What do you mean by unusual baby names?
We throw around the word “unique” an awful lot. (Guilty as charged.)
Unique means one of a kind – just one. It is impossible to be “a little bit unique.” You’re either the only one, or you’re not.
Most of us aren’t after unique baby names, and that’s a good thing. Those are the eye-popping extreme choices, the Katelyn-spelled-Kviiilyn.
We mean something different: names that feel different to us, in some essential way.
There are at least nine different ways to think about unusual baby names – probably more. So it helps to pin down precisely what you mean when you say you’re looking for something different.
Here are nine things that parents really mean when they say they’re looking for unusual baby names.
HOW TOP TEN PICKS CAN BE UNUSUAL BABY NAMES
9. We want a name that no one in our family/immediate circle of friends has used.
Not so long ago, three girls on the street might all answer to Mary. Today, we rule out Mia because our sister’s college roommate (who lives across the country) chose it.
But that’s a very specific measure. If you don’t know any girls named Ava, then Ava might qualify as sufficiently different for your family.
The trouble with this approach? It’s the source of frequent disappointment and charges of name theft. After all, you might not know another Elijah when you have your baby shower. But a few years later, you’ve probably heard of a dozen.
8. We want a name no one our age has worn.
First-time parents sometimes announce that they want to avoid common names, like Jennifer and Michael. Trouble is that names have moved on since the Reagan era. It’s easy to avoid repeating names you remember from your third-grade class picture.
What’s trickier is avoiding names that will feel too common by the time your Charlotte or Max is posing for class photos in a few years. If this is your definition of different, ask yourself: am I content with a name that seems different to my ears, or do I want my child’s name to stand out in his or her age group?
WHY JAXON AND EVERLEE CAN BE JUST DIFFERENT ENOUGH
7. We want something just a little different.
It’s true – respelling a popular name can make it look a little different. Your daughter might be one of three girls called Ellie at her school, but if she’s the only Ellasyn, is that enough to satisfy? Does Jax strike you as fresher than classic, well-worn Jack? For many parents, the answer is yes.
One pitfall: different spellings do catch on. Kaitlyn, Aiden, Zoey, and Madelyn eclipsed Caitlin, Aidan, Zoe, and Madeline – or Madeleine. There’s no guarantee that your slightly different spelling isn’t the next big thing.
6. We like the visual impact of certain spellings.
For some parents, finding unusual baby names is about tweaking a favorite name. It’s nothing new, really. Katharine and Isobel co-exist with Katherine and Isabelle, and have for ages. Alaina and Zander might appeal to some families, while Elena and Xander miss the mark. Spoken aloud, they blend in to the crowd. But visually, they stand out.
Of course, change a name too much and you’re back into unique territory. I once saw Eighmei suggested as an updated spelling for Amy. I think it’s tempting to go too far.
WHY AVOIDING THE TOP TEN (OR 100 OR 300) CAN BACKFIRE
5. We don’t want our child to be one of three in the kindergarten.
If you went through middle school as Ashley T., avoiding a wildly common name might be a priority. So we set a cut-off: nothing in the Top 100, definitely not the Top Ten.
And yet, that doesn’t mean you’ll be the first to think of the name you choose. Because your friends – and neighbors and colleagues – tend to have a lot in common. If you read the same books, frequent the same restaurants, and share the same politics? Chances are you’ll like the same baby names, too. (We know more girls named Cecilia than Harper, and several Benedicts – but no Masons.) After all, we’re all moving just a bit up the list to a sweet spot, somewhere around the #200 or so … where all of our friends and colleagues are also looking.
4. We don’t want our child to share his name with anyone else at school.
For every Ashley T. content to pick Lawson over Logan and hope for the best, there’s a Heather S. fretting that others will discover Judson and Bridger.
And so we go a little higher up the list, maybe ruling out everything in the Top 500 … or even Top 1000. But the same phenomenon applies. Sure, Koa and Sylvie like unusual baby names – until it turns out your nearest and dearest were shopping the same section of the list, too.
