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.
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 Problem. But 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.
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.
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.
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 …