The relative popularity of certain baby names comes and goes. This isn’t news; it’s a well-known phenomenon, made even more clear in recent years by the annual reports of which names are trending versus which ones are falling out of favor put out by the many baby name directories that exist on the internet these days. But one baby name has seen the most dramatic highs and lows in terms of its popularity out of any other name in history — or at least, in the history of the United States since 1880. One name has both earned a spot in the coveted top five most popular baby names for any given year, as well as plummeted so far that it didn’t make the rankings — and it covered these highs and lows faster than any other name, to boot. And according to a recent analysis from Quartz, that name… is “Heather.”
It seems odd, doesn’t it, that this particular name would suffer such a spectacular fall from grace? “Heather” is pretty innocuous name, after all. It’s not associated with a flash-in-the-pan trend, like naming your baby “Khaleesi” or “Katniss”; nor is it either incredibly unique, or incredibly common. I mean, sure, all of the Heathers in the 1988 film Heathers are kind of, um, evil — but the moniker itself certainly isn’t: It’s the name of a flowering plant that tends to dominate moorlands (not for nothing does it always bring to mind The Secret Garden for me). And yet, as the Social Security Administration’s data on baby names in the United States demonstrates, it has experienced fluctuations in popularity the likes of which haven’t been seen by any other name.
The SSA’s baby name data goes back to 1880. It’s gathered from Social Security card applications for births occurring in the United States — which is kind of interesting when you consider the fact that the SSA didn’t even exist until 1935, courtesy of the New Deal and the Social Security Act of 1935. However, the first applications for Social Security cards were accepted in 1936, with the first payout occurring in 1937 — which means that plenty of those initial applications (20 million in the first year!) likely included folks who were born around 1880.
Not many of those folks were named “Heather,” though; even though Behind the Name reports “Heather’s” first appearance as a given name occurring in the late 19th century, it only began to rise in popularity during the 20th century. The SSA’s data on the name “Heather” — that is, the first year it fell within the top 1,000 names in the United States — begins in 1935. That year, there were 63 Heathers born in the United States, accounting for around .0058 percent of total female births; its official rank in the grand scheme of things was 870. At its most popular — the year 1975, when it ranked number three in popularity — the name “Heather” was bestowed upon 24,300 babies, or around 1.557 percent of total female births in the United States that year. By 2016, however, it would reach its lowest point in the rankings; 272 Heathers were born in the United States that year, representing about 0.014 percent of total female births. “Heather” just squeaked into the top 1,000 then — it ranked at 983. And in 2017, the name fell out of favor entirely: It didn’t even crack the top 1,000.
“Heather” isn’t, of course, the only name to have gone from super popular to incredibly unpopular; what sets it apart, though, is the speed with which it made that leap. That’s where Quartz’s analysis comes in: The site took a look at names that were once in the top five, popularity-wise, but later dropped so low that they didn’t even fall within the top 1,000 — eight names qualified, all of which are traditionally coded as female — and found that “Heather” accomplished this feat in less time than any other name included in the SSA’s century-plus of data. According to Quartz, “Heather’s” last year in the top five was 1978; but although it managed to stay in the top 1,000 for a few decades after that, it dropped off the rankings completely in 2017. It took just 39 years for it to go from one of the most popular names in the country to one of the least popular.
To give you an idea of how that compares with the other seven names that have fallen from the top five to out of the top 1,000 since 1880, the next quickest to drop according to Quartz was “Debra” at 42 years, followed by “Donna” at 47 — but then there’s a huge leap: “Betty” took 57 years to fall that far. “Carol,” Joan,” and “Shirley” came in next, at 61 years for both “Carol” and “Joan” and 67 for “Shirley”; then, lastly, we’ve got “Dorothy,” which took a whopping 71 years to drop from the top five to out of the top 1,000 — over 30 years longer than it took “Heather” to fall the same distance.
Whether or not this whole thing is good news or bad news probably depends on whether you’re a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person — and, of course, whether or not you’re a Heather yourself. It’s a dubious distinction, but a unique one all the same. And hey, at least you don’t have to worry about having to field tons of well-meaning but annoying comments about your name brought about by an ill-advised reboot anymore, right?