In this case, the problem isn’t the repetition. Odds are against a classroom of 25 children including two Aldos or Calliopes. It’s that even one extra kiddo with the same name can take the shine off your choice. And names do climb in use. Maybe Mila and Everly weren’t on anybody’s list a dozen years ago. But your tweenaged Mila or Everly will probably meet a baby – or three – sharing her name in the next few years.
CLOSING IN ON TRULY UNUSUAL BABY NAMES
3. Your child’s name will be familiar as a given name, but not widely in use.
As with #4, the challenge isn’t the type of unusual baby name. It’s that even one or two children sharing the name feels like a fail. Attempting to sidestep trends means choosing vintage names not quite back in favor – meet my kids, Howard and Lorna – or looking for something far removed from the Top 1000 list.
This strikes me as the textbook definition of unusual baby names, but a word of caution applies here, too. You might be one reality show star or Kardashian birth announcement away from discovering that you’re not the only one naming your baby Kiptyn or Dream.
2. Your child’s name won’t sound like anyone else’s name.
Combine #4 and #6 are you’ll arrive in this difficult place. Cleo is out, because she’s too close to Chloe. Orion would be great, if only Ryan weren’t so common. Exhaustive review of the most popular names will rule out many a possible alternative. It’s not a bad exercise, though. If you know that explaining: “Her name is Adelie, not Natalie“ at every doctor’s check-up and library story hour will drive you batty, better to check for sound-alikes up front. Cayson may barely sneak into the Top 1000, but is there anyone who finds the name really unusual?
What’s a parent to do? Look for unexpected surnames, nature and word names, place names, and ancient names that aren’t in common use. Thayer, Zinnia, Thisbe, Atlas, and Sorrel all spring to mind. Juno was a hit film, but remains outside of the US Top 1000. And for every Camden or London, there’s Abilene, Valencia, Cairo, Tempe, and Everest.
1. Your child’s name will be as close to unique as possible.
Take #2 to its logical conclusion and you may very well arrive a name that is unique – or nearly so. Blogger Rebecca Woolf came pretty close when she named her daughter Boheme. Her other kids’ names are Archer, Fable, and Reverie – they probably qualify under #2, but they’re not quite as singular. I’ve heard of a boy called Shelter and a girl named Zaphyn, another two I think are pretty unusual.
And yet, when I went searching there were indeed two other Bohemes in US Census records, plus a pair of Zaphyns, and perhaps a dozen Shelters. Even the most startlingly unusual names are probably not completely new.
Do you like unusual names? How unusual will you go? Are you content with Alice or searching for something more like Aspen? Would you fret that Bruno and Fletcher are too out there, or would you consider Cortez?
I think it helps if you have a succinct story to explain your name choice, if the name is extremely common. My daughter is named Svana, which is a scandinavian name, but extremely rare even in that area. A lot of people mispronounce it as Savah-nah, but it means swan and my husband was raised in iceland, so I usually explain that, and say its “Svana, like Sven”. People accept that readily. I wouldnt have gone with something that unusual otherwise.
Another anecdote about unusual names: it depends so much on the wearer’s personality how they grow up with the name. My husband has an Icelandic name that nobody’s heard of in CA, where I live. But he loves it as an icebreakef and chance to talk abouthis upbringing. His sister changed hers legally, tho, not because she disliked her name, but she was sick of people mispronouncing it.
The most common boy name of my youngest’s age group is Hudson. We know 3, and I had never heard it used a first name before the year all three were born. We know no Liam’s and only one Noah. WHat are you going to do?
#5 resonates with me. When we had our first daughter in 2006, Norah wasn’t in the top 500 (and Nora was at 245). Neither spelling ranked much higher on the state registry. Imagine my surprise when she started kindergarten only to realize she was one of 4 or 5 Norahs at her elementary school (all spelled this way). Heck, I also have a Henry and a Lucy and I run into fewer of them it seems. Even my youngest, Faye, will have another at her school (two grades above) when she started kindergarten. Maybe we should’ve gone with our runner-up, Betsy.
