I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of choosing baby names that are somehow special or unique or personal. Names that aren’t unbearably common or tainted by external associations. Names that feel like they belong to you alone. For a lot of parents, it seems, this is an important value to be upheld in the naming process.

As Laura Wattenberg has pointed out, the drift away from tried-and-true traditional names began in the 1960s with the increased focus on individuality in American culture. The Internet then exacerbated the trend. The online publication of baby-name statistics (which began in the U.S. in the late 1990s) now lets you see which names are the most popular — which has the effect that a lot of people will deliberately avoid certain names.

But precisely because so many people are turning toward less-popular names, the popular names really aren’t as popular as they once were. In 1950, the #1 name constituted about 5% of all names given that year for each sex. By 1985 this was down to 3%. Now it’s 1%. Parents these days freak out about giving their kid a name in the top 20, even though the 20th-most-popular girls’ name (Aubrey) is given to only about 1 in 280 girls. (Obviously, it might be somewhat more popular in certain geographic areas or socioeconomic circles.)

I’d submit that the Internet also creates an illusion of popularity simply by the fact that you can type most any name into Google and find at least a few examples of it in use. Before, a name felt fresh and novel if we didn’t personally know anyone with it. Now, people feel frustrated if a single stranger on a blog “stole” her idea for a name. The bar is much higher.

All of this raises some questions: Why do we crave “special” or “unique” names for our kids? Do our kids even want the zany names we give them?

I got a kick out of the cartoon above because the scenario was so hard to imagine. And yet we act like we are doing our kids a favor by bestowing them with unfamiliar or difficult-to-spell names, the product of either laborious research or creative brainstorming, supposedly so that they don’t go through life feeling like they’re boringly interchangeable with their peers*. Throughout elementary school I was one of three Johns in my class. Honestly, it didn’t really bother me. Perhaps once in a while I daydreamed about being called something less common, but it was usually on the order of Benjamin or Justin instead of anything outlandish. Are kids today any different?

Ultimately, I feel like parents who prize specialness may claim a concern about their children’s well-being, but they’re just as often driven by their own desire to appear cool and clever and creative. With the options for names nearly limitless these days — free of the restrictions (Biblical names, family names) that traditionally governed selection — names increasingly function as a marker of status or taste. But I can’t help but dwell on the fact that it’s the parents’ taste that’s on display in a name, even though the kids are the ones that will be saddled with it.

*It’s also been suggested that some parents want to help their children stand out to the admissions counselors and HR representatives in their future. I’m not sure I buy it, but maybe I just find the idea depressing.


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