The Nine Types of Unusual Baby Names

by appellationmountain on January 5, 2013

A young girl kisses a baby on the cheek.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I’m fascinated by the use (and abuse) of the word unique in baby name talk.

Unique is a superlative.  It means one of a kind – just one.  It is impossible to be “kind of unique” or “somewhat unique” or “a little bit unique.”  You’re either the only one, or you’re not.

But if I take off my editor’s hat, I do understand parents’ struggle.  We want something different, but it is tough to pin down exactly what we mean by different.  Very few parents are willing to choose a truly unique name, which will almost certainly have to be invented from scratch.  Most of us have some idea of what we don’t want – but lacking an easy way to describe it, we just say “unique.”

What follows is my attempt to break down the Nine Types of Unusual Baby Names.

Why Parents Can Still Call Ava and Logan Unique

9.  We want a name that no one in our family/immediate circle of friends has used.

Once upon a time, three little girls called Mary on the same street wasn’t so unusual.  Today, we rule out Mia because our sister’s college roommate gave the name to her daughter, and Olivia is a no because that other family at church told us it is their top name if their new baby is a girl.  All of a sudden, Chloe or Claire can meet our criteria for a different name.

The trouble with this approach?  It is so easily spoiled, the source of frequent disappointment and charges of name theft.  And while you might be the only person you know with a daughter named Ava, that will almost certainly change by nursery school.

8.  We want a name no one our age has worn.

Many first-time parents announce that they want to avoid common names, like Jennifer and Jessica, Michael and Ryan.  Trouble is that names have moved on quite a bit since the 1970s and 80s.  It is easy to avoid repeating names that you’ll remember from the third grade class picture.  What’s trickier is avoiding a name that will feel over-used when your child reaches third grade.

After all, Maddie and Mason were all-but unknown in the 1980s.  Today they’re everywhere.  If this is your definition of different, you need to ask yourself: am I content with a name that seems different to my ears, or do I want my child’s name to stand out in his or her age group?

Why Jaxon and Aubree Appeal

7.  We want something just a little different.

It’s true – respelling a popular name can make it look a little different while it still sounds familiar.  Your daughter might be one of three girls called Addie at her school, but if she’s the only Addyson, is that enough to satisfy?  Is it okay to name your son Jax if your cousin has already used Jack?  For many parents, the answer is yes.

The trouble here is that different spellings do catch on.  Jaxon and Aubree ranked in the US Top 100 in 2011.  Kaitlyn, Aiden, and Madelyn have sailed past the more authentic Caitlin, Aidan, and Madeline - or Madeleine.  There’s no guarantee that your slightly different spelling isn’t the next big thing.

6.  We just plain like different spellings and unusual combinations.

Just as some of us prefer Katharine and Isobel to Katherine and Isabelle, it is equally true that some parents love the idea of Campbell for a daughter – but believe it is prettier if the name is spelled Kambylle.  No amount of snobbish “Please spell your child’s name correctly” comments on message boards will dissuade most parents.  It is a valid style, and a popular one.

Here’s the pitfall: you can go so far out on a limb that the pronunciation of your child’s name is truly unclear.  Is Haleah supposed to sound like Hallie or Hayley?  Is Reille a gussied-up version of Riley or a non-intuitive spelling of Rielle?  I once saw Eighmei suggested on a message board – and only after a few minutes’ puzzlement did I realize it was a respelling of Amy.  Tread carefully if you’re heading into this territory.

Why Avoiding the Top 10 (or 100 or 300) Doesn’t Always Work

5. We don’t want our child to be one of three in the kindergarten.

If you went through middle school as Jenny H., avoiding a wildly common name might be a priority.  Happily, this is easier than you might imagine.  As fewer and fewer children receive the Top 10 and even Top 100 and Top 1000 names, even Sophia and Jacob aren’t guaranteed to make an appearance in every classroom.

And yet, you might be surprised by the names that will repeat.

