Why you should care
Fewer parents are picking popular names for their children, but going for uncommon ones instead.
A kindergarten teacher tells her students to form a circle on the floor while she takes attendance. A stampede of 5-year-olds scrambles over, and after several minutes spent squirming and rearranging limbs, they finally manage to settle down into some semblance of a round shape. The teacher begins roll call — “Dionysus?” “Here!” says a tiny blond girl. “Basil?” “Here!” shrieks a small boy. “J—Jone … or John?” the teacher hesitantly says. “Am I saying that right?” “Yes,” John says quietly. The other kids turn and stare at him. “John?” questions the girl named Dionysus. “What a weird name!” All the kids squeal with laughter.
It’s not just celebrities who give their kids names like Apple and Pilot Inspektor. Creative names have been popular in many African-American communities since the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, as activists called for Black people to choose names with African significance. Today, Americans of all backgrounds are increasingly picking unusual names for their children. A 2016 Goldman Sachs report found that in 1940, 20 percent of all male babies in the U.S. were given one of the top five most popular names in the country. By 2014, that number had dropped to just 4 percent.
Before the internet, no one realized how popular certain names were, but now the information is out there.
Cleveland Evans, former president of the American Name Society
The internet, though not only baby-name websites, has been a key driver of this shift because parents can easily find out which names are most popular. If it was James, Robert and John or Mary, Linda and Barbara in 1940, today it’s Liam, Noah and William, as well as Emma, Olivia and Ava.
“Before the internet, no one realized how popular certain names were, but now the information is out there,” says Cleveland Evans, professor of psychology at Bellevue University and former president of the American Name Society. That’s how we ended up with so many Jennifers and Jessicas, born in the 1980s. Today, anyone can access naming data from the Social Security Administration and go against the trends if they so choose.
And more and more people are doing just that. When cosmetics entrepreneur Lu — who requested her last name not be used — learned she was pregnant, she knew right away she would give her baby a special name. “I hated my name growing up,” says Lu. “I wanted my kid to have a name with meaning.” Lu and her then husband, who’s Israeli, initially decided if they had a boy, they wanted to give him the Hebrew name for “my ocean,” which is pronounced LEE-yahm. But Lu liked the English translation better, so the couple chose “Ocean.” Today, Ocean is 12 and Lu says people constantly tell her how much they love his name.
Shermain Jeremy, a New York mommy blogger, also started thinking about names as soon as she learned she was pregnant. She wanted to give her child a unique name to make her stand out. “Your name is your banner,” Jeremy says. Inspired by J-Zay and Beyoncé naming their first child Blue Ivy, Jeremy wanted her kid to have two first names. “Rose” was her favorite; she also liked “Opal,” her first daughter’s birthstone. Jeremy threw in a hyphen to make sure no one would drop one name for the other. Today, Opal-Rose is 3 years old. Jeremy used the same formula for daughter No. 2, Ruby-Rain. “It’s about meaning and a sense of pride and identity,” says Jeremy, who has already purchased domain names for both daughters — Opal-rose.com and Ruby-rain.com — should they want them in the future.
Jeremy isn’t alone in using pop culture to choose a name. Last year, 69 people in the U.K. named their baby Khaleesi, after the character played by Emilia Clarke on HBO’s Game of Thrones, according to the Office for National Statistics. “It’s a different name, but it’s not too different,” says Evans, pointing out that “Khaleesi” sounds a little like the more familiar names Lisa or Kayley.
So are the Johns of the world feeling left out these days? Not yet. John Soat, a graphic designer in Brooklyn, New York, is named after his uncle and says he has no qualms with his name. “No one has ever told me, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful name,’ but I don’t ever have to correct anyone after pronouncing it,” Soat says. He feels like the best names, regardless of how common they might be, tap into something unique about the individual.
The history of unique names runs deeper within African-American communities. During the civil rights and Black Power movements, African-American activists began distancing themselves from names associated with slavery. The rise of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam played into that trend too — after joining the Nation of Islam, Cassius Marcellus Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, in 1964. Many Black Power activists joined him. “There were concerted efforts on the part of Black people to adopt names that intentionally gave a nod to the continent,” says Nghana Lewis, associate professor of English and African diaspora studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. As part of the Black Power movement, Lewis’ parents chose her first name to ensure her connection with Ghana. The tradition of unique names among African-Americans is still going strong decades later, though today it’s more focused on connecting the child to family rather than to Africa, Lewis says. She recently christened a baby named Carjay — a combination of his parents’ first names.
But a unique name alone isn’t enough, says Elisabeth Waugaman, author of Women, Their Names, & the Stories They Tell. Whether it’s a common name or an unusual one, having a story behind it is more important to your identity, Waugaman argues. Whether their parents came up with it or it came from family history, the women she interviewed for her book were happiest when their names told a story. Waugaman also believes one reason unique names are more popular today is because each generation tries to separate itself from the previous one.
Over the past decade, several studies have been conducted that reveal names can affect job prospects. In 2003, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job seekers with “White” names needed to submit 10 résumés to get one callback, while those with “Black” names needed to send 15 résumés to get one callback. A 2017 study published in PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, found little has changed since then. White applicants receive 36 percent more callbacks on average than African-Americans. Education, gender and occupational group barely influenced the results.
Still, unique names continue to grow. “Kids with the top 50 names keep going down,” says Evans. And from pop culture influence to food, the methods people use to create new names is diversifying too. The name John isn’t dead. But the future, as in Game of Thrones, may belong to Khaleesi too.