Popular baby names: The case for the common name
More common than the name is this naming concern heard from parents: “We don’t want her to be one of five in every class.”
We know they don’t need to worry about that: even the name Jennifer, with its impressive peak usage of 4 out of every 100 girls, didn’t achieve such a feat—and today’s #1 name can’t compete at just over 1 girl in 100.
But another issue is this: Does it make sense to avoid names just because they’re common? Sure, if there really were five children with the same name per classroom, but what if there aren’t? It depends on our naming goals, but here are some reasons we might want to use a common name:
1. If the common name has been common for a long time, it’s been time-tested. We know how well it works on a baby and on a grown-up; we know the possible nicknames; we know how the name is perceived (preppy? energetic? boyish?); and we know it’s not a flash-in-the-pan that will leave people saying, “Let me guess: born in 2010-2014?”
2. A common name is not going to disappoint us by becoming common. This may sound a little like “I’ll fall down on purpose to avoid tripping”—but there seems to be exponentially more disappointment when a name is chosen specifically for its uncommonness, only to have it explode into popularity that same year or soon after.
4. A common name may avoid some of the hassles of double-takes, explanations, mispronunciations, and misspellings. A name is never hassle-free, of course: my 1970s-common name, Kristen, is sometimes spelled Kristin or pronounced Christine . But I deal with fewer misunderstandings and remarks than my former co-workers Honesty and Ursa, both of whom were pretty sick of talking about their names by the time I knew them in their twenties.
5. A common name may be a family name or a name of some other special significance. Using the name after your Grandma Emma is different than using it because everyone else is doing it: the honor association gives the name another level of meaning.
6. Common names may fit well in your extended family, with your surname, and with all the names you like for sibling names.
7. And if it’s a name you love and agree on and want to use, that may be the best reason of all of them.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
on October 6th, 2011 at 12:23 am
Thanks for writing this! Most common names don’t do much for me, but I’ve clung to Jack for many years, longer than any other name, boy or girl, and I’m never giving up on it for many of the reasons you list. In fact, part of the reason I love it is because it’s sounds so ordinary, and yet to me, it’s anything but. It has a real history and track record. I don’t care how popular it is by the time I have kids, I’m still going to use it.
on October 6th, 2011 at 12:44 am
YES YES YES! People need to realize that there’s benefits to common names and cons to uncommon ones.
on October 6th, 2011 at 1:44 am
As a Jennifer, I can say that there were times I really hated my name being shared by so many other girls. It wasn’t until I joined my sorority that I began to really like my name. There were four of us, and we went by Jennifer, Jenny, Jen, and Fer. Seeing the name broken down like that was really cool, and each of our nn suited us (I was Jennifer, lol.) I then fell in love with the name because it’s such an interesting name with interesting sounds and an interesting history, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I am looking for more unusual names for my own kids, but I don’t want them to be the one and only of anything, either. And my favorite boy’s name is Sam, so he will definitely have a lot of company (including the son of my friend Jennifer from elementary school, lol). There are some real perks to having a more common name, too. My favorite doll as a child? None other than My Friend Jenny. Aside from Mandys (who might have had My Friend Mandy), or Barbie (and her friends), what girl gets a whole doll named after them?
on October 6th, 2011 at 5:42 am
Tremendously sensible, Swistle – thanks!
on October 6th, 2011 at 7:04 am
My DH and I struggled with this very issue when naming our daughter (now 10) Emily. We ended up choosing this lovely, time-tested name for its classic beauty and the fact that it went so well with our last name. So far, Emily has only encountered one other Emily in school, and she does not mind one bit!
on October 6th, 2011 at 10:51 am
Three cheers! Great article. This is the challenge I would face with another child. To go with a popular name or not? And after reading this, why not? What matters most is that you love the name. The hope is that your child will make the name his or her own, then what does common mean after that? Not much.
on October 6th, 2011 at 11:11 am
Just like to point out that numbers 5 and 6 where both numbered as 5!