Number 5 is so true! I go to a private school that is in an upper middle class area and before moving to this area I had never met another Mackenzie (I know that it is now a very popular name) in my age group or younger. In this area there have been two in my year level in two different schools and we are never the only ones in the school. Another example of this where I live is Finn, I often get confused by people calling it and names that it can be a nickname of or is similar to such as Flynn unpopular. This could be a difference in country but I feel that from experience it has much more to do with the area that I live in. Great post!
I think you should name your baby Jayla because that’s my name and I always get compliments on it so good luck choosing her name!!!!!!! 🙂
One of my favorite girls names would fall under #3 — Theresa. But, I worry that it’s not popular enough. It might be too tied to a specific decade.
I love Lorna and Leroy and Irene. In fact our Gemma & Ivy might have been Lorna & Irene, but we are of our time I guess 😉
Shhh keep quiet about Juno :P.
C in DC says
I’d suggest that people also look at the states lists to determine popularity. What’s popular in NY will be different than what’s popular in ID. My girls’ names are both more popular on the MD list than they were on either the US list or the DC list for the year they were born.
The Name Station says
I recommended Archer to a pregnant friend, from a list of choices that she had, and lately I’ve been slightly bummed out because I actually quite like it myself. However, there are a million names out there, and I’ll get over it.
I have a personal list of girls names I love that aren’t even visible as names on Google, and I want to keep it that way, and one day when I’m actually expecting, I’ll likely go out of my way to come up with the same kind of list for boys. Though I’m sure I’ll need to compromise with unknown future hubby (even though my pregnant friend seems convinced I’m the kind of girl who’ll get her way!)
I am dying to know what’s on that list …
Great post! I think I fall somewhere in the middle – I like a lot of classic names, and some very unusual names are ok with me. I think “Alice” is my current favorite girl’s name. I also used to really like Annelise, but now I think it might be too much.
The only things I can’t stand in names are adding extra letters, weird spellings, etc. Haileigh is NOT an acceptable substitute for Haley, and Oliveah (in comments above) is miserable! BUT, I’m sure there are people who just despise Alice. To each his (or her) own!
I believed i was the only Tavius till i got on Facebook…. Im the only female… Lol!
We totally searched facebook for every name we were considering.! Lol
My idea of unusual is pretty different from the view of a lot of the people I know. And while I tend to love a lot of unusual names (Fiordelisa, Herschel, Enheduanna, Dandelion, Orpheus, etc), I wouldn’t flinch at using a name that might be considered typical (Levi, Maggie, James).
Sometimes I do love freaking people out by mentioning some of my more bizarre favorites though.
I think there might be another two other categories worth covering.
1. Made-up names.
I know someone named Te’Era (sounds like tiara). And a Gerecia. And a LaShawn. Yes, it is totally possible (like you said in #1) for multiple people to “create” the same name. But it does change the odds.
2. Rare foreign names.
I know a Jnana (named after the Sanskrit word for knowledge). And an Isyemille (which I believe she once told me means “little flower” in another language). And an Ajani (Nigerian). And a Nissa (the internet says it’s Hebrew, but I think that’s pronounced differently than her name… I want to say it’s Nordic or something). And a Nivya (Indian). And I will be surprised if I ever meet another person with any of those names, just because they are so far removed from the consciousness of my culture.
I definitely fall in number 2 or 1. I really like the ancient names that are almost unknown and yet somewhat vaguely familiar
I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the list. I definitely tend to be dissuaded by #9-if I know anyone, or even know OF someone, who has named their child something, it’s usually out. But at the same time, I want to know a few people actually EXIST with a certain name, otherwise it just seems too wackadoo for my family. In this way, I am lucky to live in sort of a conservative Southern area. We have lots of Claires, Emilys, Carolines, etc., so my Phoebe doesn’t come across many with her name. I think most of my other choices fall in a similar category-Helena, Susannah, Clementine, Sybil-not unique, but unusual enough around here.
