Name Help is a series at Appellation Mountain. Every week, one reader’s name questions will be discussed.
We’re relying on thoughtful comments from the community to help expectant parents narrow down their name decisions. Thank you in advance for sharing your insight!
My partner and I are expecting a daughter in September. We have waited for this child for so long, everything about the experience is blissful.
And then we talk about names, and I feel lost.
My own name is pretty much unique. My parents invented it. It’s long, but even the shorter version I use with friends, work, etc. is so different that it invites comments and looks. Without judgment, I tell you that my name is strange – and my parents intentionally and deliberately made that choice.
As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate their reasons and I don’t dislike my name. But it was a heavy burden for a child. Spelling it, repeating it, explaining it. Still, I never really wanted to be Jessica or Ashley, either, and I think I would have disliked having an ordinary name, too.
I’d like my daughter to enjoy the best parts of both experiences. I want her to have a name that belongs to her alone, but still a name that others have heard of and know how to pronounce and spell.
Can you and your readers help us find some names that are different, but not bizarre? Bonus points if it’s clearly feminine, as my given name is not.
Please read on for my response and leave your thoughtful suggestions in the comments.
Congratulations on your daughter!
I think parenthood is often like this: we find ourselves revisiting issues from our own childhoods. Not because we’re stuck in the past, but because we want so very much to get it right for our own family and our child’s future.
It’s a lot of pressure!
And yet, I think you’ve done much of the work already. Thinking about your own name first revealed that your daughter’s name should:
- Not be among the most popular names for children born in this generation.
- Be generally familiar as a given name.
- Be clearly feminine.
- Be easily spelled and pronounced.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
A name like Helen can satisfy those requirements. It’s familiar, easy to spell and pronounce, but relatively uncommon for girls born today. Olivia, the #1 name, was given to over 17,500 girls in 2020 alone. Helen? A mere 718.
And yet, classic Helen ranks within the current US Top 500. (It ranks #424.) Is that too familiar? After growing up with a staggeringly different name, maybe Helen feels too plain?
I’m going to suggest names that avoid the Top 1000 entirely. Most of these names were given to a few dozen girls – at most – in 2020. But I think most of us would recognize them.
A word of caution: the power of popular names is that they’re (usually) instantly recognized. Even a name like Helen can be misheard as Ella – simply because the preschool teacher/soccer coach/neighbor-from-three-doors-down expects a child to be named Ella, rather than Helen.
And, of course, no one has a crystal ball. It’s possible one of these names will take off, and around the time your child is learning to drive, her name will be all over kindergartens.
But I think you can still consider that mission accomplished.
FAMILIAR BUT UNCOMMON GIRL NAMES
Because the Arcadia region in Greece was long known for its beauty, Arcadia came to mean any particularly lovely spot.
A nature name borrowed from a type of vine, Briony was made famous by the book and movie Atonement. (It was Saoirse Ronan’s breakout role.)
A goddess name from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is in step with Penelope and Chloe, but just a little different, too.
French and sophisticated, but still accessible for a child, Delphine can refer to many things – Delphi, in the ancient world; the delphinium flower; dolphins.
An Old Testament name, Dinah feels sparky and energetic.
Georgia meets Juliette for this just slightly different name.
Borrowed from Frida Kahlo, this surname is a little like popular Harlow, but far less common.
A lovely flower name, easy to spell, but rare on a child.
Another borrowing from the natural world, an alternative to Meadow.
Literary and poetic, Sonnet sounds like so many popular given names.
An alternative to Nora and Cora, just traditional enough.
Made famous by the legendary dancer Twyla Tharp.
I could go on … and on! So many rare names for girls feel familiar enough to meet the criteria you’ve outlined. The next step is really yours – do the nature names speak to you? Surnames? Something a little on the vintage side?
It’s fine if your answers seem a little all over the place. I like Kahlo as much as Thora … or Helen!
And, of course, if you feel like all of these names seem a little too different, you can always adjust the dial on popularity, and go back to the US Top 1000: Marceline, Artemis, or Cleo, maybe?
Larissa • Sylvie • Florenza • Zita • Yolanda • Rowena • Arlette • Senna • Solana
My favorite from Abby is Twyla, and I like the suggestions of Zora, Verity, and Dahlia. Some other unusual, easy-to-spell and pronounce names that are recognizable and feminine:
My first thought was Phaedra. I love the meaning “light” and Fay seems accessible enough to overcome any concerns about obscurity.
My next thought was Esther. But turns out that is at 153 as of last year, so not as obscure as I had thought.
Cassandra is up there a bit, with Cassie as a more contemporary nickname.
Then Celia came to mind as well. Very recognizable yet still rare. Cece is of course a default nickname, but not necessary.
It sounds more like you’re looking for a common enough name that is not currently overused? It’s a gamble. I remember when my now 8yo was a baby, meeting new parents who had chosen Isla because it was ‘so different.’ They were all shocked that other people were using it too. We chose a less common name for our second daughter, then our acquaintances used the same name as a nickname for their daughter and so now our mutual friends know two kids with the same name. Just a few anecdotes about the inability to control anyone else’s decisions on naming.
