Eight Things I’ve Learned About Baby Names as a Parent

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I started Appellation Mountain way back in January of 2008, when we were still in the actively-naming-human-beings part of parenthood.

Even though our kids are school-aged, I’m still learning quite a bit about what it means to choose baby names. Or make that people names, because my children have long since left babyhood in the rearview mirror!

Over the past eight years of blogging baby names – and ten years of raising human beings – I’ve learned quite a bit about how our naming choices play out over time.

Read on for eight of my favorite baby name truths.

Baby Name Truth #8: Kids don’t mind sharing names. Maybe because it happens less and less often.

Our son’s name is very common. (It ranked #15 the year he was born, and has been in the Top Ten since 2008.)

And yet, Alex has never had another Alex in his class. It took nine years before there was another Alex on a sports team.

There are other Alexes in his school, and at one point, he and another Alex were in the same after school group. Our son is named after his grandfather, so he’s always known he isn’t the only one.

But repetition – even among the most common names – is less common than ever before. Fifty years ago, more than four out of every 100 boys was named Michael, another four were John, and at least three would be David, James, and Robert. That’s a lot of repetition – close to 20% of all boys received one of the Top Five names!

In 2014, the most popular boy name was given to fewer than one out of every newborn boys. To get to more than 19% of all newborn boys, you’d have to tally up 27 separate names.

Parents report dissatisfaction with too-common names. (“I’m still one of three Jennifers in my office.”) They sometimes go to great lengths to avoid repetition.

It represents a sea change. Once, we gave our children the same names as their cousins and our neighbors’ kids. Because it was family tradition. Because we figured we’d call one girl Mary Beth and the other Mary Jo. Because it just plain didn’t matter back then if your husband’s oldest friend had a son named John David, too.

Nowadays we tend to cross Logan off our list if our co-worker has grandson named Logan. Or maybe it feels awkward to choose Isaiah when you learn it’s your friend’s number one name for a son – even though she’s expecting her third girl.

Strange things happen, so your Ava might have another Ava in her class. Or even two. But when it does happen, kids don’t seem to mind.

Baby Name Truth #7: Diversity in naming means that unusual names don’t necessarily stand out.

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Parents often hesitate before choosing an unusual name. Will Ireland be teased? Will Bridger wish you’d named him Brayden instead?

Every child is different, but my observation is that most children don’t have a good sense of which names are unusual. As fewer kids share their first names, Avery is just as much of a stand-out as Avalon.

It’s getting more difficult for adults to tell, too. It’s always been easy to get caught in the Myth of the Normal Name. I’ve heard Top Ten favorites like Mason and Ava called weird. I suppose they are – if you were naming your babies back in the 1970s.

But it also becomes a challenge for parents choosing names. Just a few years ago, Atlas was seldom heard. In fact, I used it for the title of this post: In Defense of Atlas and Apple: Ten Reasons Unusual Names Aren’t a ProblemBut then Atlas went mainstream – and quickly!

It’s tough to know which on-trend names will stay under the radar, and which will become tomorrow’s favorites.

So greater diversity in naming makes unusual names easier to wear – and harder to find!

Baby Name Truth #6: Automatic nicknaming is a thing of the past, though nicknames remain in use.

Once upon a time, you might have introduced yourself as William, only to have others automatically call you Bill. It would have been surprising to discover that someone was just Tom or just Danny or just Jo, not Thomas or Daniel or Joanne or Josephine or Joan.

Over the last decade or so, that’s changed dramatically. Plenty of kids are Isabella and Sebastian, not Bella or Seb, thanks. And while we still call our kiddos Sweetie and Pumpkin, it’s less common for parents to choose a name with a specific nickname in mind.

We’ve embraced names that don’t easily or obviously shorten, like Hudson and Harper. And we’ve written Kate and Jake on the birth certificate, seeing them as distinctly different names from Katherine and Jacob.

What does this mean for parents? It’s fine to name your kiddo just Charlie.

It’s still possible to name your son Charles and choose an offbeat nickname. Or to insist on Charles.

And yet, even if the world won’t automatically assume that your son Charles must be Charlie or Chuck or Chaz, it’s worth recognizing that Charles could come home from band camp or lacrosse practice answering to your least favorite form of the name.

