Cathy Payne, USA TODAY
Some parents who peruse the Social Security Administration's list of 2012's most popular baby names, out today, will be looking for validation that they chose a good one, while prospective parents seeking a unique name may be looking for what to avoid.
Jacob and Sophia are the most popular baby names again in 2012, according to the list. They were tops in 2011 too; Jacob has been in the top spot since 1999.The biggest jumps in popularity in the Top 500 names are for the boys' name Major and the girls' name Arya. Arya is the name of a character on the HBO series Game of Thrones.
"I have no doubt Major's rising popularity as a boy's name is in tribute to the brave members of the U.S. military," Carolyn Colvin, acting Social Security commissioner, says in a statement. "Maybe we'll see more boys named General in the future."
The second fastest-rising names are Gael for boys and Perla for girls. Those names are likely becoming more popular because of the growing Spanish-speaking population in the USA, the federal agency says.
The names are from Social Security card applications for births in the 50 states and District of Columbia. The agency, which has tracked names since 1880, lists the names on its website, socialsecurity.gov. The agency also provides popular names for births in U.S. territories, but that information is not included in the national data.
Various spellings of similar names are not combined. For example, Caitlin, Caitlyn, Kaitlin, Kaitlyn, Kaitlynn, Katelyn and Katelynn are considered separate names. Each spelling has its own ranking on the list.
Brantley had the greatest popularity jump for boys from 2010 to 2011. Briella had the greatest popularity bounce for girls.
Recent trends show that parents want unique names for their kids.
Parents mostly want to avoid the names at the top of the list, says Cleveland Evans, a member of the American Name Society, a non-profit that promotes the study of names and naming practices.
"Typical parents want to give their child a name that everybody has heard of and everybody likes, but no one has - which is an absolutely impossible task," he says.
"Everybody wants to be unique," agrees Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, Revised 3rd Edition, out this week.
The No. 1 names on the list will be less popular than the ones in previous compilations, she says. The top names will reflect smaller percentages of overall names, she adds.
"The sound today that parents are looking for is very smooth and bright - very heavy on long vowels," she says. Examples are Liam and Mila, she adds. "Names with a similar sound, like Mia and Noah, you can count on thriving."
Wattenberg says parents find ideas and inspiration for baby names everywhere. They look to places that are important to them, positive words in the dictionary, and surnames.
Names in some periods have a familiar ring because of the influence of a celebrity; a child star with ringlets is the leading example. "More babies were named after Shirley Temple than any celebrity today," Wattenberg says.
Evans says some parents still name children after relatives and ancestors.
One reason names like Elizabeth have endured is that they have various nicknames. For example, Evans says, the nicknames for Elizabeth change from generation to generation - Betty, Beth and Lizzie.
The Internet has had an impact on the perception of baby names. "The Internet changes our perception of what's popular if everybody is your next-door neighbor," Wattenberg says,
Evans, a professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb., agrees that the Internet allows people to see which names are too common and avoid them more easily. "Every new technology presents people with possibilities," he says. "People are naming their kids after characters in video games."
While some parents pick a name early, others wait until they are in the delivery room, hoping that the baby will inspire a name. "That's asking a lot of a newborn," Wattenberg says. "Know what your back-up plan is because that's a tough time to do heavy thinking."
With so many choices, where do parents begin to find a name that is a snug fit?
Wattenberg says, "Whether we mean to or not, we are encoding our own values, hopes and dreams in our children's names. Choosing a name is really the time that you dream about the future. That name becomes a bridge to the future - where you picture your life together."
Evans, the author of The Great Big Book of Baby Names, published in 2006, says it is good for parents to choose a name that has some meaning to them. That way, he adds, "when a child asks you later why you picked it, you can give more of a reason than just, 'I liked how it sounded.' "
Top baby names of 2012