You don’t need to sit beside a catwalk in Paris or Milan to understand that fashions change over time. That’s true for clothing, vehicles, and musical styles — and even things as personal as names. Remember when all of a sudden “Brittany” was a super-popular name … and then just as quickly, it wasn’t? Yeah, like that.
Yet there are some names that defy fashion and hang in for the long term. The name James is a stellar example: over the past hundred years its popularity has stayed high enough and for long enough to make it the century’s most popular boys’ name overall. What is it about the name James? Why has it stayed in the popular consciousness for so long? It’s hard to say for certain, but we have some thoughts.
Origins of the James Name
The roots of our modern-day name James and its equivalents — Jacob, Jacques, Iago, and Giacomo, to name just a few — go back to the Hebrew Ya’akov. It was transliterated into Latin originally as Iacobus, and then in late Latin as Iacomus. Iacobus made it into English as Jacob, Spanish as Iago, and French as Jacques. Iacomus arrived in modern Italian as Giacomo, and in English (by way of Old French) as James.
While all of those variations (and many more) remain popular in countries and cultures around the world, we’ll focus our attention today on James specifically, and leave variations like Hamish and Seamus out of the picture.
The Name James in Early America
Long before the founding of America, the name James was already popular in England and especially Scotland, where it was associated with a long line of kings. Ultimately James VI of Scotland would also become James I of England, placing his name firmly at the forefront of popular culture just in time for the Colonial period to begin (hence Jamestown).
Although the Stuart Dynasty of King James would later be overthrown, supporters of the fallen dynasty (Jacobins), who remained largely concentrated in places like Scotland and Ireland, continued to name their sons James. As colonial America grew and flourished, many of these Jacobins would be pushed out of their homelands by England’s official hostility and brought their names (and grievances) with them. Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, or the TV series based on them, will recognize her fictional hero Jamie Fraser as one of these.
By the time of America’s independence, James was well established as a popular name for men, with James Madison — a president and Founding Father — foremost among their number. At the time of America’s first national census in 1790, James proved to be the third-most-popular name for boys, a spot it retained in the 1850 census. Clearly, it had staying power.
The popularity of the Name James Over the Past Century
Recently Spokeo took a deep dive into the topic of baby names, drawing on stats from the Social Security Administration and other data sources within our own files. That research brought out a number of interesting details. One of them is that James’ historic popularity has carried on into the contemporary era, while other once-popular names have faded.
In fact, for the years 1919 to 1921 — just over a century — James was the most popular boys’ name overall. While it only held down the No. 1 spot through the 40s and part of the 50s, its consistent presence in the top handful of names makes it the cumulative winner. From 1920 through 1980 it was never out of the top 5, and even around the turn of the century (when its popularity dipped briefly) it has never fallen out of the top 20.
Even that dip proved short-lived. By 2014 James was back in the top 10, and as of 2021 was the fifth most popular name for boys.
Why Has James Remained so Popular?
For any name to remain so popular for so long, clearly it has to have a lot of things going for it. One may simply be the weight of tradition. Many families tend to perpetuate names across generations, giving children the name of a parent, grandparent, or another relative as a form of loving tribute.
Another reason is its status as a name found in the Bible. That gives it a built-in constituency among parents who wish to maintain cultural ties with their family’s church tradition. The James name is especially associated with Catholicism, in part because of the many saints named James, and in part because the Jacobin Stuart supporters tended to be Catholics.
One other aspect to consider is pop culture. Simply because the name has been so popular for so long, there have been a lot of high-profile Jameses. Many parents choose to name their children after their personal heroes, or at least people they admire, and this may have also played a role in James’ ongoing popularity as a baby name. Let’s take a closer look at that.
Pop Culture Popularity of James
We can mostly rule out the presidency as having an impact on James’ popularity. The only recent one was Jimmy Carter, and James remained stable at the No. 5 spot throughout his term in office (it dipped a bit afterward, mind you). If anything, he’s probably earned more admiration for his humanitarian work during his lengthy post-presidency.
That still leaves lots of other potential pop-culture touchstones for the name. These include:
There have been plenty of popular and charismatic actors named James or Jim. Hollywood’s Golden era of the 30s and 40s gave us James Stewart, James Cagney, and James Mason. In the 50s James Dean made many a heart go pitter-pat; James Coburn, James Caan, James Garner, and many others were prominent in the 60s and 70s. High-profile contemporary Jameses include James McAvoy and James Franco.
Sports fans have had plenty of high-profile Jameses to root for over the past century as well, starting with Native American multi-sport phenomenon Jim Thorpe in the early years of the 20th century. Others include pitcher Jim Palmer, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, and NBA stars James Worthy, James Harden, and LeBron James (yeah, it’s his surname, but it still counts … and he’s been the only noteworthy “King” James in centuries).
