Right or wrong, we live in a society where people are judged by their names. To some teachers, employers, classmates, judges and co-workers, first names can sound overly feminine or masculine; invisibly popular or forsakenly obscure. That's why, for many parents, baby-naming is a process that's fraught with stress and second-guessing.
Naming isn’t what it used to be. Data from the Social Security Administration, which tracks baby names based on Social Security card applications, shows that over the past 131 years, the most popular names have steadily comprised a smaller percentage of the overall population -- meaning parents are picking more unusual names for their children.
“There’s no question that individuality is seen as a virtue now, but there’s more to it than just that,” says Laura Wattenberg, baby-naming consultant and author of "The Baby Name Wizard" book and website. “It also reflects a lot of parental anxiety, where parents are trying to give their kids a leg up and set them up with prime shelf space in life’s marketplace.”
Though individuality matters, parents aren't going too far out on a limb to be original. Recently, there's been a rise in first names that have traditionally been the name of a city or country or a common last name. Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, and Mason for example, were among the top 10 baby names for 2011, according to the Social Security Administration.
“Parents want names that sound fresh but are still familiar and easy to pronounce,” Wattenberg says. “That’s why place names and surnames are more common. It’s a good route for parents looking for something unusual that won’t sound too weird.”
In fact, Brett W. Pelham, Matthew C. Mirenberg and John T. Jones from the State University of New York at Buffalo found in 2002 that, people are more likely to live in places that resemble their own first or last names. St. Louis, Missouri, for example, has a disproportionately high number of people named Louis.
Names Impact Life Outcomes
Picking a name for his newborn daughter presented a challenge for David, a college professor in Southern California. He and his wife had a series of heated conversations; he wanted Eloise, she preferred Eliza. Before leaving the hospital, they finally settled on Emerson, or Emmy for short.
“I think that for us, raising a girl in our society, we just wanted her to be strong. We wanted to avoid contributing to gender stereotyping as much as possible,” David says.
David's concerns were not unfounded. Studies have shown certain names are stereotyped:
• In 2006, Northwestern University professor David Figlio compared thousands of pairs of sisters in a school district, where one had a feminine name and the other had a less feminine name. He found that the sister with the more feminine name was less likely to take advanced math and science courses than her sister with a less feminine name, despite the fact that both daughters were in the top 15 percent of their peers nationally for math achievement.
Figlio also found in 2007 that middle school boys with typically female first names -- Ashley, Courtney and Shannon -- tended to perform worse and get into more trouble in school than their peers with distinctly male-sounding names.
• James Bruning, trustee professor of psychology at Ohio University, found that certain names imply activeness (so the child might be perceived as more athletic or energetic), others passiveness (so the child might be perceived as quieter and more reserved). Bruning surveyed 1,400 students in 1971 and about 500 in 1998, and found that traditional names, such as Michael, tended to rate higher for activeness, while names like Cecil and Percival were viewed as passive.
Certain names were also universally liked, in Bruning's study, such as Elizabeth, Catherine, Kathleen, James, John, and William. He also found that children as young as kindergarten age exhibited stereotyping of names, associating certain names with positive attributes and others with negative attributes.
Take Pride in an Uncommon Name
Germonique Ulmer, a public relations professional in Washington D.C., and her husband Kwame had a list of names, but none of them seemed right after the birth of their son. He was known as “Baby Ulmer” until the discharge nurse told them they had to write down a name.
Her husband had always liked the name Chinua for the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, which means God’s strength and God’s own blessing. When he finally suggested the name, it just felt right.
“Being African-American, my husband and I were very aware of the challenges of having a ‘black-sounding’ name,” Ulmer says. “But in the end, we decided that having a name that had a meaning we loved was more important than worrying about how that would impact his future employment.”
Help Picking Names for Parents-to-Be
Parents can shout a name as though they were calling their child in for dinner to see if it sounds right, says Janet Ozzard, executive editor of Babycenter.com. She also suggests how you’ll explain the family genesis of the name.
After the popularity of the erotica book “50 Shades of Grey,” for example, Ozzard says there was a rise in children named Ana and Christian, characters in the book, and even the name Grey itself. That's sure to be an interesting conversation one day.
Other considerations should include nickname potential -- both wanted and unsolicited -- what words can rhyme with your child’s name, how a given name sounds with your surname, spelling and how the name will sound when said along with the names of siblings.
"If you have several kids and you say their names all together, think about how that will sound," Ozzard says. "For example, say you have a daughter named Ella and a son named Sam; together, that could sound like 'salmonella'."