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New York Baby Names: Big competition in the Big Apple

New York Baby Names

Journalist and New York City mom Laura Dunphy reports that the pressure is on for Gotham parents to choose baby names that are more creative, more unusual, cooler than those anyone else is using. But no matter how hard you try, you still might not make it.

Ah, New York, New York.  If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.  And if you can name your baby here without needing therapy or Xanax, then I applaud you.

That’s because like everything else in NYC, baby naming is intense.  If most people think naming children is a pleasant activity, like badminton or a picnic, Manhattanites treat it as a competitive sport, like rugby or bond trading.

The drama stems not just from our huge population, but from the fact that every neighborhood is jam-packed with thousands of people just like you, drawn to that ’hood, that block, that building for the same reasons you were.  In short, they share your taste.  And when you’re surrounded by people who share your taste, it’s only natural to feel competitive when there’s finally an opportunity to distinguish yourself.  What better way than to choose an enviable name for your offspring?

In my downtown neighborhood of Greenwich Village, residents still feel connected to the area’s artsy bohemian roots.  Creativity is prized above all else, so America’s favorite names aren’t necessarily preferred here.

I admit the name Sophie was growing in popularity when I bestowed it on my daughter.  But there were only 291 Sophies born in all of New York State that year – what’s the chance we’d meet another one in our tiny little corner of the city?

Well, on our first trip to the pediatrician, we sat in the waiting room with two other Sophies.  Our first mommy-and-me group had two Sophies and one Sophia.  The Social Security Administration list shows that Sophie just broke into the Top 100 names countrywide, but it often feels like it’s in the Top 10 among parents in the Village.

I started paying closer attention, and it turns out that even when you’re going off the radar, you’re still not as clever as you think you are.

Disappointed by how common Sophie felt, my husband and I updated our favorite names list, with originality as a key factor.  We thought we’d found a hidden gem in Dashiell – not even in the SSA’s top 1000! — whom we could call Dash.  We then toured a handful of preschools, and there was a Dashiell or Dash in every single one of them.  (Met another one this morning, in fact.)

Names that have creative appeal, like Felix, Penelope and Tatum, are depressingly common.  I’ve even heard such outliers as Anton, Cedric and Odessa at least once.

New mothers are constantly bummed by this side effect of city life.  On a message board for downtown parents, one mom recently posted a question regarding her infant son, Porter, and got a response from another mom with a newborn named Porter.  The first mother seemed shocked, and even a little defensive – “I can’t believe we met another PorterDo you mind if I ask how you came up with it?  We used it because it’s a family name.”

Ah, the family name defense.  Shaking the family tree is one of the most acceptable ways for a Manhattanite to ascribe superiority to the choice of a name.

At a downtown playground, a mom watched her little girl take turns on a slide with a curly-headed boy.  The boy’s father came up to observe the fun. “What’s her name?” Cool Dad asked the Mom.

“It’s Storr, a family name,” the Mom replied.  “But we call her Storri.”

“Awesome!  Is that with a “y” or an “i”?” Cool Dad asked, not missing a beat.

This “Storri” is a great example of a name that jumps on a celebrity bandwagon (Jenna Elfman’s Story Elias, Minnie Driver’s Henry Story), but has a personal connection that can give you the upper hand if you meet someone who got the idea from Minnie Driver.  Basically, Storri is cool; Story, not so much.

As for ownership of a name, specific rules apply: thou shalt not use a friend’s name, unless it was already on your list at the time that her baby was born, and you made it clear at that time that you loved it.  Trust me, even friends can become frenemies over the topic.  At a local playground, I heard one mother ranting about a pal who’d named her new baby daughter Tallulah: “She hasn’t spoken to me since she did it, because we both know she stole it from my Tallulah.”  (Apparently this complaining mother forgot that she herself “stole” it from Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, but that’s another story.)

So what’s an expectant parent to do?  To find out, I asked two neighborhood friends who are both expecting their second children, to see what they wish they’d known the first time around and how they’re handling the task of naming #2.

My friend Cherylyn loves her daughter Sophia’s name, but did confess, “I’m just so bummed that it’s one of the most popular names.”  For daughter #2, due in late November, she and her husband are slowly whittling down a list of favorites.  “We’re definitely trying to find something more unique,” she said, adding that she keeps her ears open when she’s at the park or zoo.  If she hears a name too many times, it drops off the list.

My friend Lucy is still pleased that she named her daughter Scarlett, saying it’s just distinctive enough that they almost never meet another one.  But for Girl #2, due any minute, she and her husband are opting for an even more alternative choice.  Emboldened by some of the names she’s heard, Lucy is confident that Baby #2 will fit in with any uniquely named peers.  While the name will remain a surprise until the baby’s arrival, a traditional middle will balance the unusual first.

Lucy’s sure that her friends in the city will be delighted, and maybe even envious, but her English mother might not see the appeal: “I know my mother’s going to say, ‘You can’t name her that!’”

Well I say, sure you can.  Just be prepared to meet another one on the first day of preschool.

As a journalist, Laura Dunphy has covered everything from Hollywood celebrities to the U.S. Congress.  She lives in New York City with her husband, daughter and dog.

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