Yesterday I discussed the "paradox of choice": that we try to maximize our options to give ourselves the freedom to pursue happiness, yet research shows that an abundance of choices actually makes us miserable. Now I'd like to show how baby name choices have exploded in the past generation, escalating angst and remorse for parents.
In theory, American parents have always had a wide-open choice of names. Choice, though, isn't just about the theoretical options available. It's about the culturally and psychologically realistic ones. (We all have the theoretical choice to wear our underpants outside of our khakis and tie socks to our ears for warmth, but none of us dresses that way.) In the past generation, our realistic baby name options have skyrocketed.
Historically, names in the English-speaking world were a relatively constrained set, with a small collection of classic names dominating. In England in 1800, the top three names for boys and girls accounted for more than half of all babies born. Traditions to name after relatives and benefactors clarified choices even further. I think it's fair to speculate that the typical name-selection process of that time was a straightforward one.
By 1950 in the United States, you needed 79 names (through Gregory for boys, Paula for girls) to get the same population coverage that those six names achieved in England in 1800. Today, it would take 546 different names, including names like Raegan, Yaretzi, Jace and Heaven. And even those names barely scratch the surface of what's considered "normal." There is no longer any pre-defined set of acceptable names. That means there is no limit to your choices.
The names marketplace does plenty to drive that message home. The very existence of a national top-1,000 names list encourages parents to think of 1,000 different names for boys and girls as “popular.” Then there are baby name dictionaries. You know how they like to include the number of names they list in their titles, impressing parents with the vast choices available? (“50,000 Best Names!”) Well, the number of titles doing that has skyrocketed, and so have the name totals themselves. Take a look at what an expectant parent would have faced in bookstores over the past century. Each dot below represents a new number-laden title, and the y-axis shows the number of names promised:
Yes, the current leader promises a soul-crushing 140,000 choices. That's already a guaranteed recipe for misery, but there's more. Today's parents also want to choose names that are distinctive and not too popular. Popular, of course, means "well-liked." So you're choosing from a limitless menu...with the most appealing options crossed out.
Now add in the perceived importance of the decision. In all phases of parenting, we've seen a rising obsession with doing all possible to give your child every advantage. Names are naturally part of that, and with good reason. As I've discussed before, your name literally means more today than ever.
Endless choices, challenging criteria, and high stakes. It's a decision-maker's nightmare. And brace yourself for the final kicker: both parents have to agree.
Take a deep breath, expectant parents. It's tough, and there's no magic bullet. But we're here for you, and we’ll make sure that the BNW book and tools keep focusing on making your decision easier, not harder.
Back when I was writing the first edition of The Baby Name Wizard, the phrase "namer's remorse" never entered my mind. Choosing a name was supposed to be one of the most joyous parts of pregnancy, a chance to look ahead and dream of the new family member to come. Yet in the years since, words like "angst" and "remorse" have cropped up more and more in baby-name talk. Post-naming regrets have become a regular feature in my inbox, and a popular question subject from reporters, too.
Is this just a trendy discussion topic, or is the baby-naming blues really on the rise?
I believe it's the latter. The process of choosing a baby name has genuinely become more stressful, and namer's remorse is indeed more common than ever before. It was inevitable. In the past generation, baby names have become an ideal breeding ground for anxiety, decision paralysis, and regret.
The core problem is what psychologist Barry Schwartz has called "the paradox of choice." Choice is freedom, and we expect that freedom to make us happy by allowing us to follow a path custom-selected to suit us best. In practice, though, an abundance of choice not only makes our decisions harder, it turns out to make us miserable.
The more choices we have, the higher our expectations rise. With a vast array of options, we feel that careful selection should lead us to a perfect choice. The decision process drags on. We agonize. Sometimes the pressure of choosing is just too much; we end up paralyzed by our options, and choose nothing. Even when we do choose, we usually discover that perfection remains an elusive goal. Thus even a very good choice can leave us feeling disappointed.
Then there's the road not taken. So very many roads. It's hard to feel comfortable with the choice you've made when the missed opportunities still swarm around you. Perhaps a neighbor makes a different choice, one you had considered but rejected. Did they choose better? If so, you have only yourself to blame.
Angst. Paralysis. Regret. Sound familiar?
This choice-induced misery is usually described as a side effect of societal affluence. Consumer choices explode, giving us hundreds of shampoos or coffee makers to choose from. But baby names are, and have always been, free. Can there really be an explosion of choices in a realm with no costs, where the menu of options is in your mind, not on the shelves?
Absolutely. More on this tomorrow.
Next week's big movie release, The Hunger Games, looks like the richest name franchise of the year. That's not to say it will be a baby name trend-setter -- I don't expect a generation of boys named Peeta and Cinna. What The Hunger Games offers is treasure trove of what I'll call "speculative naming": naming the fictional future so that it sounds futuristic, while still sending meaningful name signals that connect with audiences in the present.
A few years back I wrote about various naming approaches writers have used to suggest future worlds. These included inventing new names; giving familiar names a twist; turning word categories into names; and reviving name styles of the past. Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins used most of them, and added a few other wrinkles besides. (NameCandy.com has a nice wrapup of the Hunger Games name highlights.)
Where the series particularly excels is in using different futuristic name styles to define different segments of society. The Capitol, for instance, is a wealthy, decadent metropolis, and the Hunger Games is its gladiatorial spectacle. Names of that future culture suitably hearken back to the Roman Empire: Caesar, Plutarch, Flavius, Portia, Octavia. In a subtle bit of namecraft, some, but not all, names from privileged districts courting the Capitol's favor copy this style with choices like Brutus and Cato.
Two other name groupings I particularly like take current, familiar styles and push them to new extremes. Start with today's sleek, confident meaning names like Eden, Miracle and Chance and dial them up to 11. You might end up with the supremely self-assured "District 1" names Glimmer, Marvel and Gloss. At the humbler end, botanical names like Lily, Violet and Ivy are a classic style for girls. The "humbler" districts of the Hunger Games world push those comfy botanicals into unfamiliar territory like Katniss, Primrose and Rue. (One male character even bears the ultimate in humble botanical names: Chaff.)
I like to imagine what the "extreme" versions of other name styles might look like. Western names Rawhide and Spur? Exotic old saints' names Simplicius and Villanus? It's all a great reminder that our potential naming futures are almost as wide-open as the future itself.