Is there a baby names arms race?

I happen to be writing from New York City, just a week after the Health Department released their 2009 stats proclaiming Isabella and Jayden top of the charts. Yawn.

But then the Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog interviewed Baby Name Wizard’s Laura Wattenberg on the results. Two things stood out: first, Wattenberg is a master of linguistic analysis. She declares that today’s parents prefer names lacking “two consecutive voiced consonants.” Buh-bye Robert and Alfred, Nancy and Betsy.

But this quote grabbed me: “Individuality has become a prized virtue and there’s a kind of competitive landscape — a baby name arms race — where parents are determined to make their child stand out.”

It is true that even the most common given names are given to fewer children with every passing year, whether that name is Mary or Isabella or Ava, John or Jacob or Jayden. But I’m not sure that we’re intentionally competing for a stand-out name for our kids … more in a future post.

Elsewhere online:

  • Speaking of standing out, here are a few rarities mentioned in the NYC Health Department press release: Nava and Zeidy for girls; Pinchus, Orion, and Drake for boys. Not sure about all of them, but those last two? I imagine we’ll hear a few more Orions and many more Drakes in future years;
  • And back to the arms race: apparently, friendships really do end when two expectant mothers land on the same name. I’m with ParentDish UK’s Tamsin Oxford on this one: “So what if you’re going to call him Sam, it’s not like he’s going to be the first child with that name, and there’s no way he’s going to be the last. Surely what counts is the fact that he is your Sam?”
  • Here’s an often-heard pheonomenon: I don’t like made-up names, but I like this one I made up. Swistle weighs in on Junuh, which I think she rightly concludes feels both feminine and invented. The respelling Junah might hold up better, but it would never have the masculine appeal of Cannon or Gunnar. Or even Greg;
  • Nancy asks whether more of us will name our children Kindle. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from Kendall to the e-Reader. She also tells us that 24 girls received the name in 2009. And don’t forget surname picks like Kinsey and Kinley, both of which are heard more and more;
  • On the AppMtn Facebook page, I mused about the sibsets of the future: Buster and Minka, anyone?
  • Can’t get enough of wacky celebrity names? Here’s another slideshow. Call me jaded, but I’m finding it harder and harder to be surprised by any baby name, chosen by anyone. Okay, well maybe Audio Science still seems extreme. Well … and Jagger for a girl. And … okay, I lied. It’s an inexhaustible subject;
  • Which reminds me, what do you name your child when your name is Beyonce? That’s one Nameberry contest I can’t wait to enter;
  • Here’s a cheerful name: ForReal spotted a Pollyanna Nell. Plus girls called Laurette, Odette, and Isla Antoinette in Washington. Are the -ettes ready for a comeback yet?
  • DaddyTypes gives us a list of Footloose-inspired baby names – with Ren and Lulu on the list, it isn’t as outrageous a suggestion as it appears;
  • One of Swistle’s posts resulted in a daughter named Felicity, nicknamed Fliss. Love that nickname!
  • If there a baby names arms race, here’s the finish line. (Though I don’t think this post is legit.) What should she name her triplets, gender TBA? Current options are, boys first: Mystique Mariah, Blueberry Love, Disney Cinderella, Raven Superman, Dave Superman, Clandestine Superman.

In celeb news, I was so busy speculating about Egypt catching on, and what Beyonce might name her maybe-baby, and how crowd-sourcing works because second-born Bowen Brees has a much better name than elder son Baylen … well, I missed the arrival of Lance Armstrong’s daughter, Olivia Marie, a little sister for Luke, Isabelle, Grace, and Max.

And, of course, Matt Damon and wife Luciana welcomed daughter Stella.

Celine Dion has also welcomed her twins – two boys! – but names have not yet been released. Please leave a comment if you hear anything!

That’s all for this week. As always, thanks for reading!

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. I think Wattenburg was mainly referring to the names she commonly refers to as “doughy”-Norman, Arthur, Mildred, Thelma, Irma. Tightly packed, mushy consonants. I think Nancy and Betsy are a bit more crisp and not so unfathomable today. (I love Betsy!)

    1. I’m with you on Betsy – and I think she’s due for a comeback. You’re probably right – Irma and Mildred both seem hopelessly out of favor. But Arthur? He seems to be returning to favor. I’m biased – I’m married to an Arthur, it is Aly’s middle name, and it is a HUGE family name on my side, too. Except I always sort of thought it was an awful name to be saddled with, until recently, when it has started to sound very Knights of the Round Table.

      I guess the thing is that sounds will only ever be part of the equation … and there will always be some parents who deliberately move against trend. I swear I’m going to meet a baby Gertrude any day now …

      1. No, I love Arthur too! But it does have a kind of squishy sound compared to the Cadens/Aidens/Jaydens. I definitely tilt a bit contrarian, (Roger? Esther?) but I don’t think I will ever get behind Gertrude!

  2. You are right about Drake and Orion. I see a lot of Drake’s and I’m no longer surprised when I find an Orion any more. I looked them up to see where they were in the standings and Drake is #230 and Orion #529. 🙂 The other three Nava (popular name in Israel though) and Zeidy (Sadie with a Z ???) and Pinchus are unique.

    I noticed the -ette trend too. 🙂

    Great read as always.