I think the most important part is for you two to love the name you choose for your daughter. My advice would be to choose a nickname-rich name, so that you can play with nicknames depending on other names in your circle, on your playground, etc. A Margaret nn Pearl or Daisy; a Penelope nn Nell or Lolo. Or choose a name with tons of meaning for you and your partner, because then it is always has a uniquely meaningful connection, no matter who else she meets that wears the same name. Good luck!
My suggestions! Also loved Zinnia, Celeste, Evangeline and many others from above list. Hope this helps!
Calliope; Cassiopeia; Colette; Cornelia; Cordelia; Clementine
Marigold; Maelle; Magali; Marlowe; Marilla (Mae for short); Millicent
Oh this is my JAM! This is exactly the type of name I was looking for, for my 5 week old daughter. Some of our top names were Catalina, Estelle, Mirabelle, Coraline, and Janelle. I also loved Juliana, Juliette and Colette. My daughter is named ALLEGRA, which we have gotten SO many compliments on and seems to hit the sweet spot of being unique, yet recognizable as a name, not weird, and easy to spell and pronounce and feminine to boot. I love Abby’s suggestions, however I wonder if perhaps they are a little bit too out there for what you are looking for??
So many great suggestions here! I’ll add Jill (surprisingly uncommon), Miranda, Bridget, Audrey, and Celeste.
One thing I might try in your shoes is to look at name data from decades past, starting four or so back. Names that fell between #20-#100 many years ago might be familiar to modern ears, but are unlikely to be names your daughter would share with classmates.
One final thought: as a teacher, I’ve met a ton of girls lately with -ana or -ia endings. That could be a way to make an unusual name sound more mainstream (Zinnia, for instance) or it may be something you want to avoid. Either way, it’s nice to know the trends. Have fun choosing! There are so many great possibilities!
I totally identify! I have met only one other Amity in my life, but I know of 2 others. I was born just before the Amityville horror thing and a few people mentioned it over the years, but it died out quickly. I like my unusual name, but named my kids outside of the Top 100, not the Top 1,000.
Petra in particular seems to be a great choice for your criteria!
I think something short and sparkly might be the ticket for you. I love the name Yara for you! Or what about Vada? Twyla from Abby’s list also is in the short-and-sparkly category. By virtue of being shorter, a name like Yara will probably run into less of the name issues you faced, while still being really special. And having a semi-familiar name with a unique initial like Y (or even U, what do you think of Uma?), could blend everything you’re looking for in a name into one lovely package.
Pick a couple of names and then try them out at a coffee shop to see how many times they ask you to repeat it, if they spell it right, and if they pronounce it right when they call for you. And if there are mistakes, clock what does or doesn’t bother you. To what degree is it easier than your own name? And most of all, do you get a flutter of excitement saying it and hearing it called? Best of luck!
Alison Doherty says
I loved the idea of Twyla, Lilac, and Delphine — especially Delphine. I also love Paloma (940), Della (916), Judith (904), Simone (875), and Ramona (816). And I had a student this year named Demeter and thought the name was unusual but very cut on her — she went by Demi.
I love Arcadia and it also brings to mind Arden, Olympia and Bethany (603). Olympia (nn Ollie or Pia) feels like a great substitute for Olivia. People probably recognize it as more of a place name, but it has history as a given name. Arden is currently unranked, but has been in and out of the 900s since 2015.
Some unranked names:
Seraphina nn Sera, Sadie, Zadie, Zade, Rafa, Rafi, Fifi
Ida fits the mini name trend, but hasn’t come back yet.
Esmeralda (395) nn Essie, Esme, Mare
Evangeline (262) nn Evie, Effie, Ange, Angie, Elle, Ellie. Personally I would also consider Vangie as a nickname because it’s SO zippy.
I’m going back and forth on Isabelline, Is it too similar to Isabella, or just different enough? It refers to an extemely pale golden color. It’s unranked.
My daughter, Tabitha, has yet to share her name- there is no student with her name in her entire school. So I nominate her name, but am going to suggest others as well.
Faye, Rowena, Sybil, Prudence, Constance, Dorthea, Isadora, Clover. I love Abby’s suggestions too- especially Circe, Sonnet and Thora. I read the book Circe by Madeline Miller recently and it was beautiful, it makes Circe seem like a great namesake. I hope you find a name that you love, congratulations!
And a few more:
I’m going to suggest you avoid names like Briony, Circe, and Kahlo, which I don’t think will be recognized or easily pronounced. I have heard unfamiliar names and spellings butchered at school competitions by the announcer and they are often screwed up in other venues. Circe might be turned into Circle or rhymed with hearse; Briony could be turned into Brittany. The only real child I have heard of with the name pronounces it Bree-OH-nee, to rhyme with bologna, instead of Brya-knee. My advice would be to take a look at the current popularity list and take a close look at names with between 300 and 500 uses and see which ones stand out to you. Then ask your family, friends, any teachers or children you know, the receptionist at the doctor’s office and the Starbucks barista how they would pronounce it aand how many people they know with the name. Three hundred to five hundred uses is pretty rare but still familiar and in the top 1,000. You will also want to avoid names that sound or look too similar to more populat names.