By Linda Rosenkrantz
The nominees for the 2018 Emmy awards have now been announced, and from our name perspective, there were some striking entries on the list. The following ten actors have particularly unusual appellations with intriguing backstories—whether they happened to start out with those names on their birth certificates or not.
A first generation American, Adina Porter is the daughter of a father from Sierra Leone, Africa and a Bermuda-born mother. Her first acting teacher was Butterfly (there’s a name!) McQueen of Gone with the Wind fame. Her character was reporter Beverly Hope in Cult. The name Adina is of Hebrew origin, and means “slender, delicate” and is not uncommon in Israel. It appeared on the US popularity charts only once in recorded years—1880.
When Aidy Bryant, known for her spot-on impressions of such figures as Adele, Roseanne, and Sarah Huckabeee Sanders, was born in 1987, her given name of Aidan was (and still is) highly unusual for a girl. A classic Irish name, Aidan took off for boys in the early 90s, rising from #90 in 1900 to a peak of #39 in 2003. It’s now at #221, while the more popular Aiden spelling ranks at 17. Chelsea Clinton chose the authentic Irish spelling for her son.
Actress/writer/web series creator of Awkward Black Girl and star of Insecure was christened Jo–Issa Rae Diop, her father a pediatric surgeon from Senegal. The name Jo–Issa is a combination of the names of her two grandmothers: Joyce and Isseu; her middle name is after an artist aunt. The Arabic name Issa has been trending in France since 2000—it’s now at #110 there.
Comedian, actor and rapper Katt Williams was born Micah Sierra Williams (and passed the name Micah on to his son). Micah is the name of a biblical prophet and was frequently used by the 17th century Pilgrims. Parents looking for an alternative to Michael have brought it to #107. The cooler nickname name Katt is more often seen as Kat, an increasingly used short form of the girls’ names Katherine, Kathleen, Katrina et al—an alternative to Kitty.
Mandy Patinkin, supporting actor, drama, Homeland
A guy named Mandy? Sure, if your given name is Mandel, as it is for the actor best remembered for his gorgeously named character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, and later as Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on Chicago Hope. Mandel is a German/Yiddish word meaning almond, rarely heard outside the conservative Jewish community (where Mendel is more common). We don’t expect to see many if any boys named Mandy either.
Merritt Wever, supporting actress limited series/TV movie, for Godless
Wever was born Siobhán Merritt, dropping her Irish first before making a strong impression as the endearingly upbeat Zoey in Nurse Jackie—for which she earned a previous Emmy. Meritt—which could almost pass for a virtue name—is more commonly spelled Merritt and in that form reached the Top 400 for boys at the turn of the last century.
Samira Wiley (shown) is known for playing Poussey Washington in Orange is the New Black and now has been nominated for her role as Moira/Ruby in The Handmaid’s Tale. Samira is a pretty Arabic name that is also spelled Sameera. It was on the French popularity list from 1965 to 2005, peaking at #107 in 1980 and is currently a Top 100 name in Portugal.
Actress Thandie Newton, the android madam Maeve Millay in Westworld—and partly responsible for the rise of the name Maeve—was born Melanie Thandiwe Newton, the daughter of a Zimbabwean princess named Nyasha. The name Thandiwe means “beloved” in the African Xhossa, Zulu, Swati and Ndbele languages. Thandie would make a charming nickname name.
This is the fourth Emmy nomination for his role as the hilarious Titus Andromedon on Kimmy. Why the extra ‘s’ on Titus? Maybe to match his surname? We’ll have to ask his parents. With the more usual spelling, Titus is a Roman, New Testament and Shakespearean name that’s rapidly increasing in popularity along with other s-ending Latinate names—it’s #299 in the US and 168 on Nameberry.
By far the Zippiest Name Emmy goes to Zazie Olivia Beetz, the German-American actress who is being honored for her role as Vanessa “Van” Keefer in Atlanta. Zazie is a French diminutive of Isabelle, and was the title character of Raymond Queneau’s novel Zazie dans le metro, which was made into a Louis Malle film.
This week’s news celebrates names that step outside the ordinary, from the worlds of hip-hop, college sports, and Spanish grandmothers.
