New Brunswick

What's in a name? Looking back at the top N.B. baby names of the past 40 years

CBC News analyzed the top 20 lists of male and female baby names in New Brunswick, dating back to 1980, to compile the top 10 male and female names of the past four decades.

Ryan and Sarah have appeared on the top 20 list more than any other names, analysis shows

CBC News analyzed the top baby names of the last four decades in New Brunswick and found Sarah, Ryan and Emily at the top of the list.

For the second year in a row, Olivia and William reigned supreme atop the list of names New Brunswickers chose to give their newborn babies.

Preliminary results from 2019 show that Emma and Liam, also for the second year in a row, were the second most-popular baby names.

Full data from 2019 won't be available until a few months into 2020, after officials have gone through paperwork for all the babies born in the year.

"Babies are a wonderful reminder that what we do today has consequences for the kind of province we are leaving behind for our children and grandchildren," Service New Brunswick Minister Sherry Wilson said in the news release that announced the top names.

But what exactly is in a name? Why do parents choose one name over another? And why do some names trend and then die out, while others never seem to waver in popularity?

CBC News analyzed the top 20 lists of male and female baby names in New Brunswick, dating back to 1980, to compile the top 10 male and female names of the past four decades.

Since 1980, no female baby name has appeared on the top 20 list more times than Sarah, with 29 appearances.

And yet Sarah hasn't made the annual top 20 list in this decade, with its last appearance in 2009. How, then, did it capture the first spot?

The answer lies in demographics. The name Sarah was popular at a time when more babies were being born. 

The top year for the name Sarah was in 1986, when 108 babies were given that name.

In comparison, only 50 babies were named Olivia in 2018, when it was the top female name.

Several names on CBC's top list since 1980 — Emily, Emma, Olivia, Madison and Abigail — have had staying power. Each appears on the preliminary list of top names in 2019.

Like Sarah, the name Ryan has finished on the top of the four-decade list simply by being popular at a time when more New Brunswickers were having babies. It hasn't appeared on the government's annual top 20 list since 2009.

In fact, only four names on CBC's list — Jacob, Alexander, Samuel and Benjamin — have made the government's annual list in this past decade.

So far in 2019, there seems to be one clear trend for male baby names: people like the sound of the name Jack. 

Preliminary data from Vital Statistics shows that at least 80 New Brunswick babies have been named Jack, Jackson, Jaxon or Jaxson in 2019.

Pop culture and language

What's in a name? The biggest influence is often pop culture, according to Michael Haan, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in migration and ethnic relations at the University of Western Ontario.

That could explain the surge in popularity of Charlotte. The name saw its most popular year (since 1980) in New Brunswick in 2016, one year after the royal baby Charlotte was born.

Another source is less obvious: language.

"There are differences in sound over time," said Haan, who was named after the archangel Michael from the Bible.

"There's a cadence to language. Some names fit better into contemporary cadence than others."

Demographer Michael Haan says pop culture is the biggest influence in baby names. (CBC)

That explains why older names fade from popularity. The example Haan gave was the name Ethel.

"It just sounds grating to our 2019 ears," he said.

But some names can fade away and then make a comeback. 

Evelyn, for example, returned to New Brunswick's annual top 20 list in 2016 and hasn't left.

The influence of wealth

Haan is also interested in the influence of wealth on baby names.

"The names that wealthy people give their children are constantly evolving because wealthy people are trying to differentiate themselves from the poor," Haan said.

"That's the one side of the story. The other side of the story is poor people are constantly trying to fool people into thinking they're wealthy."

He used Jack and Bill as examples of names that were popular among the poor in the 1960s and 1970s.

"But the poor moved on to grab wealthy names, and then the wealthy had to innovate, and then they went back to other types of names," Haan said.

Family names play lesser role

Other times, people will stick with familial names, choosing names that belong to the baby's relatives or parents. But Haan believes that trend is fading.

When Haan and his wife were deciding on names for their two daughters, they consulted an online baby name wizard that explains the origin of names and charts popularity over time. 

"When we were naming our children, we didn't want to give a name that would be so popular that it basically timestamps them," Haan said.

"The Ethels and the Agneses would probably agree. You can probably guess within five years how old they are. At the same time, we didn't want to have a name that was so esoteric that nobody would ever know how to spell it."

They settled on Evelyn and Abigail. Inadvertently, they chose names that have surged in popularity. Both appear on New Brunswick's top 20 list for 2019.

"You think you're being original, you think you're differentiating yourself, you think you're doing something interesting and everybody does the same thing."


Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to


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