A lot of us are also heavily influenced by our favorite musicians, and there have been plenty of Jameses on that front as well. From the 60s alone Jimi Hendrix springs to mind, along with James Brown, Jim Morrison, and Jimmy Page. Artists still active today range from James Blunt to Metallica’s James Hetfield, who couldn’t be further apart stylistically.
This is a category that’s often overlooked, but fictional characters can sometimes feel just as real as the living people around us. Think of plucky young James from “James and the Giant Peach”; charismatic starship captain James T. Kirk; or Harry Potter’s brilliant and doomed father.
None of these are the most prominent fictional James, of course, but he deserves a whole separate discussion.
The Ever-Popular James Bond
In 1953 Ian Fleming — who himself had been in military intelligence during the war — published “Casino Royale,” the first James Bond novel. Others would follow every year, with the last two arriving posthumously after the author’s 1964 death. The books were a huge hit and spawned a series of movies that began with “Dr. No” in 1962 and continues to this day.
The Bond books and movies arrived just as the name James was dropping from its position as the top pick for boys. Other once-popular names like Ralph, Kenneth, and Howard have dwindled sharply over recent decades but James hasn’t, and it’s entirely possible that the Bond character played a role in that. It’s inarguable that Bond was a pop-culture sensation in the 1960s, spawning numerous tributes and parodies on both film and television.
James held its top 5 positions among boys’ names throughout the 60s and 70s when Sean Connery and then Roger Moore played the role. It didn’t dip out of the top 5 until the 80s when the franchise began to feel rather tired. It didn’t help that Roger Moore’s replacement, Timothy Dalton, was unpopular with audiences. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond was better received and did adequate box office over the years, but there was definitely a sense that the franchise needed a refresh and a reboot.
That reboot came with Daniel Craig’s casting as a grittier, less-suave Bond in 2006’s “Casino Royale.” Released at a time when the James name was at risk of dropping out of the top 20 baby names for boys, it reexamined some of the character’s more problematic aspects (love interest Vesper Lind calls out Bond for viewing women as disposable) and takes the character in new directions. With 2014’s “Skyfall” earning Bond a rare level of critical acclaim, the name James rebounded back to the 14th spot among boys’ baby names. Between 2015’s follow-up “SPECTRE” and 2021’s “No Time to Die,” James has once again hovered around the top 5.
It’s not certain, but it’s definitely a possibility that a resurgent James Bond made the name James cool — and popular — again.
Popularity Can Be a Problem
One side effect of the name James’ popularity is that you may find it rather difficult to track down a specific person of that name, especially if they also have a common surname like Smith, Jones, or Rodriguez.
As always, tracking someone down by name — even when it’s an extremely common one — is one of Spokeo’s strengths. Of course, it’s easiest if you have a second piece of information such as a phone number, an email, or an address, in which case you simply use the corresponding Spokeo search tool.
If you don’t have that advantage, Spokeo’s rich datasets can still help you find the person you’re looking for. Once you’ve done that initial name search, usually you’ll be able to immediately rule out several of the results because they’re the wrong age, or in the wrong part of the country. There’ll also be information about other people living at the same address, which can be helpful if you know the name of your target individual’s significant other.
One of the most useful tools of all is the list of social media accounts associated with the name. Working through those will usually bring you to the person you’re looking for, whether it’s a long-lost family member, a former classmate, or the elusive ex you’re trying to serve legal papers on. If the account itself doesn’t contain any telltale photos or other personal information, you can probably find out if it’s the person you want simply by looking at what other accounts it follows, or is followed by. Once you find mutual acquaintances, you know you’ve got the right person.
What’s in a Name?
In Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene, Juliet laments that Romeo belongs to the rival Montague clan and asks “What’s in a name?” It’s a question you won’t necessarily ask yourself often in real life, but it’ll definitely come up when you find yourself expecting a child.
Will you stick to a classic, like the evergreen James (or Mary, the long-term top name for girls)? Opt to use the name of a favorite athlete or singer? Or will you play the contrarian, and choose a name from our list of those fading from use in America?
There aren’t really any wrong answers (OK, it’s hard to defend Elon Musk naming his son “X Æ A-12,” but that’s an outlier). As long as you and your partner are in agreement, and you’re pretty sure it’s not a name your kid will later hate you for, you’re probably good to go.
- British Baby Names – Name of the Week: James
- Behind the Name – James
- Ancestry.com – Calling James Smith! 10 Most Common First and Surname Combinations
- IMDB – Casino Royale (2006): Quotes