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

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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19 Responses to “Unusual Baby Names: Why They’re Really On The Rise”

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LyndsayJenness Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 1:41 am

I loved this blog! You guys are so funny! My mother was telling me about that study, and I disagreed with it too! Maybe that’s just because I don’t want to think of myself as narcissistic, but I don’t think so.

I wish you had written Jennifer & Jason in 1984, I might have had a name that hadn’t just peaked.

You must feel great about yourselves having made such an incredible impact on so many children’s names!

ali Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 2:27 am

I disagree with the study but I also disagree that it was due to your book.

Linelei Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 8:35 am

Thank you for being willing to look at multiple causes. I was annoyed when I heard about that study because it is faulty science: there is hardly ever just ONE cause for an effect. This researcher is trying to simplify a very complex subject (naming trends) in order to fit her preferred subject of research (narcissism). This is what gives psychology a bad name! Nothing is so cut-and-dried.

Kayt Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 9:56 am

I can’t help but think that it’s a bit of all of the above, plus the fact that the internet was allowing parents-to-be to look at the popularity lists and get a feel for how popular a name truly was. I was born in 1986, and my mother still throws up her hands when I complain about how popular Katherine/Kate/Katie/Caitlin all are in my age group. By the time my sister was born in 1991, my mom knew that Amelia was pretty uncommon and named her with more confidence.

UrbanAngel Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 11:12 am

To be honest, I get ANNOYED at name ‘studies’. when MOST of the time they are done in one country or in one region and then people broadcast the studies as if it’s a global given. What’s different in the US isn’t different in Italy. Or, what’s odd to a Frenchman isn’t to an Egyptian.People run with so many of these studies, but they don’t take into account WHEN or WHERE the studies were done. Many factors affect names and heir reception- even politics affects it!

There are pros & cons with having a popular, traditional name and having a non-popular & non-traditional name.
I think as long as parents choose a name for the right & pure reasons, who cares. I don’t think it’s narcissistic.

Naming your kid Audio Science is narcissistic. Fine, if you want to be extremely radical or indulgent, then at least give the kid an option of James Science or Audio James where eh can later on choose .I’m not saying I agree with or like Audio Science, that’s just an example

My top 3 boy names are Dylan, West & Asher. Dylan is in the top 100 of 7 countries that I know of, Asher is one of the fastest rising names in the states & West isn’t in the top 1000 in the US. I go for the names I like because of their sound, connotation, meaning etc.

Personally, I couldn’t give a hootin or a tootin what people think. I know all off the names i like I’ve extensively researched and thought of – I like and will use them for pure reasons. Not because I’m trying to be different or to have popular names.

Pamela Redmond Satran Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 11:33 am

Actually, the Social Security Popularity List was not created until the very end of the 1990s — here’s the nameberry blog on the subject: http://nameberry.com/blog/2009/09/21/most-popular-names-how-the-list-was-born/

In our books from 1988 on, we were the first and only baby name writers to publish a statistically sound (as far as it went without a national survey) national popularity list, culled from state records. Our research into popularity statistics over the dozen years before the Social Security List appeared was hugely influential in terms of parents’ name choices and movement toward unusual names.

Dove14 Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 11:57 am

Increased global/cultural awareness, the internet, American individualism, baby name books, celebrity influence — I’m sure all of these things have contributed to the increase in unusual names.

I don’t think personal narcissism is that big of a factor, though. I sure don’t think of all the wonderful posters here on Nameberry as narcissistic, but rather as thoughtful, intelligent and loving parents!

Regardless, thanks Pam and Linda for great baby name books and a great baby name site! 🙂

Patricia Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 12:42 pm

While I would agree that your books played a significant role in getting parents to look at baby names in a new way and branch out with less popular names, I do think there is some narcissism or attention-getting-behavior or something ??? when parents deliberately change the spelling of the name they’ve chosen for their baby in order to be different or unique. There are a LOT of children with horribly spelled names, and I don’t think you want to take credit for that! It seems to me that the positive change of choosing from a wider pool of names may very well have been influenced by your books. But then parents began to go one step further with cre8tive spellings/misspellings.

olivegreen Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I am definitely biased since Beyond Jennifer and Jason was the book that really started my name obsession! I guess I was about 13 when I bought it, so I grew up with the notion that giving your child a top-10 name was a no-no. I certainly don’t think that narcissism is the primary cause of people giving their babies unusual names. I think your point about our overall cultural move towards a less conformist society is the biggest factor. Up until the 1940s and 50s, people wanted to fit in above all else. Conformity was a positive back then. Even if people wanted to give their children more unusual names, they were probably afraid to do so. Now people are free to go with their instincts (with positive and negative results!). Does this bring out narcissism in some? Sure. But most people just want their children to feel that they are free to become whomever and whatever they want, and our naming styles now reflect that. Overall it’s a positive in my opinion 🙂

Pamela Redmond Satran Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Right, and then there is the factor of celebrities (and their babies) with really attention-getting names getting a lot of, well, attention…..and money, jewelry, hot spouses etc. So if naming your kid the equivalent of Madonna or Viggo helps him or her have a better life, that’s maybe not narcissistic so much as better parenting? Heightened awareness of the power of a brand?

Karen Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I think it was the whole zeitgeist! Cable tv became more common, I really think a lot of individualistic people were inventing characters that didn’t have typical names. I think there’s a whole glossing over of the impact of the Cabbage Patch dolls. Whatever made you write those books and whatever made people buy those books – narcissism as the study suggests, maybe. A whole generation really smashed out of the box, it’s all they could talk about. They grew up in the 60s, individualism, man. You couldn’t sell those books to people who weren’t thinking there just had to be some other names than their parents and peers.