Anyway, great post! I SO agree. I’m not sure if the exact same rules apply here in the UK, though – we seem much more controversial with naming (where classes are likely to be around 50% Olivias, Sophies, Emilys, Jacks, Alfies, Williams and friends).
on October 6th, 2011 at 11:23 am
i think it’s important to remember that while there are common classics like elizabeth or catherine there are also names that will become common for our kid’s era (ex. right now variations of bella, emma, ect). it’s surprising to me how many pregnant friends (who don’t know each other) have mentioned ruby and freya as possible names. none of us are as creative as we think we are and looking back now i remember the first baby aiden i heard about in the late 90’s and thinking that name was so different and he would certainly be the only aiden in his group of friends. i think it’s important to just pick what you love and not pick a name for it’s unique-ness.
on October 6th, 2011 at 11:28 am
#2 had a big impact on us this time around. With my daughter I was determined to find a name no one else around us had as I have an uncommon name. But agen Jocelyn arrived the name exploded, there are 3 in her age group at day care. After the initial disappointment I loved her name and it fit her perfectly especially the nn Jocie. So it was easier for us to decide on William, nn Liam got this little one despite the popularity. He’s due on my dad’s birthday, who is also a William, and we love the way it sounds with Jocie and our last name.
on October 6th, 2011 at 11:51 am
@shellezbellez “Aside from Mandys (who might have had My Friend Mandy), or Barbie (and her friends), what girl gets a whole doll named after them?”
Don’t forget My Friend Becky! As a Becky, she was my clear favorite. 🙂
on October 6th, 2011 at 12:19 pm
I have known from the time I was a little girl that my first daughter was going to be named Amelia,, after my grandmother, my favorite person in the entire world. I had no idead that it would become so popular. Then I married a man who’s grandmother was named Rose and wanted in on the action, the result Amelia Rose, much much more common than I would like, but like the example you used with Emma, the significance is far more valuable.
on October 6th, 2011 at 12:40 pm
I’m one of those that harps on popularity more than other posters. I think you make really good points, but I still think it’s a judgement call. Names like Emily (which is gorgeous), Elizabeth, William or James are names that seem like they will always be popular. They’re classic and timeless.
Then, there are names like Charlotte and Henry which are old names and classics, but in recent years haven’t had the popularity that they have now and that’s why I’d avoid these. They’re really nice names, but it goes into that Jennifer territory.
For me, I disagree with the notion that if only 1 in 100 have a name, it’s not really that many people because that’s taking into account everyone in the US. People in the same social circles tend to choose the same names, so the names of the kids they are surrounding themselves with are going to (usually) be in the same vein and therefore you’ll run into tons of other kids with the same name. Katie was the name of my generation and I knew countless girls with the name. It may have been 4/100 or even less, but I could name you 20+ girls I went to school with that had the name.
That being said, I think points 2-6 (both 5’s) are extremely valid and good reminders to the popularity adverse.
on October 6th, 2011 at 3:46 pm
Great article! I agree with a lot of what you said, and I do believe that if a parent loves a certain name that is popular, they shouldn’t avoid using it *just* because it’s popular.
That said, I actually was one of five girls in my class sharing a same name. And I went to a small school! And since it’s a name with no obvious nicknames, I came to wish I had been named something more uncommon. It got confusing at times. And I also am someone who likes to march to the beat of my own drum, so sharing a name with four other classmates made me wish for a name that stood out from the crowd. I know, though, that this could actually be a comfort to some kids – sharing a name with peers can give them a sense of belonging.
on October 6th, 2011 at 3:53 pm
I, too, had Amelia in mind when reading this blog. It’s so lovely. I don’t think I would let the popularity bother me, but it’s not my #1 right now. 🙂
on October 6th, 2011 at 4:00 pm
I can relate on two levels with comments. Clairels, my sister has loved the name Jack for years. That was HER name, as far as she was concerned. Regardless of popularity, she named her son Jack in 2009 and he’s the perfect Jack. I can’t imagine him with any other name.
As for myself, I’ve loved Amelia forever. I’ve been obsessed with Amelia Earhart since childhood and before I found this blog, I never realized its popularity. I was so disappointed when I saw it at the top of everyone’s list.
Now Hazel is my new favorite, but it’s now popular too. How sad. I thought I was finding a name that was unique and different. I don’tt care though. My child will get whatever name I love the most at the time, not list based (though lists are fun to look at).
on October 6th, 2011 at 5:03 pm
I agree that some parents make too big of a deal of the popularity of a name. As a Katherine, I can tell you it’s not just about the popularity of your name, but the name of similar names, too. I had five other Kates in my high school English class of sixty-odd kids. We were legally Katherine, Katherine, Catherine, Kate, Katya, and Katelynn.
