From Aaliyah to Zvi, the range of name choices is dazzling. If you're a sleepless parent-to-be, it can look like a vast landscape with no road map. To make sure you keep your bearings, here are some basic principles for understanding namesand finding that one perfect name that speaks to your heart.
Rule #1: Personal taste isnt so personal
Not long ago, I heard an expectant mother beside herself with outrage. She had just learned that another woman in her small town had stolen her baby name! No, she admitted, she had never met the woman. But for years now she had been planning to name a baby Keaton, a name she had personally invented, and now there was another little Keaton right across town. Someone must have told that other mother her own secret, special name. Thief!
Chances are this was not really a case of name larceny. That mom had just run into a startling fact of baby name life: our tastes, which feel so personal, are communal creations. Keaton? Well, its a surname ending in n, a style parents are flocking to for fresh ideas that sound like classic names. K, in particular, is a hot first letter. And dont forget that almost every parent today grew up watching Alex Keaton on "Family Ties." So just like that outraged mom, thousands of parents across the country have independently invented the name for their kids.
We live in a shared culture with common experiences that shape our likes and dislikes. That means overlapping tastesand as a rule, the closer two people are, the greater the overlap. Many of us have had a long-cherished name stolen by friends who had long cherished it themselves. Its frankly unnerving to discover that the quirky name youve always just happened to like is now a chart topper. What ever happened to individual style?
Before you panic and name your son Aloysius, remember that communal taste is really a good thing. That shared perspective is exactly what gives names their style and nuance. Its also the context that lets you define your own style, meaningfully. Use the backdrop of your social group, your community and your generation to choose names that make the kind of statement youre looking for. And if you do meet another Keaton, take it as a positive sign that your son will be fashionable. Parents are the ones who worry about a name standing out; kids are happy to fit in.
Rule #2: All last names are not created equal
I can see a runway model wearing a sheath dress thats so gorgeous I could just melt looking at it. But I know perfectly well that the same dress on my real-world figure would be a train wreck. Similarly, I know that the stylish Irish name Kennedy, paired with my last name Wattenberg, would sound like someone falling down stairs.
In names as in clothes, the key is to choose the styles that flatter you. Run down this basic checklist before you make your final choice.
Length and rhythm: Sullivan and Flanagan match in style, but Sullivan Flanagan is a red-flag name. Watch out for sing-song rhythms and tongue twisters.
The Justin Case Syndrome: A perfectly reasonable first name can meet a perfectly reasonable last name and create something perfectly ridiculous. When you have a candidate picked out, say the full name out loud repeatedly to look for hidden landmines. Include nicknames, tooBenjamin Dover is one thing, Ben Dover quite another.
Meeting in the middle: Look carefully where the end of one name meets the beginning of another. Jonas Sanders will be heard as Jonah Sanders or Jonas Anders. Alexander Anderson sounds like a stutter.
Special cases: If your last name is a common word, its especially important to avoid alliteration. Jenny Jumps and Walter Wall sound like characters from a children's picture book. If your last name is a common first name, take special care to choose first names that wont make you sound inside-out. Nicholson Thomas, for instance, is asking for trouble. And if your last name just is trouble (Rump, Hogg, etc.), you can use the rhythm of a long, rolling first name to draw the emphasis away from it.
Rule #3: All naming is local
Popularity rankings are useful, but to understand your real-world name environment you should look around your own neighborhood. America is a big, diverse country, with many different name trends operating at once. Money, geography, ethnicity, and education all swirl together to form microclimates of style, with local spikes in the use of particular names.
You can look up Oliver and say, Ah, popularity rank #267, I wont meet many Olivers. But if your friends have kids named Julius, Lucy and Charlotte, you should expect to see Olivers on your block. Not to say thats a bad thing. In that kind of community Oliver wont risk teasing, whereas he might find it rough going in a sea of Kaydens and Madisyns.
Rule #4: Other peoples opinions matter
As a parent, the choice of a baby name is entirely up to you. Why should you listen to what anybody else has to say, let alone your crazy friends and relatives?
Some food for thought: the choice may be yours, but you are making it for someone else. You are just a trustee in this matter, assigned to handle the affairs of another person who is unable to act because he or she has not yet been born. And those crazy friends and relatives? They are going to be your babys friends and relatives before long. Dont let them bully you, but dont completely ignore them, either. As a group, they represent the society thats going to be hearing, and judging, your childs name for a lifetime.
You dont have to flag down every passing car to ask for opinions, but its worth choosing a few level-headed confidantes to air out your ideas. They might just spot something you missedthe new Muppet with the same name, or the obscene meaning of the name in French. You can always swear them to secrecy afterwards, and they'll be tickled to be in on the surprise.
Rule #5: Choose the name you would like to have yourself
This is the top piece of advice I give expectant parents. We all have many factors in mind when we choose a name. We may want to honor our relatives, or our ethnic heritage. We may see baby naming as an opportunity for personal expression. Use whatever criteria you like to narrow down your name choices, but before you fill in the birth certificate, stop and give the name this final test: if you were starting life today, knowing everything you know about the world, is this the name you would want to represent you? If so, you can feel confident that youre giving your child the best birthday present possible, one that will last a lifetime.
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