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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 Berry Juice profile image

About the author


Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio.
View all of Abby's articles View all Berry Juice Bloggers


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

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karacavazos Says:

July 3rd, 2013 at 1:46 am

I agree with all these points and even thought of them individually in the past. I like #2 because people don’t seem to remember that. They freak out if you spell the first name differently and worry so much about them having to spell their name to everyone, but so many last names are even worse to explain than having to say “Sophia with an F, not a ph.” My last name is always butchered and I always have to say Kara with a K, but how much time or frustration does that REALLY cause? Not much. I’m all for the unusual, as long as it does have meaning and importance like point #1 says. Great post!

charlieandperry1 Says:

July 3rd, 2013 at 5:58 am

Yeah, I’m in general agreement. I love a lot of unusual names! I know I seem very pro-popular, but if there’s an unusual name you really love and it has loads of meaning- USE IT! I just don’t like it when people pass over a much-loved name becuase it’s ‘too popular’. I’d be as glad to meet a Zenobia as I would be to meet a Sophia (:

ScarletRune Says:

July 3rd, 2013 at 9:09 am

With the case of North, it’s not necessarily that it’s a unique name, it’s the fact that HER name is NORTH WEST. I get what the title was trying to do but that’s one name that didn’t belong. Perhaps use Blue instead?

ejs82 Says:

July 3rd, 2013 at 10:10 am

North isn’t necessarily terrible on its own, it’s that it’s combined with West. It’s like the baby’s name is the punchline to a joke. I think Apple is a pretty terrible name, but I also think Gwyneth Paltrow was sincerely trying to give her daughter a nice name- we just have very different taste. Kim and Kanye wanted people to laugh when they heard their daughter’s name. I think you make a lot of good points, but I just can’t get behind kree-8-tiv spellings. I’m sure I’m being classist, but I think they make the parents seem uneducated.

rh1223 Says:

July 3rd, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I agree that I’d much rather hear unusual names than common names, but I don’t think a kid should be given a completely ridiculous name with no meaning or heft behind it. North West is horrible because it’s silly and indulgent. Like a pp said, the punchline to a joke. A name shouldn’t be silly, ridiculous, or irreverent. Apple, I get. There’s spiritual meaning behind the fruit, even though I personally don’t like it. But Pilot Inspektor? Where is the significance or meaning behind that name? It’s another case of parents being indulgent and selfish.

On the other side of the same token, I despise boring names that have no importance. Boring names that have meaning I get, but another Sophia because you can’t think of anything more creative? And I especially dislike the arbitrary connecting middle name. Like, meh….let’s just put Marie in there for no other reason than it sounds good with the first name and I can’t think of anything else.

kayso Says:

July 3rd, 2013 at 2:53 pm

YES. I so agree with all ten of these points. I also agree with what others have said about disliking names that are essentially punchlines. But I don’t necessarily feel like it’s up to other people to decide whether or not someone else’s name is a punchline. Even with a name like North West. The family members have cited various meanings for her name, but that shouldn’t even matter. As a stranger on the outside, the main thought I have about that name is that she is one of the few lucky children born in 2013 who will never have to spell out her name, and she’s definitely the only person in her family who will never have to spell out her name.

R_J Says:

July 4th, 2013 at 9:13 am

I don’t think all spelling variations are created equal. Having to say “Sofia with an f” seems different (and less frustrating) than needing to spell out a name that is foreign to most ears.

But, I do like the increasing freedom in naming choices even if I tend to stay on the more conservative end of the spectrum. I like having more wiggle room in what I can name my kids, so overall I agree with the points made. I do think acceptance of unusual names is growing, and I don’t think acceptance is a bad thing.

mrs_anton_yelchin1990 Says:

July 4th, 2013 at 3:15 pm

And there’s nothing wrong with people if they like safe names like Sarah, Kate, Thomas etc.

In Defense of Emma and Ethan: Ten Good Reasons to use a Common Name – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

July 10th, 2013 at 10:58 pm

[…] love unusual names.  I can defend the wackiest of celebrity appellations, from North to Pilot to […]

Lkane Says:

September 22nd, 2013 at 7:48 pm

I have a daughter named Alsie (al-see). It means “strong-willed.” She was named after her grandmother. The name is very rare, but did make the top 1000 list back in the early 1890’s. This article lists many of the reasons we went for the unusual name. We are so glad we did because the name fits her perfectly!

RainbowBright908 Says:

October 5th, 2013 at 11:01 am

But there *has* been a widespread movement to make us all have surnames like Smith or Jones. Look at celebrities– Jennifer Aniston, Bob Dylan, and Steven Tyler are all celebrities who changed their last names to erase the “ethnic” sound of their last names. And that was just me pulling them off the top of my head. If you look at celebrities real names, you see this institutional racism. Stefani Germanotta would have a hard time being taken seriously by the music industry. Take on a silly name like Lady Gaga, and you’re halfway to super stardom.

I can relate to the author of this article, having grown up with an Americanized Polish last name that no one could pronounce! We cannot trace my family history further back than my great-great grandparents who immigrated from Poland circa 1880-1910 because, contrary to what they’ll tell you at Ellis Island, it *was* a common occurrence to Americanize last names– especially with immigrants who were illiterate. One of my great-great grandfathers first name was Stanislaus, and it was changed to Stanley. His last name was changed as well, to something more American.

lalala__lauren Says:

October 13th, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I think the most frustrating part for people with unusual names is not having to spell it for people, but people pronouncing it wrong all the time. Even unusual spellings that are actually spelled in accordance to the rules of English (if two vowels are together, the first one says its name; if there’s an E on the end, the earlier vowel says its name; etc.) get butchered. I cannot count the number of times my sister Raychel has heard Rochelle, Raquel, and Rachelle instead of Rachel and that’s the most frustrating part for her.

ToNameAFlutist Says:

January 19th, 2014 at 9:20 am

I think life is harsh on the Caitlin population because people misspell it all the time.

idkjustbrowsing Says:

October 29th, 2014 at 6:55 pm

I really found this article interesting. As someone who is from a family line of not only ‘uncommon’ names but also uncommon surnames, I’ve always felt the desire to have a more common name. But you know what? I actually really like both ‘common’ and ‘uncommon’ names. I’ve had to spell and or pronounce my name to a majority of the people I’ve met (especially throughout school) and thought that because people hadn’t heard it, that it somehow didn’t measure up to the more widely-used names. Now, I know I was wrong. Uncommon names are great!

(I’ve actually never met another person with my name and have only heard of it on any other person twice.)

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