The Hidden Meaning Behind Popular Baby Names

A lot goes into picking a baby name. Do you want to go with an old family favorite, or something new? A name that has personal meaning, or just something that sounds pretty? Well, one thing you might want to consider is the actual meaning of the name.

Most popular names have Greek, Latin, or Hebrew roots, so you can nail down a pretty clear definition — that might greatly factor into your choices. A name like Claudia sounds nice enough, but it actually means "lame." Not "lame" as in "dude, you're so lame," but lame as in "unable to walk." That makes the name sounds a little less nice.

If you're torn between options, the hidden meaning behind some of the most popular names might make your decision a whole lot easier.


Emma's meaning fits the name pretty well. It is derived from the German "ermen" which means "whole" or "universal." The name came to England by way of Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred II. King Ethelred the Unready made have let the Danish invade and destroy much of England, but at least he allowed the English speaking world one of its most popular names.

Since 980 A.D., the name has stuck around. It gained popularity again in the 1700s, possibly because of the poem "Henry and Emma" by Matthew Prior. Once Jane Austen wrote Emma in 1816, the name grew even more common and beloved. Over the last 100 years, Emma has been in the top 90 names, except for about 15 years in the late 60s' to early 80s'. In 2016, it was the second most popular girls' name in America — and looks like the love for Emma is truly universal.


An already popular Irish name, Liam didn't arrive in America until the late 1960s. Since then, the usage has slowly increased, though the 1990s saw a burst of popularity — right around the time Schindler's List hit theaters, and Liam Neeson became a household name. It's entirely my own speculation regarding the Liam boom, but it had to have been at least a slight factor, right?

But what does Liam even mean? Most of us just think of it as being Irish-sounding and that's it. Well, that's partially right since it's the Irish short form of William. Great, but what's the deal with William? Derived from the German "Willahelm," it breaks down to two parts: "Wil" meaning will or desire, and "helm"meaning helmet or protection." So, desire helmet? Usually the meaning is listed as the less literal translation of "strong mind and protection." The name William became common in England after William the Conqueror in 1066, remaining popular ever since.

Nowadays, the U.S. prefers Liam over William. It was the fourth most popular boy's name in 2016 and has been in the top five for the last four years.


You may have thought made-up celebrity names started with the likes of Apple Martin and Blue Ivy Carter. Yet, it was Shakespeare who really started the trend. The third most popular name of 2016 was Olivia, a name Shakespeare invented for the lead character in his play Twelfth Night.

He may have based his name creation on "Oliver" which was either derived from the German "Alfher" or the Old Norse name that became "Olaf." Olaf means "ancestor's descendant" and was the name of many Norwegian kings.

Though the Germanic or Norse roots could have influenced Shakespeare, it's more likely that he used a simpler source. The latin word "oliva" is pretty close to "Olivia." What does "oliva" mean? Olive. Yep, pretty simple! We won't ever know if the Bard named his heroine after Norse Kings, old German, or a garnish plunked in his martini, but Olivia would be a great choice for any Shakespeare fan.


Jacob has become such a common name, it's easy to forget it's Biblical roots. Based on the latin "Iacobus," Jacob shows up in the Old Testament as the father of the twelve founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Though he's a notable figure, the real meaning of Jacob is "supplanter" or "holder of the heel." According to the Bible, Jacob was born holding onto his twin Esau's heel. Not just an annoying brother, that action foreshadowed how Jacob would hold his brother back, twice taking rights that should have gone to Esau. Jacob later supplanted Esau's position as king, hence the name.

In fact, Jacob and James are derived from the same root. Typically Jacob was used within the Jewish faith and James in the Christian. That's also why the reign of King James in England is called the Jacobean era, in case any of you were as confused as I was by that, during British history class. So, if you already have a boy named James, Jacob might be a little redundant.


Sophia is a Greek name meaning "wisdom." Lovely, right? The first notable namesake was Saint Sophia. She bore three daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love, and the family firmly believed in Jesus. Unfortunately, the Emperor was not a fan. Around 120 A.D., the emperor wanted to break their belief, so one at a time, he tried to sway the girls away from God, killing them when their faith was too strong. Despite her daughters' death, Sophia's faith never strayed and she was welcomed into heaven, later becoming a saint.