Adults might not assume that your Ignatius is an Iggy, but nothing says that he won’t embrace the nickname.

Or not. But it won’t happen without someone deciding that it works.

Baby Name Truth #5: There’s general baby name popularity, and then there’s popularity in your circle.

Until my kids started school, I’d never met a Jayden. We still know only one Ava.

We know more than one Zachary and Max, too many Emmas to count. Henry and Oliver and Caroline repeat. So does Sam. And there are several Lily-names and Maddie-names on our Christmas card list. We know more than one John Paul, but then, we’re Catholic.

But no Jacobs. No Brooklyns or Scarletts.

Repeat the exercise, and I bet you’ll find that names repeat. That’s because the names we love are tied to lots of factors – our ages, where we live, our educational and professional backgrounds. Our colleagues and neighbors often share the same name style. Our oldest friends might, too, or maybe you’ve moved halfway across the country and are surprised at how little overlap there is between your kids’ names and your former BFFs’ kiddos.

In other words, you can obsess over popularity, only to realize that Phoenix is top name in your kiddo’s nursery school.

Baby Name Truth #4: You’re going to have to spell your child’s name.

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A few years ago, I was ordering a personalized gift for a little Lillian. Her parents were calling her Lily, but I hadn’t seen it spelled. Should I have “Lily” embroidered? I erred on the side of caution and stuck with Lillian. Good thing, too, because she’s Lilly. Two Ls. Less common, but Lilly is a perfectly valid way to spell the name.

Even if you’ve used the most common spelling of a name, expect to be asked to spell it. Chloe could be Khloe. Zoey is more popular than Zoe. I’ve met a Dillon – it’s a family name – and a Braeden – his parents weren’t going for different. They assumed it was the logical spelling.

This means there’s some freedom to spelling your child’s name. Prefer Isobel to Isabelle? No reason not to use it!

I’m pretty good at remembering spellings, but some names do trip me up. Is my daughter’s friend Skylar or Skyler? It’s -ar, but I have to look it up every. single. time.

As for my daughter, Clio? It bothers me very little when her name is spelled Cleo, but that’s because I’m too busy explaining that her name isn’t Chloe. But that’s another point …

Baby Name Truth #3: Adults judge baby names. Kids? Not so much.

One of the difficult things about discussing baby names is how much we layer on to the choice. We call them stripper names or ghetto, ask who would give such an ugly granny name to a sweet baby.  We predict that the unborn children will hate their name and their parents, too.

Whether your favorites are Nevaeh or Gertrude, or somewhere in between, there’s someone who hates your name. No, seriously. Hates it. And probably judges you as a parent because you chose it. I have a handful of names that I actively dislike, mostly for completely irrational reasons.

Some years ago, a dad I knew had just named his daughter Maeve. Great name, I (sincerely) told him, then asked how they chose it. His explanation ended with this zinger: “We figure if she’s a pop star, she can choose her own stage name.”

We didn’t know each other well at the time. It was entirely possible that I had kids of my own called Britney and Beyonce. Except, well, we were colleagues in an academic setting. It was pretty unlikely that I’d have kiddos with pop star-inspired names. (My colleagues’ kids names at the time: Theodore, Charlie, Marie, Maya, Maggie.)

My children still seem completely unaware of all these signals. I suppose that’s part of Baby Name Truth #7. Because most children have names that are one-of-one, it’s harder to pigeonhole other children and easier to treat every name as just that – a name, rather than a marker of the parents’ socio-economic, racial, educational, and political backgrounds.

A disclaimer: we’ve always lived in urban areas. I’m less certain what this feels like if you’re a Dasani or a Milagros whose family has just moved to some place less diverse. But where would that be? Twenty years ago, one of my cousins – who has never left the tiny Pennsylvania town where our parents were born in the 1940s – named his son Dallas. Dallas! Names are changing everywhere.

Baby Name Truth #2: Gender neutral names are less of a problem than in the past.

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Conventional wisdom holds that it’s fun, edgy, and cool to be a girl with a boy name. The star soccer player Alexandra who goes by Alex. The supermodel born Sarah Rhodes Smith who dropped her first name to be just Rhodes Smith professionally. All those Southern belles with family names like Lanier and Sedley.