It matters so much where you live, doesn’t it? I wanted Clio to be Coco. (Arthur nixed it.) When my neighbors were expecting #2, they shortlisted Coco. It seems unlikely, but it fits here. (And my neighbors had a boy, so we’re still without a Coco on my block.) Blogger and baby namer extraordinaire dropped Phoenix from her list because it was getting popular in her supercool corner of LA: http://www.girlsgonechild.net/2011/05/baby-names-for-sale-never-used.html And if what they say about Utah is true? I need to hang out at a Salt Lake playground sometime soon …
As someone from Utah, how about I give you a list of the names I know multiples of? Of kids, I mean. Not quite as good as listening at a playground and you won’t get the really creative stuff but it’s something. Also, my pool of names is not extremely large as most of the people in my neighborhood are of my grandparents’ generation.
Boys: Cole, Jack, Dallin, Aidan/Aiden, Noah, Brigham, Hyrum, Jackson, Isaac, Harrison
Girls: Brinley, Samantha
One of each: Austin/Austyn and Skylar
I don’t think the sex balance for shared names is quite as unbalanced as this makes it look. I think I just know more little boys than little girls.
Thank you, SilentOne! Brinley and Dallin seem like what I’ve heard called Utah names, and Brigham and Hyrum are LDS names, right? But most of the repeating names could repeat anywhere …
And I’m fascinated by how Skylar seems to be trending gender neutral. I was sure that one had gone girl!
I do not live in Utah, but has anyone else heard Tenley/Kenlee/Kenley for girls? I keep hearing these names.
Yes, Hyrum and Brigham were early church leaders. Dallin is the name of a current church leader so that’s an LDS name too, but I have no idea where his name originally came from. He was born and raised in Utah so it could have started out as a typical Utah invention. It didn’t become popular until he became prominent, which happened to be when Dallas and Dillon/Dylan were rising nationally. I actually didn’t realize that it wasn’t common everywhere until the last year or two.
If I’d included the “unique” names there might be a bit more specifically Utah flavor but I’d rather keep the privacy of the families of the really unusually-named kids. Either way, though, the national normals are more common than Utah style. In my area, anyway.
Sarah – I don’t recall ever hearing any of those names attached to an actual child but they wouldn’t surprise me.
I’ve heard of at least two Kenley/Kinley’s born this year. I personally love Tenley–I know it was the name of a girl on the Bachelor… I’m in Texas if that helps!
I lived in Utah for 8 years in the 1970s. Now on the East Coast. There are LOTS of unusual Utah names. Some of them have even been pinned on my grandkids – for example, Bryton and Kaylie.
Speaking of Skylar … while watching BYU play football this afternoon, I noticed the Cougars have a player named Skyler Ridley (#17). He’s from California, but is almost “fer shure” LDS. Then of course there’s Taysom Hill (#4), the BYU Cougars quarterback. Another Utah name, no doubt. : )
9, 8, 5, 3 and 2 are me.
9. If someone in my family, even someone I hardly know or have never met has used a name I wouldn’t use it. I mean my husband’s cousin’s sister-in-law named their baby Violette and now I probably wouldn’t use Violet even though we’ve only met them twice and in the future will see them max. once a year. I know it sounds crazy but it would just bother me knowing my kids name is duplicated in the same family. For instance my baby nephew is Jackson and a cousin used Jackson a couple weeks later. So my husband’s grandfather has two same age great-grandsons named Jackson. I just don’t like that.
8. It’s not so much about being unusual here, but names of people my age just sound boring and stale to me. I can’t imagine calling a baby Brian or Valerie. My nieces and nephews just got a new sister named Natalie and I can’t wrap my head around it. Every time I hear her name I think it should be the name of the mother. I realize it’s at it’s highest ranking ever now so I’m going to have to get used to it. And maybe it wasn’t popular for my age group but I knew lots of Natalies for some reason. (just looked it up and it was number 33 in California in 1985 compared to 58 nationally)
5. I would be bummed if my kids shared their name with classmates but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I think it’s pretty unlikely that will happen though.
