Pleased to see America's finest comic strip, Frazz, getting into the baby name business.
(He's spot on about the mermaid, by the way. The name was unknown for girls before the movie Splash, but has been a top-10 choice ever since that movie's young fans reached child-bearing age.)
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.
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?