Chances are that people you spend time with are people with whom you have something in common.  This isn’t just about the friends we choose.  It’s also about work colleagues, neighbors, your children’s future classmates.  Names vary by region, by parents’ age and education level, by religious belief.  But when you choose a career, move to a neighborhood, or select a school, you might be increasing the odds that your children will have friends with the same names.

We live a stone’s throw from Catholic University and our kids attend a Catholic elementary school.  We know two boys named John-Paul and more than one Toby.  In my son’s summer camp there were three kids called Jordan - two boys and a girl.  But neither of my children has ever gone to school or camp with a Jacob or an Ava.

4.  We don’t want our child to share his name with anyone else at school.

For every Jenny H. content to pick Cooper instead of Mason and hope for the best, there is an Ashley R. fretting that someone else will discover Thatcher and Crew.

While the deepening name pool means that sharing is less common, it also makes it trickier to avoid sharing completely.  Confused?  If you begin your baby name search at #500 and up, you’re still looking at a finite list.  If I begin at #500 in 2011, I immediately land on Francesca, Sloane, Haven, and Helena for girls, and Julien, Lucian, Clark, and Nikolai for boys.  Knowing my husband, we’d probably end up with Helena and Clark.  Layer on the caveat from #5 – people you know may have similar taste in names – and I can report that we know children named both Helena and Julian, plus a Helen, and I might have to arm wrestle a sibling to use Clark.

Towards Truly Unusual Baby Names

3.  Your child’s name will be familiar as a given name, but not widely in use.

Retro names are always stylish – it is just a question of which names are back in vogue.  There aren’t a lot of kindergarteners called Betsy and Ned these days.  Ditto Estelle, Lorna, Leroy, and Ike.  If you’re determined to use a name, turn to a decade that isn’t wildly popular at the moment.  For every nineteenth century name racing up the charts, there are dozens of possibilities like Irene and Harold – great names, rich with history, and stuck in style limbo.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a low profile name won’t catch on quickly.  Sometimes you’re one Kardashian birth announcement away from the next big thing, and there are definitely neighborhoods where ahead of the curve is the norm.  Only you can gauge if Phoenix and Lulu are the everyday in your part of the world, or comfortably different.

2. Your child’s name won’t sound like anyone else’s name.

Combine #4 and #6 are you’ll arrive in this difficult place.  Cleo is out, because she’s too close to Chloe.  Orion would be great, if only Ryan weren’t so common.  Exhaustive review of the most popular names will rule out many a possible alternative.  It’s not a bad exercise, though.  If you know that explaining: “Her name is Adelie, not Natalie at every doctor’s check-up and library story hour will drive you batty, better to check for sound-alikes up front.  Cayson may barely sneak into the Top 1000, but is there anyone who finds the name really unusual?

What’s a parent to do?  Look for unexpected surnames, nature and word names, place names, and ancient names that aren’t in common use.  ThayerZinnia, Thisbe, Atlas, and Sorrel all spring to mind.  Juno was a hit film, but remains outside of the US Top 1000.  And for every Camden or London, there’s Abilene, Valencia, Cairo, Tempe, and Everest.

1. Your child’s name will be as close to unique as possible.

Take #2 to its logical conclusion and you may very well arrive a name that is unique – or nearly so.  Blogger Rebecca Woolf came pretty close when she named her daughter BohemeHer other kids’ names are Archer, Fable, and Reverie - they probably qualify under #2, but they’re not quite as singular.  I’ve heard of a boy called Shelter and a girl named Zaphyn, another two I think are pretty unusual.

And yet, when I went searching there were indeed two other Bohemes in US Census records, plus a pair of Zaphyns, and perhaps a dozen Shelters.  Even the most startlingly unusual names are probably not completely new.

Do you like unusual names?  How unusual will you go?  Are you content with Alice or searching for something more like Aspen?  Would you fret that Bruno and Fletcher are too out there, or would you consider Cortez?