But a boy named Sue? There’s a song about that.

Parents often go to great lengths to avoid names that might “go girl.”

And yet, when the kids themselves share names, it doesn’t seem to be a source of heartache. My kids have known boys and girls named Jordan, Avery, and Micah. Children seem to accept that there some names can be used for boys or girls.

A twist: my son insisted that we stop calling him Aly, at least in public. It was a “girl name.” The boy who told him this? His name is Delaney. Our son is now Alex, and resists all of my (frequent) attempts to re-nickname him. So I’m wrong, right? It’s an issue.

Except that, since then, we’ve been in plenty of settings where there’s a girl Alex and a boy Alex. And this troubles him none.

It makes me think that the more gender neutral names are in use, the more acceptable it will be to have – and bestow – gender neutral names. Get ready for a generation of Charlies.

Baby Name Truth #1: Lots of names … or just a few?

I’m captivated by Kelli Brady’s annual Playground Analysis, and mention it frequently. In brief, Kelli tallies up the alternate spellings of a name to see what’s really the most popular. Jackson, Jaxon, and Jaxson – all Top 100 names – easily topple reported #1, Noah.

But it’s not that simple. Jackson is a form of John, a traditional name that still wields more influence that we might recognize.

And then there are unrelated names with similar sounds. Think Mia, Maya, and Mila. All of those -aydens. Or the many Maddies, though they’re really Madison, Madelyn, or Madeline.

It can make the most unusual name seem ordinary. Take Clio. Our daughter has been called Chloe by people who ought to know her name – a lovely aunt who happens to be a teacher, the assistant director of her child care center. Trouble was that they knew lots of little girls – and those little girls were Chloe, not Clio. Of course the names are close. And yet, I didn’t really think about the fact that Chloe was a Top Ten name the year Clio was born.

Often a whole cluster of names climbs at the same time: the Cora names, or the Ottos.

And so we work very hard to come up with meaningful names that don’t repeat … only to realize that all of our children’s names are similar, even if they’re not the same.

Are there any of these truths that you disagree with? Are there any other that you’d add to this list? If you’re a parent, are there things about names that have surprised you?

P.S. The pictures throughout are my kids! Two of the three human beings I’ve named. The third one is, well, me. But that’s a story for another day …

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19 Comments

Speaking of having to spell your child’s name, I figured Arthur was foolproof until my stepdad asked if we were spelling our son’s name with a “u” or an “e”..

I’m a GenXer and grew up in a part of the country where families still had 6+ kids. In high school, I had classmates (all middle or younger kids in their respective families) named Linda, Edna, and Bruce. These names weren’t really a problem, except that everyone (once they got into the workforce) assumed that they were 10+ years older than they really are.

I laughed out loud at crossing Logan off the list because a co-worker’s grandson has that name. It’s so true! It’s like we are looking for any excuse (even if it’s comically insignificant) to just completely dismiss names we love. As if the reasons we love the name couldn’t possibly counterbalance the fact that my bestfriend’s neighbor had a mean dog with that name….

I also wish people would really let the reality about name popularity sink in. Truly let it sink into their brains and shift their paradigms. At this point if you’ve been on a name forum, you’ve read a post logically breaking down what name popularity means in 2017 terms and yet everyday I still see people legitimately believing their daughter could be one of 5 Junipers in a class or one of 4 Atticuses. Literally. Will. Never. Happen.

Oh and @Havoye, I love your prom dress analogy!