I was watching the tribute to John Hughes at the Oscars, and suddenly had a flash hypothesis on this very subject. “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” came out in 1986. I was only 16 then, and well, the name Ferris didn’t really take off, but it seems people of my generation (Gen X) were inspired more to use names of a completely different quality than the Johns and Michaels and Chrises we had in school. I’m not saying it was caused by FB, but I’m not sure it just came from the books, it just all happened right around the same time. The trend is evident on the boys’ names forum as filtered over the past 24 years into mothers who were too young to really get it from the movie – but the urge is strong on these nouveau ambiguous kind of names, Cameron and Sloane as well. I was too young to have children when the movie came out as well, but it did perk up my ears for new names and readiness for a book like “Beyond Jennifer and Jason” to fuel my interest.

I may be giving pop culture more credit than it’s due, but I think sometimes they offer a glimpse into what some people are already doing and spread the ideas out to other people who never looked at the problem that way before. A name from a movie doesn’t itself become popular necessarily, but they do provide inspiration to branch out, and if there’s a book about it, people might buy it.

Even before that, I know my cousin had her first child in 1982, and she was the consummate portrait of a yuppie/young end of the baby boomers – her daughter is Katelyn, which was extremely unusual at the time, and I know she was pretty proud she came up with it. Her older sister by two years was also quite fashion-forward-conscious with names. She gave 5 boys handsome but unusual names, and dabbled with unique spelling a bit before that was cool, wayyyy before it became unadvised to, say, put a y in a boys name where it doesn’t need one. Just saying. That kid is over 20 now and the youngest; I don’t think my cousin read your books.

Statistics of name trends bearing on the release of your books really seems to indicate one thing, but it seems obvious to me that things were already going in that direction on their own somehow. I’m not saying the books didn’t give a big push, but I also think you wouldn’t have written them if you didn’t sense this need or shift in culture, and not a lot of people would have bought them if they wanted to keep doing things the same old way – I don’t think most of the earliest readers of the book got the idea from you as much as got more of the guidance they sought from you. In turn, they set a trend for later generations to care a lot more about this sort of thing.

UrbanAngel Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 3:50 pm

By the way, I hope you know in my ‘rant’ that I wasn’t talking about you or your books – I was moaning about the people who do studies and then run with them. I love Nameberry 🙂

Interesting post, anyway

Peach Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Karen you are right on. You said everything I was thinking after reading this post — and a bit more!

Alex Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Karen–I, too, agree with you utterly.

Tracey R Says:

March 15th, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I think you’re absolutely right that your books have influenced why we see more unique names. Your first book was published right after I got married. I lost a baby and then didn’t have another for 10 years, but I’d bought that first book and almost every other one of your books since.

I know when I was carrying the first one, I’d overhear other pregnant ladies talking. And it seems they had not an original bone in their bodies, frankly. They were all going to name their daughters Ashley, apparently, and their sons Matthew or Cody.

By the time I had my first child 10 years later, things were getting more interesting. Sure, there were tons of Bailey/Kaylee/Katelyns toddling around, but there were also starting to be more Maxes and Victorias. By the time my second was born 10 years ago, there were loads of Hannahs and Olivias (and still plenty of the Bailey/Kaylee/Katelyns), but some more unusual names for the time like Ruby, Audrey and Isabella were heard once in awhile (I named her Arabella, which is still pretty rare–she’s Bella. All the other Bellas we know are much, much younger).

And my latest, 5 years ago: yup, still lots of Emmas, Emilys, Olivers etc., but all kinds of names I’d never even heard of when I bought that book. She’s nicknamed Gemma, by the way. We’ve only met one other, last year, a newborn. Gemma in her case is short for Gemelliana, which is an ancient Roman name in its adjectival form.

Our first? We gave him a pretty popular name at the time, Alexander, but call him Alec. We’ve run into a few Alecs–just a few, and all in wealthy areas. His middle name is still pretty rare: Jasper.

JAKS Says:

March 16th, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I’m going to have to agree that there are a number of factors that have influenced baby naming today, including the availability of great baby naming books…but one that is way down on that list is narcissism. I’m sorry – naming your child something unusual or spelling their name in a different way does not equal narcissism. In a small percentage of cases, sure, blame it on narcissistic parents. The majority of cases? Nope. It’s ridiculous to attribute great cultural changes, to boil them all down, to ‘narcissism’. Seriously.

Emmy Jo Says:

March 18th, 2010 at 4:08 pm

While your books may play have played a role in getting parents to consider unusual names, I think there must be other factors at work as well.

I was born in 1981 and have been interested in unusual names since the late 80’s/ early 90’s, when I was in elementary school. I’d never even heard of your books until recently. I had to content myself with combing through Winthrop Ames’s “What Shall We Name the Baby?” (published in 1941) and trying to pick out interesting names I’d never heard of. I remember Amity and Aldercy were my girl favorites at the time. For boys, I was obsessed with the Old English “residence” names, like Ashby, Oakley, and Kenton. I developed my interest in uncommon names around the same time you wrote your first book, but it was entirely independent of any influence your books may have had.

Could there have been some cultural factor that caused both me and you and a bunch of new parents to become interested in unusual names around the same time? And could that have been what created such a market for your books — parents were interested in choosing something “different” and just needed someone to tell them which names were truly unusual and which were overused?

Azure Says:

April 7th, 2010 at 7:40 pm

When did the SSA start releasing the top 1000 names? I think that had a big effect. People had statistical proof of a name’s popularity.

Eli Says:

April 8th, 2010 at 1:04 am

The trend is to be different, in order to be the same as everyone else who wants to be different. Individualism doesn’t relate to a name or color, it’s sticking to what you believe in and not going with the flow.

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