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Jayla March 18, 2013 at 4:25 PM

I think you should name your baby Jayla because that’s my name and I always get compliments on it so good luck choosing her name!!!!!!! :)

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Laura January 15, 2013 at 6:14 PM

One of my favorite girls names would fall under #3 — Theresa. But, I worry that it’s not popular enough. It might be too tied to a specific decade.

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Liz January 15, 2013 at 10:45 AM

I love Lorna and Leroy and Irene. In fact our Gemma & Ivy might have been Lorna & Irene, but we are of our time I guess ;)

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Anna January 8, 2013 at 8:38 PM

Shhh keep quiet about Juno :P.

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C in DC January 7, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Great summary!

I’d suggest that people also look at the states lists to determine popularity. What’s popular in NY will be different than what’s popular in ID. My girls’ names are both more popular on the MD list than they were on either the US list or the DC list for the year they were born.

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The Name Station January 6, 2013 at 3:21 PM

I recommended Archer to a pregnant friend, from a list of choices that she had, and lately I’ve been slightly bummed out because I actually quite like it myself. However, there are a million names out there, and I’ll get over it.

I have a personal list of girls names I love that aren’t even visible as names on Google, and I want to keep it that way, and one day when I’m actually expecting, I’ll likely go out of my way to come up with the same kind of list for boys. Though I’m sure I’ll need to compromise with unknown future hubby (even though my pregnant friend seems convinced I’m the kind of girl who’ll get her way!)

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appellationmountain January 6, 2013 at 8:13 PM

I am dying to know what’s on that list …

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Angela January 5, 2013 at 11:51 PM

Great post! I think I fall somewhere in the middle – I like a lot of classic names, and some very unusual names are ok with me. I think “Alice” is my current favorite girl’s name. I also used to really like Annelise, but now I think it might be too much.

The only things I can’t stand in names are adding extra letters, weird spellings, etc. Haileigh is NOT an acceptable substitute for Haley, and Oliveah (in comments above) is miserable! BUT, I’m sure there are people who just despise Alice. To each his (or her) own!

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Tavius January 5, 2013 at 7:54 PM

I believed i was the only Tavius till i got on Facebook…. Im the only female… Lol!

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t January 6, 2013 at 11:36 AM

We totally searched facebook for every name we were considering.! Lol

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Megalady January 5, 2013 at 6:50 PM

My idea of unusual is pretty different from the view of a lot of the people I know. And while I tend to love a lot of unusual names (Fiordelisa, Herschel, Enheduanna, Dandelion, Orpheus, etc), I wouldn’t flinch at using a name that might be considered typical (Levi, Maggie, James).

Sometimes I do love freaking people out by mentioning some of my more bizarre favorites though.

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Angela January 5, 2013 at 4:03 PM

I think there might be another two other categories worth covering.

1. Made-up names.
I know someone named Te’Era (sounds like tiara). And a Gerecia. And a LaShawn. Yes, it is totally possible (like you said in #1) for multiple people to “create” the same name. But it does change the odds.

2. Rare foreign names.
I know a Jnana (named after the Sanskrit word for knowledge). And an Isyemille (which I believe she once told me means “little flower” in another language). And an Ajani (Nigerian). And a Nissa (the internet says it’s Hebrew, but I think that’s pronounced differently than her name… I want to say it’s Nordic or something). And a Nivya (Indian). And I will be surprised if I ever meet another person with any of those names, just because they are so far removed from the consciousness of my culture.

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Tayla January 5, 2013 at 3:01 PM

I definitely fall in number 2 or 1. I really like the ancient names that are almost unknown and yet somewhat vaguely familiar

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caroline January 5, 2013 at 12:20 PM

I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the list. I definitely tend to be dissuaded by #9-if I know anyone, or even know OF someone, who has named their child something, it’s usually out. But at the same time, I want to know a few people actually EXIST with a certain name, otherwise it just seems too wackadoo for my family. In this way, I am lucky to live in sort of a conservative Southern area. We have lots of Claires, Emilys, Carolines, etc., so my Phoebe doesn’t come across many with her name. I think most of my other choices fall in a similar category-Helena, Susannah, Clementine, Sybil-not unique, but unusual enough around here.

