, it was well on its way down the list, but after comedian Dane Cook's joke about the friend everyone has that nobody likes named Karen in 2006—and then the subsequent years of memes calling anyone who wants to speak to the manager "a Karen"—the name went into a freefall, from #164 in 2005 to #2,125 in 2024.

Politics has played a role in naming trends, with the Obama girls giving Malia and Sasha a shove up in the ranks since Obama's presidency. Sarah Palin's kids' names also piqued people's interest after she lost as John McCain's vice presidential candidate. Bristol, Piper and Willow all rose in the years following the 2008 election, and Willow is still in the top 100. Since 2016, Hillary, Donald, Elizabeth, Ivanka and Nancy have all risen as well.

closeup of sleeping newborn baby

Many factors go into what people decide to name a baby.

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash

On the technology front, the names Apple, Mac and Siri have all risen in popularity, though the rise has been modest compared to others in the report. And Elon, after Elon Musk purchased Twitter, dropped more than 450 spots, becoming one of the top falling names of 2022.

Books-to-movie franchises, of course, have given rise to many a name, such as "Twilight" series solidified the popularity of Isabella and her nickname, Bella, and the "50 Shades" series pushed Grey and Anastasia up in the ranks.

Some famous names have triggered a grouping of similar names.For instance,Jaden got a push in the early 2000s thanks to Will Smith's son in "The Pursuit of Happyness" along with a host of other –aden names like Aiden,Caden and Brayden. The birth of Beyoncé and Jay Z's daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, inspired not just more Blues, but other color-based names as well—Lavender,Scarlett, Hazel, Ivory and Violet all spiked in the year after her birth.

Sports have had their influence in the past two decades as well, particularly the basketball. NBA favorites such as Lebron James and Kyrie Irving have made their mark on the rankings, and the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna resulted in Kobe, Gianna and Bryant all becoming more popular as well.

Television juggernaut Shonda Rhimes has had an influence with her popular TV shows on ABC, "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," and "How to Get Away with Murder." Her shows have pushed names like Arizona (up 35%) Callie (up 30%), Fitzgerald (up 56%) and Huck (up 44%) up the charts.

And then there are the megahit movie influences. The Disney sensation "Frozen" brought about a wave of popularity for the names Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Hans in 2013. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen an influx of names like Logan, Wanda, Agatha, Darcy and even Vision. The name Chadwick also gained popularity after "Black Panther" actor Chadwick Boseman's death in 2020. And the 2023 success of "Barbie" has pushed some old-fashioned names up in the list, including Barbara, Greta and Margot, reflecting the film's main character, director and acting lead. (Barbara was the biggest rising star among the three, going up a whopping 994 spots in the rankings.)

Surely, pop culture will continue to influence how people name their babies for years to come and no doubt it will be every bit as unpredictable as the name Barbara making a comeback.

To see how popular a name currently is and how it's trended over time, visit BabyCenter's baby name database here.