Daring -- or yearning -- to be different
A reader, in response to my post on European naming regulations, took exception to the idea that American parents just want to be "different":
As for being different for the sake of being different, I would think that many of the unusual names are chosen for other reasons *in addition to* being different. Don't a lot of people look for names that are both different AND [beautiful, meaningful, sound good with the surname, etc.]
Certainly, parents aren't just flipping open their dictionaries at random. Most creative name choices are labors of love, selected for sound, meaning, heritage, and other uniquely personal reasons. But distinctiveness is a key component for many families today, a value in its own right.
The evidence is everywhere. Anecdotally, I often meet parents who are horrified to discover that the beautiful name they chose for their child is -- *gasp!* -- popular. Statistically, you can point to the rise of exotic letters like X and Z, and the increasing diffusion of popular names. In the 1950s, the top 10 names for boys and girls accounted for a quarter of all American babies. Today, it's less than a tenth.
But for the most direct evidence of what parents are actually looking for, let's turn to the places they look (besides The Baby Name Wizard, of course.) At sites like parentsplace.com and AOL Parenting, "baby names" is reliably the top search topic. At the general search engine Ask.com, it ranked among the top 10 search terms of the year for 2003. And a large percentage of those searches include the words "unusual" or "unique." According to Yahoo, only ethnic terms (e.g. Irish baby names) outrank "unusual," and at Overture "unique" outranks every modifier except "girl."
So while being "different" is not a sufficient condition to choose a name, for more and more parents, it's a necessary one.