Baby by M Glasgow via Flickr

While I can’t prove this statistically, it appears that there are more given names in use circa 2012 than ever before, at least in the English-speaking world. And while I can’t tally the total number of names in use, anyone can see that the number of children receiving the most popular names – be they Top Ten or Top 1000 – has steadily declined over the years. This series set out to answer the question why.

Part I focused on what we have less of circa 2012: less pressure to Anglicize, to follow family or cultural traditions, or to put a formal name on the birth certificate.

Part II talked about the environment in which modern parents choose names: the pressure to avoid duplication, the access to tons of information, and the familiarity with naming extremes that make a slightly different name feel perfectly normal.

But those are both about boundaries – those that no longer exist, and the new ones that we’ve imposed.

What helps us zero in on the actual names we choose? Here are four thoughts about what we’re searching for when we choose a baby name these days.

4. We search for style.

It might sound frivolous to search for a stylish name, but why? In our age of Pinterest and Apartment Therapy, HGTV and Project Runway, we’re style-focused well before we become parents. It might not seem noble to search for something that is attractive, but it is perfectly natural.

And let’s face it – while we often dismiss parents who pick names like Kayleigh and Kayden because they’re cute, those of us who prefer Hazel and Rufus aren’t exempt. We simply have different ideas about style.

One of my favorite Seth Godin quotes is “antelopes don’t have hobbies.” The ability to be thoughtful about the clothes we wear and the homes we inhabit is a signal that we are fortunate to live in a time of abundance. Searching for a name that reflects our personal style is just another extension of our interest in many things that reflect voluntary choice, from paint colors to footwear.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that names have come in and out of style over the centuries, but I suspect that parents articulating the desire for a stylish name is relatively new. Instead of language changes or other external pressures, names now change because of our ability to choose.

There’s also something tremendously equalizing in this style quest. Even royal parents draw the line at four or five given names, of which only one is ever used. And just as hiring the Novogratz or Rachel Zoe doesn’t really substitute for personal style, no amount of expertise can stand in for a real knack for naming. Remember the baby name ultimately chosen by that couple who hired Rosie Pope? Yeah, me neither.

3. We search for meaning.

It’s the flip side of #4, but it is possible because of the same freedom that allows us to favor stylish names over those that would, say, curry favor with the reigning monarch.

You might have grown up Jessica, a Baptist in the ‘burbs, but now you’re an agnostic vegan in a college town. Maybe you’re Brian and Stacey, and even though you’re both cradle Catholics, you always wished that your names better reflected your faith. Either way, you’re free to search for a name that reflects the values by which you intend to raise your children.

Or not. Names can be just as meaning-free as you wish. Parents sometimes talk about a name “that can allow her to grow up to be anything” when they choose a classic like Elizabeth. In some ways, they’re going meaning-free … but in another way, that’s a meaningful choice, too.

Ethnicity is also voluntary in 2012. I’ve met plenty of kids with very Irish given names – but a surname that is anything but. One grandparent from the Emerald Isle can be enough to justify naming your kids Ronan and Maeve, even though they could have easily gone with Swedish or Dutch or German names based on their family’s roots.

We can also choose names that reflect our personal histories and experiences. Some are sweet – the couple who honeymooned in Paris and decided to name their girls Vivienne and Genevieve. Others are bittersweet – the child named Hope because she’s born after many years of struggling with infertility.

Meaningful names aren’t really new, of course. Saints’ names and family names were common for generations. But we’re starting with a blank slate these days – deciding if meaning matters first, and then choosing which meaning we want to embrace.

2. We search for the distinct.

We’ve been inventing names for as long as we’ve been giving them to each other. It’s just what we do, and you can find stories of octogenarians whose parents “made up” their names. The same can be said of borrowing names from literature and song, influential figures and loved ones, sometimes modifying them along the way.

But surely few parents had ever uttered, “we want to find a name that is unique” until recent years. It leads to the game of mix-and-match that gives us Maylee and Draven, but also sends us re-reading ancient history and medieval poetry to rediscover Cloelia and Corisande and Cormac.

We also hesitate to use a name that others have used, and that pushes us to consider more and more names. Nameberry has lists designed for the crestfallen parent who can’t use Alexandra because her third cousin in Kentucky just did. And the Nymbler search engine is built around the “if you like X, you might like Y” principle.

It’s also fun to see parents re-thinking their approach to family names. Instead of just calling a child Mary after grandma, they’ll use her maiden name, or her favorite flower, or Mariel or Maren.

Few of us ever land on a truly unique name, of course. And the ones that we can think of, like Dweezil, aren’t exactly pleasing. But the push for distinctive, seldom-heard names is powerful.

1. We search for our tribe.

Tell me your child’s name, and I can make a pretty good guess if you’d like to live in my neighborhood. Head to my husband’s far more conservative workplace, and I’d guess an entirely different set of names. Chances are you have the same experience. Even though your kids’ names are barely in the Top 200, you’ve got another one in your playgroup.

We tend to cluster with the like-minded, meaning that you’ll like many of the same names that your best friend is considering, but also your colleague down the hall, that other family at church, or your next-door-neighor, who is due three weeks before you and refusing to talk about names. This complicates #2, of course, but reinforces #3 and #4. I imagine there are some churches where lots of little girls answer to Neveah, though it isn’t mine.

Or maybe there aren’t many like-minded mamas in your ‘hood. In that case, betcha you’ve found your tribe in the most modern of ways – online. You suggest Boheme in real life and are dazzled to realize that not everyone reads Girls Gone Child. Here, of course, we’re with you.

This is a tribe, too. Appellation Mountain is packed with people who will applaud when you settle on Irene or Ember or Everest or Ignatius. And maybe that’s the most revolutionary thing of all.

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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  1. This article made me smile, because our Genevieve was in part named because we honeymooned in Paris! And nicknamed Neve because of Irish ancestry on both sides.

    I love finding names from ancient Greece and Rome like Calpurnia, but I dont think I would ever be brave enough to use a lot of these. Something like Roxana however might just make a short list

    I really do like the idea of a name tribe too 🙂

  2. The tribe of the name nerds!! I am also a lapsed herald in the SCA (medieval re-enactment society) and my area of interest was in names (whoda thunk it haha).

    1. I used to play in the SCA as well, and the fact that nearly all of the names are chosen by the person wearing them hes always fascinated me.