  3. Please forgive me for this, but none of your examples of names with “two consecutive voiced consonants” actually contain two consecutive voiced consonants (unless you mean that they can be separated by vowels, in which case Isabella, Emily, Madison, Jayden, etc all qualify as having that). Robert (r is voiced, t is not and r is technically a liquid which is between consonant and vowel and r and its counter-part l are treated as vowels in some tongues), Alfred (l voiced, f not, r voiced), Nancy (n voiced, c not), and Betsy (t and s are both unvoiced). I’m completely intrigued by the comment, but I’m not sure I get what was meant… could you shed some light?

    1. Maybe she meant stops? It seems, in context, she was speaking about fluidity. Stops (t, d, k, g) are less popular I think, especially at the close of a name, and voiced endings in the form of vowels and consonants like n and r and l and v are more popular.

      1. I’m not sure she was being that precise … though I do think fluidity is a better description of the phenomenon she’s describing.

    2. My first reaction was that there were a lot of names that fit her criteria, many of which were out of fashion. But I also assume she’s simplifying terms … when she says consonants, she means that in the most general, elementary sense. (Which I suppose is okay.) It gets messy in the second part – I think she’s used the technical and precise term “voiced” in a loose, non-precise fashion, roughly as a synonym for “pronounced.”

      I think Wattenberg deserves a lot of credit for digging deeper into the elements of names. In the Baby Name Wizard, she wrote this of Caden: “You simply cannot get a more fashionable set of phonemes.” Okay … that makes sense, I think – and it is FAR more informative than simply saying the more dismissive “everyone loves names that rhyme with -aiden.” It is tough to find language to explain that without dipping into linguistic theory and phonetic terms.

      So … either she’s attempting to adopt phonological terms to explain difficult concepts to a lay audience, or she has no academic background in linguistics. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. But then, that describes me, too – I have exactly enough understanding to get myself in trouble!

      1. What you said makes sense: she’s using terms loosely – I mean, most people don’t know what “phonemes” actually are and it probably matters little… I was just trying to figure out the meaning behind the words and I think that what you’ve said is probably true to her intended meaning- vowelly, fluid names are trumping consonant-heavy ones.

        Wattenberg’s book was one of very few I actually plunked down money to buy when I was pregnant, so I definitely think she’s got something interesting to say! I just wasn’t sure what it was at first!

  4. The article from ParentDish is quite interesting. I am one of the many, many women who advise against sharing baby names before the baby is born, but I’ve never done so for the reason assumed in this article. When I tell parents that they might be wise to keep their selections a secret, it’s entirely due to the negative experiences I’ve seen other couples go through after they’ve shared the name[s] they’ve selected for their unborn child, only to have the names met with ridicule and expressions of horror from close family and friends. I’ve never taken name-stealing into account, perhaps because most of the people around me who are having children have very different tastes in names? Also, I tend to assume that my family and friends are adult enough to realise that they do not “own” a name, even if they plan on bestowing it on their own child.

    However, all that being said, when someone in my family has a child and announces its name (after it’s born), then I automatically tend to cross it off of my list of possibles. Usually these are names I would never consider anyways — e.g. my cousin just had a baby and named her Annalie, a name that is already off my list due to its similarity to Roseanna — but I do confess to a small desire to have children with unique enough names that they stand out from those in my immediate circle.

    1. Charlotte, I agree – I wouldn’t use a name similar to one used by a close family member. Some names edged off our list just because we knew SO many. We know multiple little boys called Max, Henry, and Zachary. The first two were always on our lists, but only Henry remains … sort of. It isn’t about fear that they’d feel we were stealing their name, but your point about wanting to stand out.

      For most parents, though, I don’t think there’s any harm in sharing the name ONCE YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that’s the name you’re going to use. I think parents get themselves in the soup when they try to get positive feedback to reinforce an uncertain decision, or as ammunition to prove to a spouse (or grandparent-to-be) that one name is best (or dreadful).

      It’s especially problematic because most of us assume that the decision is open for discussion until the registrar hands you then pen to complete the birth certificate. So we say things like “I was thinking about Matilda” when we mean “Matilda is my most favorite name” and then are heartbroken to get a negative reaction.

      And even if you are out to prove to your mother-in-law that naming a child after grandpa Harvey is a bad idea, what will it prove if everyone else says “Nooooo … don’t call your baby Harvey!” She’ll still think that using a family name is a great idea.

      Once we knew Clio was Clio we called her Clio. But no reaction would’ve changed our minds. If we were uncertain, no way would I have shared.

  5. Betsy doesn’t have two voiced consonants…but I agree that it’s out of fashion. (Voicing means that the vocal chords vibrate. The only consonant that’s voiced in Betsy is the /b/). I also wouldn’t count /r/ and /l/ in the same category as the rest of the consonants either–they’re voiced, but they’re sometimes known as glides because they glide between the vowels so nicely. Plus, they’re really popular!

    In general, I think I do see a trend away from consonant clusters (2 or more consonants in a row, without a vowel in between), but I’m going to run a very quick, cursory phonetic comparison between the top 100 names of 2009 versus, say 1950, and see if that’s actually true, and what kinds of consonants cluster together. I’m sure Laura Wattenberg has already done this because she’s terrific like that, but it sounds like fun. (I’m not normal).