A lot of people bring up the argument that children do not really judge each other’s names and that it’s something we only deal with from other adults. This is only sort of true. Often children seem more open minded than they really are because they are non-judgmental about things we would fixate on, and because of the generational rift, we don’t anticipate the areas in which they develope cultural bias. Patil or Tran may seem like a perfectly normal name to a 6 year old but that doesn’t mean they won’t be bemused by a classmate named Elmo or Crank.
Also just because most younger children haven’t developed the cultural literacy to form judgments or character assumptions about a person’s name doesn’t mean they are non-judgmental at heart. that level of discrimination developes in people later on. None of us would thought Shiraz or Cristal was a tacky name in primary School, but by the time we were all in high school we would have developed certain associations about such names and unconsciously judged our peers based on that. Another assumption that irks me is people assuming children born today will be completely ignorant of cultural references from before their life time. I wasn’t around for the french revolution but I understand how the name Antoinette could be associated with opulence and tragedy. If you name your kid Ghostbuster they aren’t safe from a ‘wtf were your parents thinking’ reaction from peers simply because the films came out before the kids were born.
Having said that I don’t think we can really anticipate what judgmental reactions future generations will develope, we just have to accept that maybe 20 years from now, people will associate Esme or Lyra with mean popular girls or whatever and that’s just an area of control we need to accept is out of our reach.

I’m at the next point in life where my kids will eventually be parents naming their own babies. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if they choose a name I really have strong feelings of “yuck that’s a horrible name” for, they will never know because, I will say the agreeable positives of yeah, right and nice that they will want to hear about the name they chose, but I will never call gramma’s little star, sunshine, rosebud, daisy, treasure, etc by that name except for legal purposes and most likely no one will ever notice as all grandchildren deserve a special nickname from gramma so even the grandchildren’s whose names I might like won’t be left out. lol Yes I know what ever the name maybe might grow on me like mold, which actually was a name once upon a time. I read a historical account about a Lady Molde, who had no teeth and very little hair, but had once been a great beauty. Beauty another great nickname… lol

This is a great post, and I am nodding along with many of the comments. I’m willing to bet you’ve learned even more than this, enough for a follow-up post some day!

I see Truths #1 and #7 as somewhat interrelated: there is more diversity today than in the past, but because so many of the names being used share similar characteristics or follow the same trends, they all tend to blend together somewhat (at least to me), and they will certainly come to be associated with this generation just as much as the smaller pools of names of the past defined previous generations. The best analogy I can come up with is the way my friends and I all fussed over every detail of what we’d wear to the prom, down to the shoes, hairdo, jewelry, corsage etc., each of us striving to create our own unique look. When you look at the group photos of us, there is indeed diversity in terms of dress length and style, some wearing their hair up and others down, some more sparkly/frilly than others, but overall there is a kind of uniformity and coherence, and you can definitely tell that we graduated in 1991 rather than in 2015. 🙂

On the nickname thing, I think in the past when you’d have multiple Williams, Johns or Marys in the same class or neighbourhood, turning to last names for nickname inspiration was more common, and people also went by nicknames completely unrelated to their given names. I wonder if that practice will continue. I suspect nicknaming will always be around but just happen differently – as young people create their online identities they often take on a ‘screen name’ that is sometimes a riff on their real given name or surname.

If you don’t mind, I’ll offer a couple of things I’ve learned about baby names as a parent (which you’ve probably already mentioned in previous posts):

– In the age of Google, it is not always a good thing to bestow an unusual name on your child. There are benefits to being one of many Emma or Noah Lastnames. Furthermore, if you give your child an obscure name there is the risk that some future celebrity or notorious politician or public figure will have that name and your kid will be linked in people’s minds to that person, for better or worse. It’s a small risk but worth considering, I think.

– English speakers for the most part cannot pronounce French names, so be prepared for approximations if you decide to use one (this surely applies to names with other non-English linguistic origins as well). I don’t see this as a failing – I have trouble pronouncing many Chinese names because of my lack of familiarity with the sounds in the source language – but if you live in the US or Canada it’s best to make sure you don’t hate the most common English pronunciation of your child’s name before choosing it.

I really like that you used the term ‘people names’ – when you think about it it’s very odd that we always talk about baby names, when in reality you’re naming a person who will spend only a tiny portion of his or her life as a baby. 😀

I think you only left out one rule: whatever you pick your parents will hate. I think this is because naming style is generational. Of the names I picked out for my seven kids, my mom only truly likes Oskar. She likes Oskar’s name because his middle is John (my mom’s dad’s name) and we used the German spelling to honor my German heritage (my mother’s side of the family.) She says her kids pick ridiculous names (the woman has 45 grandkids and only likes a handful of the names) and we roll our eyes because my brother named Wyatt is 30. Talk about being WAY ahead of the times. She also used Megan and Kayli long before they were popular as well. She was just as outlandish in her day but refuses to acknowledge it. 🙂

Great post, Abby!

