Courageous Baby NamingWhat is courageous baby naming?

It’s using the name you love, even though your mom hates it and your sister insists your child will hate you for choosing it. It’s picking a name that feels right to you and your partner, even if it’s beyond the Top 1000, tough to spell or pronounce, or maybe not even really exactly a name at all. Or it might mean sticking with the classics and the Top 100, when others are telling you that those names are dull, dull, dull. Courageous baby naming means being true to yourself, even when that’s hard.

These are my five rules for courageous baby naming.


I stumble across rules for naming children all the time. Sing along with me: no invented names, spell things correctly, use names for the appropriate gender … and on and on and on.

But language is slippery, and rarely obeys our efforts to put it into a neat little box. The same person who insists that names must have roots and be spelled properly will love Ryan (a name new to the US Top 1000 in the 1940s) and Connor (a 1980s debut … and didn’t the single ‘n’ spelling come first?)

Even the practical guidelines fail us. We all know you shouldn’t pair a single-syllable first name with a single-syllable surname … except Brad Pitt, Mae West, and Frank Lloyd Wright will disagree.

And often the so-called rules feel a little bit snobbish. If it’s okay to name a baby for your favorite artist, why not a favorite athlete? If you can take inspiration from a literary character, shouldn’t television and movies be potential sources of inspiration, too?

Yes, you should avoid naming your son Asher Stephen if your surname is Smith. I truly do think Lucifer is off-limits, and Adolf, too. But most so-called rules are really just a way of expressing our preferences. And those are personal, specific, and certainly the kind of rules meant to be broken.


We live in the Information Age. The tech in our pockets outstrips the computers that NASA used to put a man on the moon. And we use it – constantly – to look up everything from movie times to medical symptoms to baby names.

This sounds like a good thing except if you’re coming up empty. Because expectant parents can read through thousands – no, really thousands – of possible names and still feel like nothing is quite right. Options are great, but we can drown in a sea of choices.

Courageous baby naming can mean putting down the name dictionary, or stepping away from the online database. Because the perfect name might not be waiting on list. Despite writing about baby names for over a decade, new names surprise me all the time – it’s simply not possible to catch ’em all.

Consider choices from your family tree, or your heritage. Look to favorite books and other works of fiction. Explore history, mythology, and religious texts that mean something to you. And, of course, the dictionary can be your friend, too, especially in our age of River and Lily, Maverick and Promise.

If the big ol’ book or the database is failing you, step away from the conventional lists, and source a name from elsewhere in the world. You can always Google it later.


You have to be who you are.

This is a good news/bad news situation. If you’re a super outdoorsy family, then names like Canyon and Cypress make all the sense in the world. If you live in an edgy urban neighborhood in Brooklyn or LA, then you might have more naming freedom than a family in the ‘burbs. Families in the Western US name differently than those in the South. (John remains the #1 name in Mississippi, but in South Dakota? It’s Grayson.)

While our lives change – often dramatically – after we have children, parenthood won’t necessarily transform our essential selves. If you feel like a name is a little too out-there – or far too vanilla – then trust that feeling.

You’re not naming against some universal yardstick of what makes a good name. You’re welcoming a new member of your family – and finding a style that fits your tribe matters most of all.

I know a lovely, stylish mom who always looks like she just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. Her son’s name? Jack. It’s what I would’ve chosen for her, too. And that hippie mama in the Birkenstocks? Or course her sweet daughter is Marigold. Easy to say, hard to do, but I’ll say it anyhow: be true to you.

A note about grandparents: I’ve often thought that we discover who are children truly are at two moments: when they introduce us to the person they want to spend their lives with, and when they become parents themselves. Smaller moments happen over the years, of course. But recognize that you’re not necessarily conforming to your family of origin’s ideas about who you are – it’s down to you and your partner in parenting. And that can be painful. “You can’t name my grandchild THAT” is sometimes proxy for all sorts of anxieties. It’s tricky, but try your best to honor the relationship, and use the name you love.


Maybe you’re a daring namer, the kind who frets that Rocket has gone mainstream or doesn’t bat an eyelash at the thought of spelling and pronouncing Saoirse time after time.

But it’s natural to wonder if your child will feel the same. After all, our kids often turn out very much our opposites. And so if you’re torn between the names you love and the ones that feel a little more neutral? Build in some balance. A more traditional middle name can anchor a bold first, and a sparky middle can make that classic, family first feel like your child’s own.

I’ll suggest Annabelle Paris over Annabelle Rose any day, but Paris Eleanor seems like a stronger choice than Paris Dior.

Wait, wait, you protest. Isn’t courageous baby naming all about being our authentic selves? What if I can’t imagine choosing any Top 1000 name, much less a classic for my kiddo’s middle? Balance doesn’t mean everyone has to have the middle name William or Elizabeth. It means recognizing that Moon Unit is a name that offers no where to hide, but Mathilda Plum mixes the daring and the quirky, but offers lots of options. (As it happens, Mathilda Plum is the name of Moon Unit Zappa’s daughter.)


When you first tell your mom or your brother or your best friend that you’re naming your baby ANY name, it often feels foreign. Bananas, even. But know that names grow.