We just registered our son for preschool; he’ll start in January. The Child Find coordinator mentioned they have three Jameses and two Jamies: one girl, one boy in their 150-odd school. I don’t know which kids are in which class, or where my Jamey will end up, but I just about cried when she told me about my son being James/Jamie number six!
on October 6th, 2011 at 6:53 pm
The problem with common names, I feel or have experienced recently,is that it may not be when they were children. If they move to a big city/college town there are going to be so many people from so many backgrounds and similar age groups where the name may have been popular. For example, I know a ridiculous amount of Sarah’s, mostly born in my age group. It is one of the most supreme classics, but I even feel kind of bad when someone will mention a Sarah, or are named Sarah and I have to ask or think to myself which one?
I do agree time tested classics,personal/family meanings etc. are great reasons to use them, but I don’t mind having to occasionally spell or explain my name to people, they seem interested, surprised, give me compliments, it’sa nice conversation starter. To each his own. For example as a tween Isabelle was my favorite name..now? It’s just lost that image I used to have of it, that I miss. In the least 10 years I fell in love with Noah and was than completely shocked when I started keeping track of the SSA list saw it spike. Sometimes I think maybe I will use it. You never know til you know.
on October 6th, 2011 at 7:13 pm
I say go for underused classics! My favorite names are Rose and Simon. 🙂
on October 6th, 2011 at 8:42 pm
My sister-in-law is a victim of #2. She had a popular 70s name, so she was determined her daughter wouldn’t have to share a name with any one in her class. When she was 6 months old, they got new neighbors with an 8 month old who has the same name. To make it worse, they even have the same last initial! To say my SIL is devastated is an understatement. There are definitely no guarantees.
on October 6th, 2011 at 11:39 pm
I had a class in highschool with 5 Sara/h’s in it. I also new a few Jennifer’s. I always said I’d never name a child Sarah or Jennifer, Michael or Shawn/Shaun/Sean. I know that those names aren’t popular now but still I don’t want to use a name that everyone else is using either. I think that paying attention to names in your area makes sense if you don’t want your child being 1 of many.
on October 7th, 2011 at 1:09 pm
I’ll stay well away from common names, especially for boys. There’s more to life and names than John, William, Michael or Jacob. You can give your child an uncommon name without it being associated to a celebrity, without having pronounciation issues, and without butchering the spelling. Plus if you like classic names, there are HUNDREDS of these that never reached the top100…
on October 7th, 2011 at 4:16 pm
There really are no guarantees. There were four Nichole/Nicole’s in my entire high school, which was the #8 name in 1982 (there was actually a Nichole with my same first & last name -with the “unique” spelling- in the grade above me). Two of my closest friends through high school and college are Carly and Karli, which wasn’t even in the top 200 in the ’80s, which is significant considering how many more babies were given the most popular names back then. I met two other Nicole’s in college (I’m sure there were more), but two more Carly’s, another Karli and a Carlie. My “group” in college was known as “Nichole and The C/Karlies” (there are four of them). Funny how the girl with the popular name was the only one seen as an individual.
on October 7th, 2011 at 7:21 pm
We just had a baby boy and wound up naming him Ben. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would name a child such a common name, but it was my husband’s favorite name and first pick. And I realized that I know a lot of children, but none named Ben. I know *three* Dashiells, but no Bens (this goes back to what an earlier poster mentioned about social circles having the same favorite names.) So I don’t know that he will be one of five in his class, even though conventional wisdom suggests otherwise. And in the meantime, he has a warm and inviting name that could suggest anything from a mechanic to a Senator, is not likely to be mispronounced or misspelled, and is readily accessible to all. I wasn’t sure in the beginning, but I’m glad we chose such a “common” name!
on October 7th, 2011 at 11:34 pm
I disagree. I dislike common names because they lack creativity and have done to death. Also, there are downsides to having a common name. I work in the medical field and whenever there are two or more patients with the same first and last name, we are automatically notified. Imagine having your medical records screwed up or to be confused with another Jane Smith or John Johnson.
With a unique name, you stand out. People (included prospective employers) are more likely to remember you, and it gives a kid a chance of feeling special. I know I did. I was always the only one in my entire school to have my name, and I loved it. I’ve also gotten comments about how pretty it is as well.
