For many parents, the Top 20 is where a name crosses the threshold into being “too popular.” If you’re one of this group, you might find yourself looking at Sophia or Scarlett and thinking, “I love this name, but…” For all of you, I’ve compiled a list of alternatives that capture the flavor of the top 20 in sound, cultural associations, or overall style. And to minimize the odds of choosing one of next year’s Top 20, all of my offered alternatives stand outside the 2016 top 50.
A genuinely old-fashioned name (its last round in the top 10 ended in 1897), compact and soft-spoken, with ties to Jane Austen. My alternatives are all five letters or less, tend to avoid hard stops, and draw heavily on 19th century favorites.
Top 1000: Hazel (#52), Jane (#279), Alma (#723)
Beyond: Alba, Etta, Ida.
Silvery and nimble, the name Olivia was invented by Shakespeare; it combines the trendy “V” sound with a vowelly, elaborate style. My alternatives tend toward V’s, “IA” endings, and many syllables.
Top 1000: Valentina (#106), Liana (#464), Sylvia (#504)
Beyond: Larissa, Lavinia, Octavia
Short and sweet, heavily associated with mid-20th-century actress Ava Gardner, this name is spot-on in three different trendy categories: the letter V, nickname-free names, and long vowels. My alternatives are compact but peppy, feature many V’s, and include a few nods to Old Hollywood.
Top 1000: Ivy (#112), Nova (#136), Zara (#318), Mavis (#787), Veda (#874)
Beyond: Calla, Evan, Greer
A name with deep cross-cultural roots; it’s a virtue name (from the Greek word for wisdom), an aristocratic name (borne by at least 7 European queens), and a name that combines soft consonants with long vowels to make a winning sound combination. My alternatives focus on those soft consonant sounds and on names with a slightly regal bearing.
Top 1000: Aurora (#66), Josephine (#114), Fiona (#211)
Beyond: Lucinda, Persephone, Serafina
“Ella” is the sound of the moment, and long soft-consonant names are hot too, so it’s no surprise this one has held a comfortable place at the top of the charts for a full decade (it entered the top 5 in 2006). My alternatives lean heavily on the Ella/Bella sound family, but also draw in a few other soft polysyllabic names.
Top 1000: Annabelle (#104), Adriana (#216), Ariella (#335)
Beyond: Christabel, Isadora, Ysela
In sharp contrast to the old-fashioned names above it, Mia is bouncy and peppy, with a touch of international charm and a sound that distills fellow Top 20s Olivia, Sophia, and Amelia down to their common element. My alternatives include a few more -ia variations, plus a handful of other short-and-sweet names with a modern international feel.
Top 1000: Maya (#64), Lyla (#138), Amaya (#204), Cara (#807)
Beyond: Libby, Naia, Pia
Depending on your reference point of choice, Charlotte could be a British princess, a Bronte, a place name, or a spider. It’s a name with long-standing use, a distinctive sound, and a bit of French flair that last peaked in the 1940s. My alternatives draw on its combination of hard and soft consonants, and tend toward French-but-familiar.
Top 1000: Catherine (#195), Colette (#468), Corinne (#795)
Beyond: Claudette, Harriet, Lorraine
The only Biblical name in the girls’ Top 10, Abigail combines deep roots with connections to an American First Lady and a pair of sweet, distinctive nicknames (Abby and Gail). My alternatives are similarly soft, old-fashioned, and strong.
Top 1000: Gabrielle (#225), Ruth (#299), Laurel (#642), Martha (#725)
Beyond: Abra, Dinah, Tamar
The “old lady” in the current Top 10, Emily has held a place on this list since 1991, and was #1 from 1996-2007. It’s been worn by poets, authors, actresses, and plenty of fictional characters in books from A Little Princess to The Wizard of Oz. My suggestions focus on names that are similarly literary, gently old-fashioned, or soft-spoken.
Top 1000: Emery (#130), Rebecca (#207), Malia (#258), Melina (#609)
Beyond: Dorothy, Flora, Sally
This one’s often the surprise for first-time parents. Harper had never reached the top 1000 before 2004; in the last decade, the number of girls receiving the name has jumped from 700 to over 10,000. Why? It’s a combination of factors. Androgynous names are increasingly popular for girls; surname names, especially those tied to occupations, are red-hot on the boys’ list right now; and the literary connection of this one adds an extra bit of cachet for all those parents not quite bold enough to choose Atticus. My suggestions center around surname names and those with a touch of extra significance.