So often, someone says, “I couldn’t believe they named my granddaughter Zinnia, but now it suits her so well.” Or “Ignatius seemed like such a big name for a baby, but it’s just perfect on him.” And then there’s one of my favorites: “Everyone thought Luna/Maverick/Aria/Lincoln was a weird name when we chose it, but now you hear it everywhere.”

Believe your child will grow into the name you choose. Be optimistic that your loved ones will get used to the name – or even come to love it. And recognize that names are subject to trends, just like so many other things. Many names that raise eyebrows among adults end up feeling perfectly reasonable, even mainstream, to their peers.

If you’re confident in the name you’ve chosen, trust time to smooth some of the rough edges.

What advice would you give for courageous baby naming? Have you ever been talked out of using a favorite name – or been glad that you went with the name you loved?


About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I have picked a full name for my baby girl
    But now I am second guessing the middle name

    We love the name Lilly
    But I am second guessing the middle name we had picked

    Lilly Elizabeth
    Lilly Bell
    Lilly Ann
    Is it normal to have the name completely in your head but still second guess it
    I have recently found that lilly is a nickname for Elizabeth?

    1. Lilly is great! I wouldn’t sweat the whole Lilly/Elizabeth connection *too* much. Yes, the connection is there. But almost no one knows about it. And even when you do learn about it, well, it doesn’t feel obvious, right? Lilly has been an independent name for ages.

      FWIW, Lilly Belle is a name stepped in Disney history. If you’re a fan, that’s worth considering. (Details here.)

      Lilly Ann is fine, but … it’s very short. Unless your surname is very long, I think Lilly Elizabeth has more presence. Or … Lilly Isabelle if you’re drawn to the Bell sound?

  2. Great post, but I would add a sixth rule: check your motives. Don’t get me wrong, I am practically the Evel Knievil of baby names (or at least I will be, assuming I have children and get my way). But I can’t help but remember that recent post about the dad that picked the middle name Flip for his son and now years later the kid is embarrassed by it, because it seemed that his motivation was, “This name is going to make my kid sooooo popular!” That type of thinking really rubs me the wrong way. I love daring names, but I have a problem with it when it’s more about eliciting a certain reaction and not actually about being true to yourself, you know?

    Also, just so you know, this is Isadora Vega formerly from Bewitching Names. I have a new blog now (not name related), so that’s why this signature is unfamiliar.

  3. This was an excellent post, Abby.

    We’ve embraced your advice about keeping a balance of traditional and unusual by giving the kids conventional nicknames to accompany their “wild” full names… why? For the very practical reason that great-grandma doesn’t WANT to cringe when her friends at the senior center crack a joke about her new grandbaby’s moniker. She wants to just beam with joy when she shows off pictures, not fend off snickery comments like, “Where’d they find THAT name? Is it from a comic book or something?”

    It makes it easier for everyone… which makes it easier for our kids.

  4. We followed your advice rather well! Just named our tenth kid Kn0x Mich@el. Lots of people have asked where we got the name, instead of the usual “so sweet!”. I’m happy to tell them that it’s a nod to my dad’s family and fun with an x since he’s our tenth. That’s just our vibe. We have a M@verick Ab€l, too. Both boys got their names well.
    Great post!

  5. So true! Thanks for the wise naming advise Abby! We are lucky to live in a naming time where almost anything goes, more so than past generations I think.. But it’s still important to weigh our name-loves with some consideration. When naming my kids I always ask myself – 1) Do I love it? 2) Does my husband love it? 3) would I like to be called this name? 4) do I like it for baby, child, and adult name? (Some names I love on adorable babies but not so much on an adult)..

    Bottom line- go with your heart (try not to overthink it) and choose a name you love. 🙂

    1. Prepare for company!

      We picked a name that’s been holding steady in the 400s, but is apparently more popular in our local area. I had worked in schools for years and never heard it, but now we have a neighbor and know a couple other kiddos with the same name. You never know who else is going to be the same kind of courageous!

  6. This was a really lovely, wise, compassionate article, Thanks Abby! I’m the first to admit I’m opinionated about names, but that doesn’t mean I’d be brave if it came to the point of actually bestowing one on a real baby… Also, it can be discouraging when the majority of name nerds seem to dislike a style you like e.g. I love assonance and (non-initial) alliteration between first and middle names (DyLan PtoLemy) and in sibling sets (ARiadNe and SeReN), but a lot seem to find it cheesy; I prefer long names and think two long names together sounds great (Hermione Ceridwen) but many say it’s Too Much Name; I like the sing-song rhythm when surname and first share a syllable count (Jeremy Martinez) but apparently that’s a no-no; picking a name by its sound rather than meaning or family ties seems looked down on in the name nerd community etc etc…

    My point is, we all really need to reminded to back our own taste sometimes and I love that you take such a non-judgmental attitude to naming. Here’s to No Rules! 😉

  7. Keep the name a surprise until the baby arrives. Relatives and friends are MUCH less likely to say disparaging things about the name once it’s a done deal and attached to such cute baby. That was my mom’s advice to me. She can judgmental about names, so maybe she was saying us from herself;)
    This advice has worked well in our extended family too. I probably would’ve raised an eyebrow and commented about my nieces’ names had I heard them prior to birth. But now a realize that their unique names are lovely and suit them and their family perfectly.