My parents’ worn-out baby name dictionary was one of the first books I read. Wait, make that constantly paged through, committed to memory, used as the basis of a life-long obsession and eventual career path.
The book is Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule. (Isn’t that a great name? The queen who rules …) The copy I grew up with fell apart, but fate brought me another. It indicates that the book was first published in 1963, and had enjoyed its 40th printing as of 1981.
This bestselling book includes over 6,500 names. And even those 6,500 represent only a drop in the ocean. I discover new-to-me names nearly every day. That’s sort of shocking, right? The number of potential baby names is infinite.
And many parents who have tried to find a name for their child report that there aren’t any. None! All the good ones are taken. Nothing works. They’ve reached the end of every baby name book, website, and blog list.
The funny thing? In many ways, these parents are right!
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons that, even in a galaxy of thousands upon thousands of possibilities, there really aren’t that many baby names to consider.
Fewer Baby Names: Multiple Spellings
Are Jackson, Jaxon, and Jaxson three names, or one? I think they’re very different in feel, but it’s tough to argue that Jaxson and Jackson are completely different names.
Ditto Adalynn, Adalyn, Adelyn, Adelynn, Addilyn, Adilynn, and Addilynn. And while I’ll concede that Adeline and Adaline might be pronounced differently, they might not.
In some cases, parents obviously got creative with a name’s spelling. The new spelling attempts to make the name stand out. I can’t explain why I love the idea of Allison spelled Alicyn. But I do.
Whether you love a creative spelling or find them tortured, variant spellings have always been around. Rarely can we declare one spelling “right” and the others not.
What we do know is this: combine spellings, and there are many fewer names in the current Top 1000. The Adelyns alone cut the list to 993 or 991, depending on your method. There are 8 Madelyns and 4 Maddisons, 3 Mackenzies, 2 Annabelles, 3 each of Lily, Zoey, and Leah. The list just gets smaller and smaller.
Fewer Baby Names: Shared Sounds
I love to talk about Name Families, but in some ways, they’re part of the problem.
The rise of Lucy opens the door to Louis for boys, Louisa for girls, and Lou for both. But is there a big difference between Lucy and Lucille? How ’bout Lucy and Lucia?
There are thirteen Lily names in the current Top 1000. Boys’ names rhyming with Aiden have dominated recent baby naming trends. Even though Hayden and Lilia are great names, I can understand parents feeling like they’re too common – even if they’ve never met a child by the actual name.
Fewer Baby Names: Fading Names
Some parents will blithely choose names without regard for popularity. They’ll name their kids after Aunt Denise or Grandpa Darrell, even if those names are teetering on the edge of extinction.
This gets confusing, because a great many parents will say that they chose Sophia or Liam because they wanted a name that felt timeless instead of trendy. But while Sophia and Liam have history aplenty, they are currently very popular baby names.
If you look at the data, around half of the names in the US Top 1000 fall and around half rise every year. Some of those falls translate to dramatic plummets, often reserved for names like Kaylynn that do feel trendy.
More of the falling names simply feel dated, a definition that shifts from person to person. But it does make great names – even traditional names with a long history of use – feel unwearable today.
The baby on Bones is called Christine, after her grandmother. If I met a newborn Jeffrey, I’d guess he was a junior.
They’re not bad names; they’re just off-cycle. But rule out those choices and your list gets even smaller. And remember – around half the name in the US Top 1000 fall every year. If even 25% of those falling names feel too dated for you to consider, that’s 250 names off the list.
Fewer Baby Names: Culture Mismatch
There have always been names in the US Top 1000 that reflect different linguistic and cultural traditions in our country.
Some of those names are well-established. José has never left the US Top 1000. Others, like Irish heritage pick Maeve, are relative newcomers.
But even if you love Irish names or Spanish names, relatively few families will make these choices without a tie to the language or culture.
Not every name will feel like yours, and that means letting go of even more potential names for your child.
Fewer Baby Names: The Bad News
Parents tend to want the same thing: a name that’s not too common, not too out-there. They prefer something easy to spell and pronounce. Hopefully many people will like the name. They’re avoiding trendy names, and they’re not braving 1960s revivals, either.
Every family’s preferences are a little difference: nickname-proof or nickname-rich, clearly gendered or unisex, rooted in history or modern modern, maybe with ties to a particular heritage. But we tend to layer our style preferences over a similar framework.
The outcome? Many fewer baby names to choose from! Suddenly the list of infinite options shrinks to just a few dozen.
But it’s not necessarily all doom and gloom.
Fewer Baby Names: The Good News
It can be overwhelming to look at lists and lists of possibilities. But the fact that there are fewer baby names than it first appears can be freeing.
That’s because your shortlist actually might be pretty short.
Imagine this: you’re looking for a name for your daughter. You’d like something short, nickname-proof but not a nickname, and not in the Top 100 – but definitely an easily recognized name, preferably with an obvious spelling. You swoon over vintage names, but only if they seem right for a girl born in 2016.
Ivy, Rose, Elise, Esther, Tessa, Iris, Georgia, Gemma, Olive, Lena, June, Jane, Phoebe, Ruth, Vera, Ada, Daphne, Helen, Joy, and Willa are probably a pretty good starting list. I could double it – maybe even triple it! But it will never reach thousands of names.
If you can draw the criteria for the kind of names you love, chances are good that you’ll find the right name for your child – waiting on a very short list.
And if you draw those criteria, but don’t find The Name, that’s a good signal to discuss your priorities in choosing a name. Maybe it’s time to embrace that longtime favorite that feels too popular. Or to consider a name that feels bolder than you might have imagined.
What do you think? Do you agree there actually are fewer baby names to consider – even as it looks like the list is massive? Or do you think that it’s truly difficult to narrow down specific criteria to create the shortlist in the first place?