3. This is my preference. I didn’t want names so out there that no one ever heard of them before, but I didn’t really want anyone to know anyone with their names. I was pretty successful here. With Dashiell though no one had ever heard of it except older people who knew of Dashiell Hammett. I thought it was a little more recognizable than it turned out to be. I preferred the way people reacted to Flynn’s name. Everyone knew it as a last name and seemed to find it really cool as a first. No one I know realized that it’s actually in use as a first name.
2. This one really drives me nuts. I think about it too much and it bothers me. I know Flynn sounds like Finn and Lynn. He’s six months old and I’ve already had to say more than once “No, it’s Flynn… with an F” which I didn’t really anticipate ahead of time.
I just found out through a neighborhood listserv that there’s another woman in my neighborhood named Diana whose daughter has the same, not top 100 name as mine does. What are the chances?
I know what you mean about the “names being backwards” — whenever I watch that TV show up all night where the mom is Reagan and the kid is Amy, it seems so odd to me.
I was totally freaked out when that happened to me! MY oldest is Gwen, and we’ve mostly met Quinn’s and a few Gwynn’s her age. But then a Kim/Gwen combo turned up at a preschool that two of my moms-group friends’ third children were going to, and I was far more disturbed at the combo than the fact that there was another Gwen in their lives. As if i haven’t lived with multiplee Kim’s my entire life. To top it off, one of the moms at that preschool i s of 2 Mom/baby name combos in my life, and has been the whole time I’ve known her. I’m a weirdo.
I agree about #2–I have a Conrad and it never occurred to me how much it would get confused with Connor. Probably because I refused to discuss name choices in real life and didn’t say it to very many people beforehand…one downside to getting all your name advice from the internet 🙂
Raquel Somatra says
What a fantastic article. I feel like it should be required reading for soon-to-be parents.
Jan K says
I concur – great summary of today’s baby name scene for most people.
I also agree! It’s unfortunate though, it seems my new found excitement for names and your website may be annoying to my expectant friends. I’ve stopped forwarding and “sharing” your articles allowing them to name create on their own. Perhaps you have felt similar feelings from your friends and family Abby? Do you make a conscious step back, allowing them their own naming experience? It was relatively easy for me to do. I then focused on the surprise of their name selectionsto come. The results were 3 for 3 in the top 100, 1 in your top 10 predictions for next year. Great names although I was hoping for something a little more unusual 😀 . Perhaps my unusual name choices freaked them out…
SJ, I apologize for never answering! Yes, I hold back all. the. time. So much so that I call it “the holdback.” I have an expecting friend right now, and I’m convinced I have the perfect name for her daughter … but I’m forcing myself to not bring it up. (I mean … so far. She’s not due until next month, so no promises, LOL!)
Megan M. says
I can definitely relate to #9, especially as a name nerd. If I know someone is going to use or has just used a name, it’s out. The others are a little harder for me to get behind. I had a popular name for kids born in the 80s, and even though there were other girls named Megan in my schools, we almost never ended up in the same class at the same time. No one ever had to call me “Megan T.” And as you pointed out, no one can be sure what names are going to “blow up” and which will remain underused.
I can’t get behind crazy spellings. Minor differences are fine, like Kaitlyn instead of Caitlin doesn’t make me roll my eyes. But Eighmei? No. No, no, please no! LOL I just visited my parents in Ohio and they had a birth announcement card on their fridge for a little girl Oliveah, and every time I looked at it, I wanted to say “Olive-ay-uh” because it looks like Nevaeh. It would take me a second to think, “no, it’s Olivia.”
I think oarents really want their baby’s name to say something about them, whether it’s “I’m cool” or “I’m classy” or whatever. They want people to be impressed when they hear their baby name. (And I’m not condemning anyone, because I had the same feelings!)
Megan M. says
Oops, meant *parents in that last paragraph.