It's certainly nice to think of your little girl as a saint, but that harsh backstory makes the name a bit less pretty. But there's more to Sophia than sainthood. It contains the Greek root word "soph" which we use all the time: sophomore, philosophy, and sophisticated all contain the same word for wisdom as "Sophia." So, your girl could have a name that gives her a truly sophisticated air, inspiring her to really nail the root words and vocabulary portions of English class.


Michael is one of the most enduringly popular names in history. From 1950 to 2010, Michael appeared in the top five most popular boys names. Lately, it's losing a little steam — though, at number 13 in 2016, it's far from unusual. Considering we've heard this name a million times and some of the biggest stars are Michaels — like, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Michael Bolton — we don't think much about its meaning.

Another name from the Bible, Michael lead the angels in their fight against Lucifer. Having defeated the fallen angel, he is now regarded as the Patron Saint of Soldiers. A noble figure, it's understandable why the name has remained a go-to for so long.

The actual definition of Michael comes from the Hebrew "who is like God?" The question mark is part of the meaning because Michael is meant to be a rhetorical question. So, we're not asking, "Who is like God," expecting someone to reply, "I don't know, Ghandi or something." The question is not meant to be answered, but to offer that no one is like God. Imagine saying "who is like God?" every time you say Michael. It seems so strange, though Michael Bay probably wouldn't mind it.


The second most popular boys name of 2016, Aiden has spurred on quite a craze. The name wasn't terribly popular in America till it shot up the ranks in 1995. That's a year after Aidan Quinn appeared in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Legends of the Fall. Again, I'm only speculating about the actor causing the spike in Aidens (especially since they're spelled differently), but Legends of the Fall could have had a hand in it. Aiden is most notable for starting the long list of -ayden names. Kayden, Hayden, Jayden, Brayden, and Zayden are all just made-up mash-ups of Aiden.

So, where does Aiden itself come from? Well, we have to trace back through quite a few names before we get to the real meaning. First, it's based on the Irish name Aidan, which is the English speaking version of Aodhán. That name is just a diminutive version of Aodh or Aed (pronounced like the letter "A"), who was the Celtic god of the sun, and whose name can also be translated to "fire." In Gaelic myth, Aed was one of the Children of Lir, a popular folktale that Irish children still learn today.

The English gave themselves a translation of this fiery god, a name. Aed became Hugh. Somehow, Hugh doesn't elicit the same sense of "fire," but Aiden and Hugh are brothers from the same mother.


Emily always makes me think of sweet and smart British ladies: like Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson. But the name has a slightly sinister meaning. It's the feminine version of Aemilius or Emil which means "rival." Therefore, any Emily is automatically your enemy.

Though the masculine form of Emily isn't very popular in America, Emily is the 14th most popular girl's name. Since at least 1911, the name has never fallen below number 300 on the hottest name charts. Perhaps the constant rivalry of the name is what keeps it in fighting shape to stay at the top.


The Bible is a primary source for most common boys names and Benjamin is no exception. Coming from the Hebrew for "son of the right hand" or "son of the south," Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob and the leader of a southern tribe of Hebrews. Originally, the name had a darker origin. Little Benjamin was originally named "Ben-'oniy," meaning "son of my sorrow" right before his mother died from childbirth. Apparently, Jacob thought that was a bit too much of a downer, so he renamed him Benjamin.

The name became popular with English speakers after the Crusades. It became common to choose biblical first names, most likely to prove your Christian alliance, in an attempt to avoid inciting another Crusade.


Aubrey, like Ashley, started out as primarily a boys name since the Middle Ages, but shifted over to girls in the 1970s. The song "Aubrey" by Bread in 1972, helped make the girl version popular.

Still, the origin of the name retains its masculine roots. It's a Norman French form of the German name Alberich, which contains the German root words "elf" and "power." Though it might be fun for a celebrity to call their kid "Elf Power," Aubrey's meaning is usually recognized as "King of the Elves." Currently, the masculine Aubrey is pretty rare, but the feminine version was the 25th most popular name last year.

What's in a name?

Though many of America's favorite names have been around for centuries, we rarely take their root meanings into account. A slightly unfavorable meaning shouldn't sway you from your top choice, but if you'd rather your little princess not be dubbed a "rival," or "king of the elves," now you know the names to scratch off the list!