Top 1000: Emerson (#161), Parker (#217), Sage (#353), Carter (#454)
Beyond: Bellamy, Larkin, Lavender, Sojourner
Sound-wise, Amelia benefits from Emily’s success; style-wise, it’s a sister to Sophia and Olivia, elaborately feminine without feeling overdone. My alternatives try to capture that same style, while focusing on Amelia’s core sounds.
Top 1000: Lydia (#80), Cecilia (#178), Matilda (#497), Ophelia (#580)
Beyond: Cordelia, Eulalia, Lynette, Theodora
With a bit of Emma, a bit of Olivia and the combination of the super-trendy V and N-ending sounds, it’s no wonder Evelyn is jumping up the charts. My alternative suggestions combine a few similarly old-fashioned favorites with some more modern names that share Evelyn’s key sounds.
Top 1000: Vivian (#95), Clara (#99), Aviana (#392), Helen (#408)
Beyond: Avalon, Guinevere, Viola
The only girls’ name never to have left the top 50 since Social Security Administration records began in 1880, Elizabeth is a hard one to substitute for. My proposed alternatives include a few “queenly” nickname-rich names, a few lesser-used Elizabeth variants, and one or two thrown in just for sound.
Top 1000: Alexandra (#110), Margaret (#139), Eliza (#174), Lizbeth (#921)
Beyond: Adelaide, Marguerite, Zareth
While the Sophia spelling carries an air of Old Hollywood, Sofia is international; this spelling is used in Romance, Slavic, and Scandinavian languages. So I tried to present a few substitutes that have that same level of flexibility, while also carrying a touch of the vowelly appeal that’s put this name on the Top 20 list in two different forms.
Top 1000: Anna (#51), Maria (#113), Bianca (#386), Estella (#909)
Beyond: Florencia, Marcela, Philomena
Although this name did get its start for American girls from the 1984 movie Splash, it’s also a Presidential surname, a place name, and a name whose connection to Madison Avenue gives it a touch of class for many families. My alternatives try to capture that crisp upper-class surname feel.
Top 1000: Peyton (#81), Reese (#177), Holland (#881)
Beyond: Carson, Gentry, Kensington
. A name that’s still got plenty of staying power in the boys’ column (it ranked #191 for boys in 2016), Avery combines contemporary parents’ love affair with the letter V with a clean-lined surname feel. My alternatives include a few surname-style alternates as well as some that share Avery’s key sounds.
Top 1000: Mackenzie (#84), Vera (#307), Ainsley (#344), Remy (#716)
Beyond: Darby, Sullivan, Verity
Emma has been in the top 10 since 2002; Lily, Lillian, Layla and friends are all charging toward the top of the charts. It’s unsurprising that Ella would follow. A little flowier than Emma but with the same clean profile, Ella also has a great jazz reference and the added bonus of being a solid nickname name. My alternatives try to combine its gentle sound and old-fashioned feel.
Top 1000: Isla (#126), Pearl (#567), Elsa (#622), Ellen (#655)
Beyond: Ada, Della, Mattie
The other name that tends to surprise first-time parents evaluating the contemporary top 20 list, Scarlett rode to the top on the fame of actress Scarlett Johansson, but its associations go deeper. It carries a lot of the sound of Charlotte with a little more feistiness; it’s associated with one of the most enduring movie heroines of all time; and it’s also connected to the contemporary interest in word names. In trying to find alternatives, I split the difference between soundalikes and other names that have its bold feel.
Top 1000: Juliette (#199), Lola (#234), Briar (#799)
Beyond: Carlotta, Indigo, Juno, Venus
An old-fashioned virtue name that doesn’t read as one to most modern parents (its roots are in the Christian “state of grace”, not the athletic kind), Grace has a unique sound and manages to pack a lot of name into a small package. I tried to find alternatives that were similarly compact, evoked modern virtues or held on to that distinctive “S” sound.
Top 1000: Daisy (#190), Hope (#240), Lacey (#486), Mercy (#790)
Beyond: Candace, Honor, Persis, Prudence
Drawn briefly into the top 10 between 2008-2011, Chloe combines a set of sounds not common to contemporary ears; distinctive but easily pronounced and with deep roots (in Greek mythology), it hits a sweet spot for many parents. My alternatives focus on its long vowels and trendy “L” sound, while seeking to mimic its compact uniqueness.
Top 1000: Lucy (#55), Willow (#96), Thea (#287), Phoebe (#316)
Beyond: Elodie, Pippa, Opal