In my high school class of 43, we had several Katies and several Sarahs, two Hannahs, and two Claires/Clares. It was confusing sometimes, and I personally am glad that I had a name that stuck out to me.
I plan on giving my children uncommon names, most from Shakespeare or Greek (or Roman) mythology.
jiminy cricket Said
on October 9th, 2011 at 10:25 pm
We chose a perennially popular name, because of it has an endless bounty of nicknames and because it honored both of her grandmas. I doubt my daughter will need to go through life with her name amended by an initial… she’ll just use one of her nicknames. We did give an unusual middle name, she can go by her middle name if she needs to stand out.
The difference between say one of several Carolines (who can be called Callie, Carol, Caro, Calla, Caddie Carrie or Lina) and being one of several Harpers are vast.
on November 16th, 2011 at 5:20 am
So glad that you pointed out that if you like it—use it!!
on November 26th, 2011 at 11:02 pm
I can relate to this my parents made up my name and while I love my name it can get tiresome explaining it. On the other hand I grew up with A MILLION katie’s (all some form of catherine)
my two best friends are katy, another good friend in college, all three of my brothers have dated katies…two have taken a katie (separate from the one they dated) to prom, and there are endless examples to add of the katies in my life…so i think it is nice to pick something not popular and not completely unknown…doesn’t even need to be heard of, perhaps just easy to pronounce
on January 5th, 2012 at 11:41 pm
I’m with UniqueNameLover. You can be creative without being kree8tiv.
on March 1st, 2012 at 10:55 am
Growing up I ALWAYS had someone else named Sarah in my grade, and in middle school I had two other Sarah’s in my social studies class. It seems that whenever I introduced myself the other person would always say “Oh! My [female relative/friend] is named Sarah!” It’s funny it turned out this way because my parents picked it think that it wasn’t that popular.
I used to want a different name, but as I’ve grown older and traveled a bit, I’ve grown to love how my name can cross cultural boundaries. I tend to travel to and do a lot of work with the Latin American region and having the name Sarah makes introducing myself easy as it is a name that exists in Spanish (Sara). Additionally, I’ve met Sarahs from nearly every continent and many different cultures. I do sometimes wish that my name were more exotic and colorful, especially when I meet an “India” or “Beatriz” or “Colette,” but I’ve definitely learned to love being “Sarah.”
on June 3rd, 2012 at 1:53 am
I think SarahC’s point about names that can cross cultural boundaries is a really important one. I remember bar-hopping with my group of girfriends on my study-abroad trip in Scotland, and hearing (with a smirk), “Kelsey, Taylor, and Brittany? Of COURSE you’re American.” Every child will be unique no matter how unique their name may be–it’s more important to give them names that can cross cultural boundaries of time and place.
on June 4th, 2012 at 10:22 am
@SarahC: I agree, having traveled to Honduras frequently, I was glad my name translated so easily, as I am Sara, too. I love my beautiful, classic tho common name, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other. I think my name in fact is so common that a child with the name Sara (also Elizabeth, Catherine, and many others like that) can make it her own very easily.
I didn’t even have many other Sara’s in my schools growing up, but in college, I was one of 5 Saras on the cross country team. I didn’t love that but it wasnt a problem for me either.
on September 26th, 2012 at 6:20 pm
I live in a rather small town and the village next to us has 12 first graders, six boys and six girls. Four girls are called Emily.
on September 29th, 2012 at 9:35 am
As a young teenberry,having SUCH a commen name can be kinda annoying.Yes,its classic and pretty but I know at least 10 other girls with my name.Not to mention it was the top name when I was born and my mn was the 6th most popular.I sometimes wish my name was more unique like Indigo or Rosemarie.Or I would love a family name from my ubber German linage.(Ethel,Cecilia,Hathaway…)
A Quick Guide to Swistle: Baby Names | Waltzing More Than Matilda Said
on July 21st, 2013 at 1:05 am
[…] Nameberry, BlogHer and Pregnancy & Newborn magazine. She has also been recommended on Disney Baby’s Best Blogs for Baby Name Inspiration. […]
on July 26th, 2019 at 9:16 am
I have never had or wanted children, but had I become a mother, I would not have given my child a ‘common’ name simply because they are too popular and I like to be different. I love the names ‘William’ and Thomas’ but would not use them because of this.
The name I was assigned at birth was extremely popular at the time of my birth but I have since changed it to something more exotic.
leave a reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.