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.
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. Thayer, Zinnia, 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 Boheme. Her 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?