Kulture and counter-culture
Maybe it’s the Cardi B effect. Last week the rapper and her husband Offset announced the birth of their daughter, Kulture Kiari. It’s a bold, possibly unique choice that reflects her father’s name and her parents’ values. Not surprisingly, the world had things to say about it.
This article is a welcome relief from the usual roll call of “crazy” celebrity baby names (which often turn out to be not actually that crazy). It’s a proud celebration of “extra juicy” names, not just because they made a change from the ones Boring Normals use, but because they challenge a dominant culture that has long belittled names that were out of the ordinary:
“As if language isn’t fluid! As if the tongue weren’t meant to always be learning! And what’s the result of it? Misplaced shaming and generations of missed opportunities.”
Now there’s encouragement to anyone thinking of naming outside the box.
Another defense of Cardi B’s baby name agrees that Kulture’s name shows her parents’ vibrancy and creativity. It’s not bestowed just for the sake of being a zany celebrity, but shows the pride they take in their, well, culture. And, as Cardi B said on her social media, “Anything else woulda been basic.”
Where do your naming tastes lie? Are you basic and proud, do you like names that blow your mind – or somewhere in between?
(And just for fun, since we’re talking about rappers: are you saying these rappers’ names correctly?)
Remember Riggins? His family is back for another boy name! Because if it’s difficult to decide whether or not to use an out-there name for a son, imagine what it’s like to name his brother!
Now I am pregnant again and it’s another boy. We struggled so much coming up with a name for Riggins, we are both clueless now.
But I don’t want Riggins to feel like his name sticks out like a sore thumb. I love his name and it suits him. The girls have family-inspired names, and Riggins’ middle is a family name, too.
My husband’s only suggestion for naming this boy has been Hardy and I’m not a fan.
I guess I’m trying to ask if we should stick to the traditional family names, or should I find something unique to go with Riggins?
Our last name is very common so unique isn’t such a bad idea to me.
The Name Sage replies:
by Sophie Kihm
Names are very revealing. They carry demographic information—names often give clues as to one’s approximate age, race, nationality, and gender. However, our names say more about our parents than they do about us. A child’s name can tell you a lot about his or her parents’ values.
For example, Jason Aldean and Brittany Kerr named their oldest son Memphis Aldean Williams. Memphis indicates their deep ties to the South—both as the birthplace of country music and of Jason and Brittany. And Aldean, the middle name baby Memphis shares with his father, tell us the couple values family, heritage, and tradition.
Brittany is now pregnant with their second child, and I wonder if the same values will come across in this baby’s name, or if new ones will be revealed. Likewise, what will we learn about the stars who have never named children before? Will Pippa Middleton use a family name for her baby, or choose something unexpected? Will Kate Upton go the typical supermodel route and pick a daring, bold baby name, or stick closer to her Midwestern roots with a safer, subdued choice? I’ve made my predictions below, but only time will tell.
There’s no two ways about it: unisex baby names are red hot right now!
The latest Top 100 lists for both boys and girls are peppered with unisex names, from once-unisex options now all but abandoned for one gender, like Evelyn and Madison, to names that are increasingly leaning one way or the other, like Aubrey and Avery, Riley and Cameron.
But there’s a difference between unisex baby names and gender-neutral ones.
Truly gender-neutral baby names are still, on the whole, a pretty rare phenomenon. Just take a look at our comprehensive list of the in the US today: only the top two or three (Charlie, Finley, Skyler) feel anywhere near mainstream. The rest of the list is populated by under-the-radar or plain invented picks, like Campbell and Ridley, Ocean and Timber, Kylin and Eastyn.
So, today we’re asking you to nominate your gender-neutral favorites — the names you like equally well for girls and boys. (You can find the thread that inspired this question.)
What’s your favorite name on Nameberry’s truly gender-neutral list?
Are there any unisex names that you prefer on the less popular gender?
Are there any 100% male names you’d consider for a daughter, or female names you’d love to use for a son?
What do you think of the trend for unisex names in general? What’s behind it, and where might it be leading?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or head on over to or to join the conversation!