Choosing the Best Name for Your Baby
It’s a golden age for naming babies. “There are just so many more names in use today than there were even a few decades ago,” says Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard. This means that, while the top 10 names are still popular, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any become as ubiquitous as Jennifer and Michael once were, she says. And with more resources than ever—books, websites, lists that break down names by every possible factor—there’s no reason you can’t find a name you (and your child) will absolutely love. To get there, follow this guide.
It’s never too soon to start making a list of names you love, says Pamela Redmond Satran, developer of Nameberry.com and co-author of 10 books about naming, including The Baby Name Bible. “In fact, it’s one of the only things about pregnancy and your baby that you can actually control, so daydream to your heart’s content!”
The vast majority of parents want a name that’s unique but also familiar enough that it won’t raise eyebrows. Thankfully, if that’s you, there’s an easy way to reach what Satran calls the Golden Mean. “On a list of the 1,000 most popular names in the U.S., you would want one that falls somewhere in the middle,” she says. That’s roughly between 400 and 600. In 2016, the last year of available name data, the quite-normal names Serena, Tiffany, Kingsley and Sage all fell in that range. You can consider anything that falls below 50 to be fairly popular, Satran adds.
Watch for repetition.
When browsing, remember that the Social Security Administration ranks each spelling of a
name individually. So while Noah may have been No. 1 in 2013, it was quickly toppled by
Aiden, Jackson, Jayden, and Jacob when you factor in their various spellings throughout the top 1,000. Why does that matter? Aiden, Aden, and Aydin all sound the same when called across the playground.
Keep an eye on trends.
If your ultimate goal is to choose a name that stands out, be aware of names that even
sound similar to the most popular ones. They can also get overused. For instance, Sophia, Olivia and Mia are all similar and popular, because of their melodious eeahh endings. Of course, in some cases, using a similar-sounding name that isn’t as popular can give you exactly what you want—a whiff of trendiness without having to put an initial after your kid’s name on her backpack. (Think: Gemma versus Emma.)
Know your neighborhood.
A name might be more or less popular across the country than it is where you live. Looking at the rankings for your state (find them at SSA.gov/babynames), and talking to local nursery school teachers and parents of young kids, can help you avoid a surprisingly popular choice. Paisley, for example, was the sixth-most popular girl’s name in Mississippi in 2015, but it ranked 45th nationally. Look at your social circle too, and consider the origin and general feeling of the names you find. You might think Ezekiel is unique, but if Levis and Ezras fill the Music Together classes in your town, there may be a little Ezekiel running around too. “Just don’t go overboard with the desire to stand out,” says Wattenberg. If you can’t imagine naming your son anything other than Ezekiel, that’s all that matters.
Try names on for size.
A lot of parents-to-be prefer not to share their final contenders with friends or relatives. But
it’s actually smart to gauge public reaction. To do so privately, use one of your favorite
names the next time you place an order at Starbucks, says Jennifer Moss, founder and CEO of Babynames.com. (Or have your partner try it with a boy’s name.) How does the barista react? Can she spell it? When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, Phoebe, I managed to nix both the lovely Penelope and Genevieve this way. It bothered me that both names tangled people’s tongues—and I didn’t want to shorten them to Penny or Ginny for expediency.
Poll your inner circle.
Even if you’re keeping a name quiet, it’s worth divulging it to a few key confidantes whose
taste you admire. Co-workers can be good for this, because they know you well and can be honest without triggering your defensive instinct the way, say, your sister can. And they just might see something you don’t or come up with an association you might not have noticed: “Do you watch This Is Us? It’s all I can think about when I hear the name Randall.”
Think in the future tense.
You’ve probably heard of the senator test: Will a name befit someone of gravitas and
success? But that only works if you favor traditional names, says Wattenberg, and even then it’s hardly a solid test. Just look at Condoleezza Rice. That said, choosing a name with some flexibility can’t hurt. “We named our first daughter Charlotte, but we call her Charlie,” says Maggie S., a mom of two girls in San Francisco. “If she decides at some point that she doesn’t want to have that nickname or prefers to go by something more formal, she can go back to Charlotte.”
Let go of your dreams (maybe just a little).
If any of these tests reveals a glaring problem with a contender, don’t just ignore it. As a
lifelong Francophile, Marisa K., a mom of two in Los Angeles, had always loved the boy’s
name Loren. But when it came time to name her son, she had to let it go. “Few Americans
would pronounce it in the proper French way (Lor-EN), and I didn’t want him to be made fun of for having a feminine-sounding name,” she says. Dying to raise an athlete or musician? Think twice before saddling your child (who may have no such desire or aptitude) with a name that reflects that, says Moss. It’d be hard to grow up as a tone-deaf Axl or an uncoordinated Beckham.
Turn your attention only to the positive.
Once you’ve vetted your list of names for deal breakers, “narrow up” by writing out what
makes each name special, Wattenberg says. This way, instead of choosing a name with the least amount of negatives, you end up with one that has the most positive attributes—so you’ll feel happier and more confident with your pick.
Choose a middle name.
“People expect too much heavy lifting from a middle name, but unless you’re planning to call your child something like Anne Marie, the middle name’s pretty much off to the side after you send out those birth announcements,” Wattenberg says. It’s not uncommon to choose a contrasting middle name, like offsetting a super-feminine first name with a masculine-sounding middle name. That kind of “opposites attract” middle name offers your child something different to go by later. Regardless of what you choose, make sure the middle initial doesn’t introduce any monogram mishaps that could trigger teasing.
Check your top pick against the last name.
If your child’s last name is a tongue twister or has a ton of letters, consider a shorter, simpler first name to help lighten that load, says Moss. If the last name lends itself to laughs (like Hogg), make sure your fave contender has an especially pleasing sound to distract from it. Also look closely at the junction where the first and last name meet up, Wattenberg adds. When you say the name Jonas Anders, it sounds like Jonah Sanders! And while it may seem obvious, listen for pairings that add up to something silly. This is what Wattenberg calls the Justin Case scenario!
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