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appellationmountain January 5, 2013 at 1:34 PM

It matters so much where you live, doesn’t it? I wanted Clio to be Coco. (Arthur nixed it.) When my neighbors were expecting #2, they shortlisted Coco. It seems unlikely, but it fits here. (And my neighbors had a boy, so we’re still without a Coco on my block.) Blogger and baby namer extraordinaire dropped Phoenix from her list because it was getting popular in her supercool corner of LA: http://www.girlsgonechild.net/2011/05/baby-names-for-sale-never-used.html And if what they say about Utah is true? I need to hang out at a Salt Lake playground sometime soon …

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SilentOne January 6, 2013 at 6:02 AM

As someone from Utah, how about I give you a list of the names I know multiples of? Of kids, I mean. Not quite as good as listening at a playground and you won’t get the really creative stuff but it’s something. Also, my pool of names is not extremely large as most of the people in my neighborhood are of my grandparents’ generation.

Boys: Cole, Jack, Dallin, Aidan/Aiden, Noah, Brigham, Hyrum, Jackson, Isaac, Harrison
Girls: Brinley, Samantha
One of each: Austin/Austyn and Skylar

I don’t think the sex balance for shared names is quite as unbalanced as this makes it look. I think I just know more little boys than little girls.

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appellationmountain January 6, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Thank you, SilentOne! Brinley and Dallin seem like what I’ve heard called Utah names, and Brigham and Hyrum are LDS names, right? But most of the repeating names could repeat anywhere …

And I’m fascinated by how Skylar seems to be trending gender neutral. I was sure that one had gone girl!

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Sarah January 7, 2013 at 2:02 AM

I do not live in Utah, but has anyone else heard Tenley/Kenlee/Kenley for girls? I keep hearing these names.

SilentOne January 7, 2013 at 3:53 AM

Yes, Hyrum and Brigham were early church leaders. Dallin is the name of a current church leader so that’s an LDS name too, but I have no idea where his name originally came from. He was born and raised in Utah so it could have started out as a typical Utah invention. It didn’t become popular until he became prominent, which happened to be when Dallas and Dillon/Dylan were rising nationally. I actually didn’t realize that it wasn’t common everywhere until the last year or two.

If I’d included the “unique” names there might be a bit more specifically Utah flavor but I’d rather keep the privacy of the families of the really unusually-named kids. Either way, though, the national normals are more common than Utah style. In my area, anyway.

Sarah – I don’t recall ever hearing any of those names attached to an actual child but they wouldn’t surprise me.

Abigail February 1, 2013 at 8:42 PM

I’ve heard of at least two Kenley/Kinley’s born this year. I personally love Tenley–I know it was the name of a girl on the Bachelor… I’m in Texas if that helps!

Lorayne October 19, 2013 at 11:45 PM

I lived in Utah for 8 years in the 1970s. Now on the East Coast. There are LOTS of unusual Utah names. Some of them have even been pinned on my grandkids – for example, Bryton and Kaylie.

Speaking of Skylar … while watching BYU play football this afternoon, I noticed the Cougars have a player named Skyler Ridley (#17). He’s from California, but is almost “fer shure” LDS. Then of course there’s Taysom Hill (#4), the BYU Cougars quarterback. Another Utah name, no doubt. : )

Lyndsay January 5, 2013 at 11:57 AM

9, 8, 5, 3 and 2 are me.

9. If someone in my family, even someone I hardly know or have never met has used a name I wouldn’t use it. I mean my husband’s cousin’s sister-in-law named their baby Violette and now I probably wouldn’t use Violet even though we’ve only met them twice and in the future will see them max. once a year. I know it sounds crazy but it would just bother me knowing my kids name is duplicated in the same family. For instance my baby nephew is Jackson and a cousin used Jackson a couple weeks later. So my husband’s grandfather has two same age great-grandsons named Jackson. I just don’t like that.