I’ve found all these things to be true too, except #6 – I think it’s written into the Australian constitution that everyone gets a nickname, and people who refuse them are put on some sort of government watch-list.

HA! LOVE that Australians are such big nicknamers, Anna! Yet another reason I think I would love Australia! 🙂

The thing I have learned is that compromise is ok. You don’t have to *love* the name because you will love the child and grow to see the name as theirs.

Also the name benefits and burdens will be yours for ten years and the child’s for life which is a great reason to rethink frogsbottom buttercup the third even if it is a family name and tremendously fashionable to boot.

Oh and my son came home crying one day that the kids were teasing him because his name is ‘weird’ – the name? ‘James’, the bully’s name? ‘[email protected]’ True story :). Names have changed since the eighties.

This post was comforting. Especially #5. We’re expecting our fifth child, and the name we have in the “first choice” spot is part of a more popular conglomerate, even though the name itself is rare. (Think Coral vs. Cora, Nora, Eleanore, etc.)
I did grow up with a popular name, but as you said in #1, kids don’t mind sharing… although, one other ‘Melissa’ was fine–five in the same class, not so much!
And, like you’ve stated in other posts, popularity now is not the same as popularity in the 1950s (when EVERY girl seemed to be Mary or Linda or Sue or Barbara). That’s a comfort, too!

Great post! I think sounds rise and fall, which is why, as you said, you see whole families of names coming up, like Cora, and the Mia, Maya, Mila phenomenon. The popularity of Madeline/Madison/Addison/Adelyn/Evelyn/Allison is all related. You also see a lot of “ends in N” for boys, not just the -aydens, but all the -sons, too. “Ends in -ee” is a really popular sound for girls, with a lot of names that in previous generations would be acceptable only as nicknames, from Maddie and Ellie and Maggie to full, nicknamey names like Riley and Kylie.

My kid’s name was in the 150s when I gave it to her 5 years ago (though it was in the top 50 in my state), and is well in the top 100 now, but we never see it, even when I know that is the kid’s name, because almost everyone who uses it gives their child one of two very popular nicknames that never stuck on her. (One of the nicknames is a top name in its own right). But it doesn’t stop everyone from trying to shorten my child’s name. She doesn’t want it shortened, for the time being. As the daughter and best friend of two Elizabeths who were called Liz against their wills, I’m glad people are starting to respect people’s right to nickname self-determination.

My new baby has a much rarer name, but it’s one with an extremely popular sound and a ready nickname that I deeply dislike but is even more popular. I freely admit that I hope she doesn’t like that nickname, and I discourage friends and family from using it on her. .

Re #2, parents avoid “girly” names for boys and moan every time a girl “steals” a name from the boys’ side because of our sexist patriarchal society. If the worst thing you can call a boy is a girl, then what does that teach them about girls?? /rant

Agreed. And sigh.

And, of course, it’s conversations like these that remind me that baby names aren’t *all* fluff. They reflect individuals parents’ hopes, and our society’s challenges, in so many unexpected ways.

I dislike boy names on girls and vice versa largely because I like clarity. I don’t think boys are better than girls any more than I’d assume Timothy is better than Thomas or Lydia is better than Lynda, but I wouldn’t want to put the wrong of any of those on my job application cover letter (the event that pushed me most strongly to prefer clearly gendered names was trying to determine whether to use Mr. or Ms. when addressing one of those to an individual with an ambiguously gendered name).

Anyway, just saying that internalized sexism isn’t the only reason for avoidance/moaning.

Fair point, SilentOne. My rule of thumb has always been this: gender neutral first, clearly gendered middle. For that reason.

Though, FWIW, foreign names really knock this sideways. You’d think Abby wouldn’t EVER be confusing, but for a few years, i had a (male) colleague called Abi. Apparently, Abi- names are common in Yoruba, and my colleague was born in Nigeria, where lots of men answer to Abi. (I’ve come across a few more since, but then, I’ve been looking for them.)