In Defense of Atlas and Apple: Ten Reasons Unusual Names Aren’t a Problem

by appellationmountain on April 5, 2010

Last February, I posted In Defense of Emma and Ethan: Ten Good Reasons to Use a Common Name. While reviewing what I’d written in 2009, I realized that I’d never laid out the case for uncommon names.

Need I state the obvious? I rather like names that you don’t hear everyday. And so here are ten solid reasons unusual names aren’t a problem.

10. More of us have unusual names now than ever.

If you follow the statistics issued by the Social Security Administration, you might have heard this rule of thumb: about 75% of all names given in any year are represented in the Top 1000. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll notice that the percentage drops a little each year.

In 1999, over 84% of boys and nearly 73% of girls received one of the 1000 most popular names, or about 78.6% overall.

By 2008, the numbers were 79.54% of boys and 67.25% of girls. That’s 73.54% overall, 5% less than a decade earlier. The trend is solidly in favor of more diversity in given names.

9. Fewer of us have the most common names.

The flip side is that fewer of us receive the most common names. Even among the 73.54% who do receive a Top 1000 name, there’s a broader distribution across those thousand choices.

Scratching your head? Here’s an example. From 1900 to 1909, more than 5.7% of all newborn boys were named John, and nearly 5.2% of all girls were named Mary.

In the 1920s, more than a quarter of all newborn boys received one of the Top Five names – Robert, John, James, William and Charles. About 15% were Mary, Dorothy, Helen, Betty or Margaret.

Numbers like those are unthinkable today. For the 2000s, only Jacob, Michael, Joshua and Matthew commanded more than 1% for boys. For girls, only Emily could claim the same.

8. We’re more familiar with unusual names.

You might call Miley a trendy name. Jaidyn might strike you as a needlessly contrived spelling. But do they seem truly outlandish and bizarre?

From celebrities’ kids to television characters to the little boy down the street, the more we become accustomed to uncommon appellations, the more they seem familiar – even when we hear them for the first time.

So when your friend announces that she’s calling her new triplets Paxton, Arlo and Sicily, you’re less likely to accuse her of child abuse and more likely to admire her style. At least to her face.

7. All must be spelled.

We often forget that this has always been true. Kathryn or Catherine? Stephen or Steven? Plenty of long-standing names have perfectly valid variant spellings.

I suppose the sheer number of names is use makes for more of a problem today. I once helped out at a nursery school holiday party. We had to label their craft projects – and the head teacher had to spell out C-A-Y-D-E-N and M-A-D-A-L-Y-N, occasionally pausing to make sure she had it exactly right.

When your daughter Persephone is in class with Hailey and Elisabeth, why fret that she’ll have to spell it out?

6. Definitions of masculine names are far more liberal than they were once.

The list of acceptable girls names has along been broader, at least in the US. Boys, however, were once a different story.

Those days are over. Sebastian and Elijah will get beat up,” writes someone on a message board. It could happen, but the bully is just as likely to be named Gabriel or Jordan. Some parents are calling their sons Gunnar or Slade. But whether your son’s name is best-suited to a romantic poet or a heavy metal guitarist, he likely won’t suffer for it.

5. Name choices tend to reflect our backgrounds and lifestyles, not dictate them.

Being named Dweezil was probably not the strangest thing about being Frank Zappa’s son. Suri Cruise would be followed by paparazzi even if she were plain Jane.

Unusual names tend to reflect the values and preferences of our households and communities. If you’re living in a huge, cosmopolitan urban setting, your name might fit in perfectly – unless, of course, your family moves to the ‘burbs where no one has ever met a Zenaida.

4. Greater acceptance of unusual names is growing.

Some argue that sticking with the classics is the best way to give your child a leg-up when she applies to Harvard. Or when he interviews for a job at the White House. Every now and again, a study pops up explaining that girls named Kate fare better than those called Bertha or Starla.

It’s a valid concern, but I wonder how real it is. If you’re an employer eager to hire a diverse workforce or an admissions officer looking to compose an inclusive incoming class, why wouldn’t you interview Deonte along with David, Yasmeen as well as Ashley?

I think it is tough to be, say, a federal prosecutor named Misty or Rascal. But it isn’t impossible – and I suspect that most names cannot consistently work against you. If you’re really worried about it, sticking a conservative choice in the middle spot can balance out the most outrageous first name choice. Misty Rain is a stage name; Misty Elizabeth is an insurance policy.

3. Personalized, customized products are just a mouse click away.

A few houses down, Connor has a personalized license plate for his bike. His brother Ronan does not. And probably never will.

But what does that mean as a criteria for choosing a name? You’re limiting yourself to the Top 100 names in your child’s birth year, and to be on the safe side, you should probably stick with the Top 50. List your ten favorite names and odds are a few of them are outside that magic number. In 2008, you can call your son Evan, but not Peter, Jeffrey or Patrick.

Growing up with a Top Ten name, I had my pick of personalized gear. My younger sister’s name ranked #315. Our grandparents sent away for customized kidstuff via mail order. Now it’s even easier. Our 5 year old has a hockey jersey emblazoned with Alexei. My daughter’s LeapFrog Puppy Pal hooked up to my laptop. With a few clicks, the puppy was singing “Let’s sing a song about you, Clio” just as easily as it would’ve done for Madison.

2. Kids growing up with unusual surnames don’t seem to suffer lasting psychological harm.

I grew up with a bizarre last name, a Polish import simplified in an attempt to make things easier in America. After I’d spelled it out, inevitably I had to explain its provenance. (“It’s Polish. I’m not. My step-grandfather’s family simplified the spelling in the early 20th century …”)

When I married a man with a simple, but not too common surname, I happily stopped offering up my explanation. But you know, I do miss my conversation-starting surname. When my youngest sister married, she kept it – despite the fact that her husband’s last name was far more straightforward.

If there hasn’t been a widespread movement to get us all to adopt Smith or Jones, why would we expect to all answer to Bill and Anne?

1. An unusual name with meaning trumps an ordinary one chosen just because.

Plenty of us give our children names without layering meaning and significance on every syllable, and that’s fine. But when a name has meaning – when it honors a great-grandmother, or evokes the place you met your spouse – even the most outlandish choice can seem like the logical, correct and inevitable option.

So what do you think: are unusual names a problem, or does it depend?

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