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Unusual Baby Names: Why They’re Really On The Rise

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Unusual baby names are more, well, common these days than ever before, according to a new study.

This is not really news, and you don’t need to be a name researcher or statistician to realize it. Anyone who’s spent any time around children in the last few decades knows that you hear unusual names from Tatum to Trenton, from Delilah to D’Shawn around a lot more than you used to.

What’s surprising is the reason the San Diego State author of the latest study gives for the rise of unusual baby names since the 1940s, with the biggest rise in the 1990s. The theory: Higher narcissism among Baby Boom parents inspired the increase in unusual names.  We’re not so sure.

Jean Tweng, the author of the unusual names study, is also the author of two books on narcissism, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press, 2009) and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and –More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2007).

We hate to be too, well, narcissistic about this, but we think the rise in unusual names is mostly because of us.

Our first book, Beyond Jennifer & Jason, came out in 1988.  We called it Beyond Jennifer & Jason because its whole point was to encourage parents to move beyond the expected names — Jennifer and Jason, Jessica and John — that were epidemic at the time and choose something more distinctive and, yes, unusual.

That book changed the way a new generation of parents thought about baby names.  It was our book, we maintain, that propelled the shift in naming trends, not the new generation of parents.

And we have proof.

In 1981, when the first Baby Boomers were 35 years old and so had already named plenty of babies, 16.1 percent of all newborn girls were given one of the Top Ten Names, along with 22.6 percent of the boys.

That number stayed virtually unchanged in 1984, and was still basically the same — slightly lower for boys at 20.9, but a bit higher for girls at 16.8 — in 1987, when the peak crop of Baby Boomers were turning 30, at the height of their childbearing and baby-naming influence.

Beyond Jennifer & Jason was published, to a large wave of publicity, in August 1988 — a bit late in the year to have a significant impact in baby names.  For that year, the percentage of both boys and girls receiving a Top Ten name began to edge down, to 20.4 percent of boys and just shy of 16 percent of girls.

The more dramatic drop started with the 1989 statistics, the first full year Beyond Jennifer & Jason was on the shelves.  In 1989, 17.9 percent of boys received a Top Ten name, along with 14.5 percent of girls.

The proportion of babies receiving one of the ten most popular names continued to drop through the 1990s and is now under ten percent for both genders.

Of course, we weren’t writing our books in a vacuum.  In the 1980s, we and other new parents around us were looking for ways of doing things that were different from what our own parents did, and that included different names.  Society in general was moving in a more individualistic, less conformist direction.  And the influence of celebrities with distinctive names, from Madonna to Meryl to Sigourney to Oprah, cannot be underestimated.

And our message was greeted by a receptive audience, a new generation of parents eager to embrace new ideas and products.  BabyGap was founded in 1990, for instance, the same year Time Inc. bought Parenting magazine from the San Francisco mom who created it.

Baby boom parents undoubtedly played a role in the move toward more unusual names, whether inspired by Beyond Jennifer & Jason or their own narcissism or a hundred other factors.  But with the oldest Baby Boom parents entering their 40s in the late 1980s and the very youngest turning 40 with the new millennium, we can’t give them all the credit (or assign them all the blame, depending on your viewpoint) for the boom in unusual baby names.

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