Daring -- or yearning -- to be different

Nov 10th 2004

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.

My baby, my name choice! Or not.

Nov 3rd 2004

For American parents, the right to choose your own baby's name seems fundamental. In fact, more and more parents view the naming process as an act of creative self-expression. Many invent new names, adopting common words or combining the two parents' names into a novel creation. The name becomes a family fashion accessory. And why not?

In much of Europe, they'll tell you why not: because the name isn't yours, it's the baby's. You're just assigned as a trustee to handle an unborn individual's affairs. Just as it seems obvious to Americans that parents should have free reign, it's obvious to many Europeans that the government has an obligation to look out for the well-being of the helpless by reviewing name choices. Consider it an extension of safety laws requiring special car seats or blood tests for infants. The government rejects names it deems unsafe to a child's psyche.

Regulations vary from country to country, but the emphasis is on maintaining the traditional boundaries of names. Parents can't routinely use a boy's name for a girl, turn a surname into a first name, or choose any name likely to elicit incredulous stares. The International Herald Tribune recently profiled Denmark's especially restrictive naming regulations:

"People expecting children can choose a pre-approved name from a government list of 7,000 mostly West European and English names - 3,000 for boys, 4,000 for girls. A few ethnic names, like Ali and Hassan, have recently been added. But those wishing to deviate from the official list must seek permission at their local parish church, where all newborns' names are registered. A request for an unapproved name triggers a review at Copenhagen University's Names Investigation Department and at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which has the ultimate authority."
A "Names Investigation Department" may seem like an Orwellian absurdity, but it can also make for a useful thought experiment for prospective parents. Imagine presenting your favorite baby name to a review committee. Would it pass muster? And if not, why not? Is being different really a virtue unto itself?

Why not the Apple of our eyes?

Oct 18th 2004

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. Perhaps you heard? Perhaps, in fact, you heard about this from half a dozen sources? Perhaps you even gathered with friends to giggle over the name?

Young Apple was born in May and captured headlines around the world. The internet teemed with messageboard discussions, athrill with horror over her name. Here at baby name central, I fielded a flood of messages about it. Yet the odd truth is: Apple isn't that odd a name.

In the months leading up to Apple's arrival, other celebrities welcomed children with names like Banjo, Lucky, and Pilot Inspektor, to no fanfare whatsoever. Meanwhile, names like Genesis, Serenity and Miracle rank among America's top 500 girl's names. So why do we pick on Apple?

My guess is, because it's easy. Apple is disarmingly unpretentious, the "Jane" of weird names. A baby called Persimmon or Tamarind would be a tougher target..."maybe," you'd think, "I just don't get it." You'd start to feel a little uneasy, and decide to disregard the name as "a Hollywood thing." But Apple, we all get. Its weirdness is completely accessible and unguarded, a clear and easy target. And perhaps for that reason, I feel the urge to protect it. For what it's worth, I think the name Apple is rather sweet. And I like Jane, too.