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In Defense of Atlas, Apple, and North: Ten Reasons to Embrace Unusual Baby Names

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By Abby Sandel of Appellation Mountain

The headlines are predictable.

Start with Apple or Pilot Inspektor or Blue Ivy or North or whatever the latest celebrity birth announcement reads.  Then add a dismissive adjective like crazy, worst, or wacky.

Predict years of playground torment and challenges with employment.  Wait for comments to suggest that little North‘s life would be so much better if only Kim and Kanye had went with something normal like Ava!

While I don’t love every single name chosen by celebrity parents, I do think we’re overlooking the obvious.

There’s really no proof that an unusual, even outlandish name leads to misery.  And you don’t have to be a celebrity to consider a truly daring name.

In fact, I think a lot of us enjoy names that you don’t hear everyday. And so here are ten solid reasons to embrace unusual names.

10. Unusual names are pretty common.

If you follow the statistics issued by the Social Security Administration, you might have heard this rule of thumb: about 75% of all names given in any year are represented in the Top 1000. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll notice that the percentage drops a little each year.

In 1999, over 84% of boys and nearly 73% of girls received one of the 1000 most popular names, or about 78.6% overall.

By 2012, the numbers were 78.62% of boys and 66.82% of girls. That’s 72.82% overall.  The trend is solidly in favor of more diversity in given names.

9. Fewer of us have the most common names.

Even among the 72.82% who do receive a Top 1000 name, there’s a broader distribution across those thousand choices.

Here’s an example. From 1900 to 1909, more than 5.7% of all newborn boys were named John, and nearly 5.2% of all girls were named Mary.

In the 1920s, more than a quarter of all newborn boys received one of the Top Five names – Robert, John, James, William and Charles. About 15% of girls were Mary, Dorothy, Helen, Betty or Margaret.

Numbers like those are unthinkable today.  If we look at just the Top 1000 names for 2012, then no single boys’ name was given to more than 1% of all newborns.  Only two girls’ names crossed the 1% threshold: Sophia and Emma.  The Top Five names for both gender represent fewer than 5% of all children born in the US.

8. We’re more familiar with unusual names.

You might consider Miley a trendy name. Jaidyn might strike you as a needlessly contrived spelling. But do they seem truly outlandish and bizarre?

From celebrities’ kids to television characters to the little boy down the street, the more we become accustomed to hearing uncommon appellations, the more they seem familiar – even when we hear them for the first time.

So when your friend announces that she’s calling her new triplets Paxton, Arlo, and Sicily, you’re more likely to admire her style than to question her judgement.

7. All must be spelled.

We often forget that this has always been true. Kathryn or Catherine? Stephen or Steven? Plenty of established names have valid variant spellings.

Yes, Persephone will have to spell her name.  But so will Madelyn and Sophia.

6.  Boys’ names are more creative than ever before.

The list of acceptable girls names has along been broader, at least in the US.  But we’re increasingly more accepting of diversity in boys’ names, too.

Sure, Sebastian and Elijah might be teased in elementary school – but the bully is just as likely to be named Gabriel or Jayden.  Parents worried about this possibility might choose a power boy name, like Cash or Ace, but the days of playing it safe by sticking with Tom and John are over.

Whether your son’s name is best-suited to a romantic poet or a heavy metal guitarist, he likely won’t suffer for it.

5. Name choices tend to reflect our backgrounds and lifestyles, not dictate them.

Being named Dweezil was probably not the strangest thing about growing up as Frank Zappa’s son. Suri Cruise would be followed by paparazzi even if she were just Jane.

Unusual names tend to reflect the values and preferences of our families and communities.  Should you move from, say, Park Slope to Poughkeepsie, your daughter might be the only Zenobia.  But the reasons that inspired you to choose the name are portable.

4. Acceptance of unusual names is growing.

Some argue that sticking with the classics is the best way to give your child a leg-up when she applies to Harvard. Or when he interviews for a job at the White House.

Every now and again, a study pops up explaining that girls named Kate fare better than those called Bertha or Starla.  But if you’re an employer eager to hire a diverse workforce or an admissions officer looking to compose an inclusive incoming class, why wouldn’t you interview Deonte along with David, Yasmeen as well as Ashley?

I would be surprised to meet a federal prosecutor named Misti or Rascal.  But there’s a big middle ground between Misti and Elizabeth, Rascal and James.

3. Personalized, customized products are just a click away.

If you grew up with a strange name in the 1970s or 80s, it might have been tough to find personalized pencils, or a bike license plate with your name on it.  Mail order took weeks, and the range of products was limited.

Today that’s just not an issue.  Check out the nameberry store.  Or countless shops, from tiny Etsy boutiques to major retailers.  It took me about two minutes to program my daughter’s LeapFrog Puppy Pal to say and spell her name – Clio, even though her name has never cracked the US Top 1000.  Truly?  It didn’t ever cross my mind that it couldn’t be done.

2. An unusual surname doesn’t inflict lasting damage.

I grew up with a very unusual last name.  After I’d spelled it out, inevitably I had to an offer an explanation.  “It’s Polish.  My step-grandfather’s family simplified the spelling in the early 20th century …”  It was butchered at most major life events, including my high school graduation.

When I married a man with a simple, but not terribly common surname, I happily switched.  But I sometimes miss my distinctive surname.

If there hasn’t been a widespread movement to get us all to adopt Smith or Jones, why would we expect to all answer to Bill and Anne, Ethan and Ava?

1. An unusual name with meaning trumps an ordinary one chosen just because.

Plenty of us give our children names without layering meaning and significance on every syllable, and that’s fine.

But when a name has meaning – when it honors a great-grandmother, or evokes the place you met your spouse – even the most outlandish choice can seem like the logical, correct and inevitable option.

So what do you think: are unusual names a problem, or does it depend?

Abby Sandel runs the popular website Appellation Mountain and contributes the weekly Nameberry 9, rounding up the names in the news, for us every Monday.

Illustration: Anne Heche with her sons Atlas and Homer

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Abby

Abby Sandel is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and a columnist for Nameberry. Look for her weekly name news updates here every Monday.
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