Why Picking a Baby Name Is Harder Than Ever
Choosing a unique and interesting—but not too weird—name for your baby is not easy. Enter the professional name consultant, whose smart advice we’ll give you for free.
Like so many couples, Declan O’Driscoll and Leah Weber found themselves stuck between competing ideas of what a name should be. After the birth of their second child, Declan was gunning for cool obscurity, while Leah just wanted a name that people could easily recognize and spell.
When I met the Toronto couple four weeks later, they were still trying to pick a name for their son. They’d been talking about it for months, but they weren’t even close to a decision. And they needed to make one—you know you’re late when the office of vital records is nudging you about the birth certificate.
From feeling pressure to be perfectly unique to fielding too many suggestions, see how Declan and Leah overcame the their biggest baby-naming obstacles — and landed on the perfect one.
Pressure to be Unique
It’s a classic dilemma, but parents today say there’s more pressure to find a name that is unique but not off-putting, and sounds good too. You’re going to be saying it for the rest of your lives.
Both Declan and Leah grew up with unusual names. Even Declan’s best friends didn’t know how to spell his name when he was a kid, but he liked its distinctiveness. Leah’s real name is Lesleah, a mash-up of Leslie and Leah, which was a compromise her parents made when they couldn’t agree. Declan embraced his unusual name and wanted an even weirder one for his son: Oisin (pronounced OH-sheen). Leah wanted something like Peter. They’d struggled over the name of their daughter, too, whom they ultimately named Annie Maeve. But it seemed harder this time.
Of course, their baby boy had no idea that his parents were about to make a choice that would affect his entire existence. Would he grow up to be the same person were he Peter O’Driscoll or Oisin O’Driscoll? Probably not.
Naming your kid epitomizes the problem with parenting: While in a state of great stress, you must make decisions with potentially immense consequences that you can’t predict.
The Power of a Name
The notion that your name influences your life is ancient. There’s the old Latin saying, “nomen est omen.” Research shows that a name can impact where you work and therefore how successful you may become. People with common names are more likely to be hired. C-suite execs typically have shorter names. And sixth-grade boys with a so-called girl’s name are at higher risk of being suspended, finds the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“Nominative determinism” is the technical phrase for all of this, and it gets even freakier: You’re more likely to work for a company whose name matches your initials than for a company with different initials. If your name begins with “Den” (such as Dennis or Denise), you’re more likely to become a dentist. People with the last name Carpenter are more apt to become ... carpenters.
The Trend of Being Untrendy
At press time, the most popular names for boys were Liam, Noah, William, and James, and the most popular names for girls were Emma, Olivia, Ava, and Isabella. However, for many parents, these lists only pinpoint which names not to pick because the latest trend in names is untrendiness.
“Many fewer babies are given the top ten names now, and there are many more names in use,” says Pamela Redmond, founder of Nameberry.com and the new name-consulting site ClemensandTwain.com. That also means that when these babies are adults, it will be much more common to have a name that’s one of a kind.
“The big overarching trend is looking for a name with meaning,” Redmond says. For some people, it’s family meaning or ethnic origin. For others, it’s the literal meaning of a name such as True or Justice, or a name from a book they love.
“Parents want a name that speaks to them and that they feel gives their child something to hang on to besides a pleasing arrangement of syllables,” she adds. With that in mind, parents are picking names that many people find bizarre—and as a result, those once-bizarre names are quickly becoming the norm.
Americans have a huge amount of freedom when it comes to naming. Every state has its own baby-naming laws—some ban obscene names, prohibit accent marks, or have character limits. Other countries are much stricter. Denmark has only about 7,000 legal names. In Iceland, every name must fit Iceland’s unique alphabet system. And then there are the long lists of names rejected by various governments around the world. For example, you can’t name your kid Facebook, Rambo, Scrotum, or Batman in the state of Sonora, in Mexico. You can’t name your kid Metallica, Elvis, or Ikea in Sweden. A couple in New Zealand insisted on naming their daughter Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii, and she eventually had to take them to court so she could change it.
Too Many Suggestions
For many, the struggles result from having nearly limitless choices. With an unprecedented variety of names, how do you find something that is catchy but not crazy? Individual but not alienating? Different but not wacko?
Declan and Leah had spent months trying to strike that perfect balance. The prolonged situation confused the grandparents—who were, it goes without saying, more than willing to make their own suggestions—and the boy needed a birth certificate.
So the couple finally contacted Abby Sandel, a professional name consultant who runs the website AppellationMountain.net. Her 21st-century job is to figure out names for babies whose parents just can’t do it themselves.
In their session, Declan explained that he wanted an Irish name because it was rooted in his family tradition—his father had even created the Celtic studies program at a local university. But Leah wanted a name that was pronounceable—unlike Oisin—and that would let her son pass easily through the world. Being a name consultant is a bit like being a marriage counselor: Sandel saw the virtues on both sides and tried to help them work toward a compromise.
Overcoming Choice Overload
Neither Declan nor Leah particularly liked the first batch of names Sandel suggested, but then a few started resonating. Cormac seemed like a real possibility. Then Niall. Ferris was also appealing, and Declan hadn’t known that it had Irish roots. They felt a thousand times happier with those names than the ones they’d come up with on their own. More important, their mood shifted. A pressure valve had been released. They were out of their own heads.
The stakes still felt way too high, though, for them to commit to a decision. They were paralyzed with the weight of the choice, but Sandel tried to get them to think about it differently. “This name will be a gift you give your child,” she assured them. “Even with the best intentions, and with all the hope that the name will be embraced and loved, you won’t know for sure.” Acknowledging this inevitable imperfection was reassuring—or terrifying—depending on how they looked at it.
A week after their visit with Sandel, Declan and Leah had chosen a name: Ferris Ward O’Driscoll. Both of them were happy. It’s neither too weird nor too normal. Their son is probably never going to meet another boy named Ferris. And his teachers will be able to spell it because they’ll all have seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
At long last, everybody in the family has a name. The thing about picking a name, maybe the thing about parenting generally, is that it’s more or less impossible to know if you’ve done the right thing. No one can predict how little Ferris will be shaped by his name. There is no A/B testing for kids. The only thing we know for sure is that he’ll have the satisfaction of knowing how hard his parents tried.
Stephen Marche is the author of The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century and host of the podcast How Not to F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad.
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