8. It’s not so much about being unusual here, but names of people my age just sound boring and stale to me. I can’t imagine calling a baby Brian or Valerie. My nieces and nephews just got a new sister named Natalie and I can’t wrap my head around it. Every time I hear her name I think it should be the name of the mother. I realize it’s at it’s highest ranking ever now so I’m going to have to get used to it. And maybe it wasn’t popular for my age group but I knew lots of Natalies for some reason. (just looked it up and it was number 33 in California in 1985 compared to 58 nationally)

5. I would be bummed if my kids shared their name with classmates but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I think it’s pretty unlikely that will happen though.

3. This is my preference. I didn’t want names so out there that no one ever heard of them before, but I didn’t really want anyone to know anyone with their names. I was pretty successful here. With Dashiell though no one had ever heard of it except older people who knew of Dashiell Hammett. I thought it was a little more recognizable than it turned out to be. I preferred the way people reacted to Flynn’s name. Everyone knew it as a last name and seemed to find it really cool as a first. No one I know realized that it’s actually in use as a first name.

2. This one really drives me nuts. I think about it too much and it bothers me. I know Flynn sounds like Finn and Lynn. He’s six months old and I’ve already had to say more than once “No, it’s Flynn… with an F” which I didn’t really anticipate ahead of time.

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Diana January 6, 2013 at 11:02 PM

I just found out through a neighborhood listserv that there’s another woman in my neighborhood named Diana whose daughter has the same, not top 100 name as mine does. What are the chances?

I know what you mean about the “names being backwards” — whenever I watch that TV show up all night where the mom is Reagan and the kid is Amy, it seems so odd to me.

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katybug January 7, 2013 at 10:59 PM

I agree about #2–I have a Conrad and it never occurred to me how much it would get confused with Connor. Probably because I refused to discuss name choices in real life and didn’t say it to very many people beforehand…one downside to getting all your name advice from the internet :)

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Raquel Somatra January 5, 2013 at 11:38 AM

What a fantastic article. I feel like it should be required reading for soon-to-be parents.

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appellationmountain January 5, 2013 at 1:35 PM

Thanks!

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Jan K January 6, 2013 at 12:40 AM

I concur – great summary of today’s baby name scene for most people.

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SJ January 7, 2013 at 2:31 PM

I also agree! It’s unfortunate though, it seems my new found excitement for names and your website may be annoying to my expectant friends. I’ve stopped forwarding and “sharing” your articles allowing them to name create on their own. Perhaps you have felt similar feelings from your friends and family Abby? Do you make a conscious step back, allowing them their own naming experience? It was relatively easy for me to do. I then focused on the surprise of their name selectionsto come. The results were 3 for 3 in the top 100, 1 in your top 10 predictions for next year. Great names although I was hoping for something a little more unusual :D . Perhaps my unusual name choices freaked them out…

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Megan M. January 5, 2013 at 11:11 AM

I can definitely relate to #9, especially as a name nerd. If I know someone is going to use or has just used a name, it’s out. The others are a little harder for me to get behind. I had a popular name for kids born in the 80s, and even though there were other girls named Megan in my schools, we almost never ended up in the same class at the same time. No one ever had to call me “Megan T.” And as you pointed out, no one can be sure what names are going to “blow up” and which will remain underused.

I can’t get behind crazy spellings. Minor differences are fine, like Kaitlyn instead of Caitlin doesn’t make me roll my eyes. But Eighmei? No. No, no, please no! LOL I just visited my parents in Ohio and they had a birth announcement card on their fridge for a little girl Oliveah, and every time I looked at it, I wanted to say “Olive-ay-uh” because it looks like Nevaeh. It would take me a second to think, “no, it’s Olivia.”

I think oarents really want their baby’s name to say something about them, whether it’s “I’m cool” or “I’m classy” or whatever. They want people to be impressed when they hear their baby name. (And I’m not condemning anyone, because I had the same feelings!)

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Megan M. January 5, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Oops, meant *parents in that last paragraph.

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