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Millennials on Quest for Unique Baby Names

Grandparents try to get in on the name game, too

Just after giving birth to my daughter in 1990, I heard shouting coming from the next room on the maternity ward. "You stole my son's name," a visitor screamed when she discovered the newborn had the same distinctive name as her child.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan with their baby daughter Max

via Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan with their baby daughter Max

Flash forward, and new parents still seek unique names — but even more so. Perhaps because so many people announce the gender before the birth, baby naming is the focus of attention, from annual lists to an online naming wizard. In the past few weeks, headlines announced the naming of Max Zuckerberg (a girl) and Saint West (a boy).

It's one thing for a celebrity to name a baby Apple. Sometimes our own adult children concoct offbeat names that leave grandparents wondering, as one friend recently grumbled, "What were they thinking?" Some grandparents supposedly will try to cut a deal before the baby is born by offering a bribe of sorts — everything from $10,000 to paying for a fancy wedding — to secure a certain name, according to a New York Times article.

For an expert look inside the mind of an expectant millennial parent, we talked to Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard. A former software developer, Wattenberg provides research-driven information on her website, where she also has a cool interactive tool, Name Voyager, to track the popularity of names over the decades.

Q. What's going on with naming millennials' babies? What are the trends?

A. Everyone wants to be different. More and more, parents want their children's names to stand out, not fit in. Parents see their kids being born into a competitive marketplace and want prime shelf space. They approach naming much like marketers approach naming a brand.

Q. The trend to be different started in the 1960s with the rise of individuality, so we boomers can take credit for that. What else contributed?

A. Two huge things happened in the 1990s. The obvious one was that the Internet changed people's perspective on names with unique user names and email addresses. Also people could search for names, and online everyone lives next door. Expectant parents typed a name into Google and panicked, thinking it's taken. The other thing was in 1997, the Social Security Administration started reporting on the most popular baby names. So we had an accurate list of the top names.

Q. Do millennial parents want to be in that top list?

A. Rankings make people competitive, so it sort of became like a reverse arms race. Parents don't want their baby's name to be among the most popular. Some will go further and don't want them even to be in the top 100 or top 1,000. The result is that the top names today are just one-quarter as popular as the top names were in the 1950s.

Q. Yet with the push for individuality, we still end up with names that sound alike.

A. We may like the idea of distinctive names, but we hear the same things as attractive. I suspect everyone knows a grandchild with the name Aiden, Haydan, Kaydan or Jaden. Today a third of all American boys get a name ending in "n."

Q. Does anyone use family names anymore?

A. We still love our families; we're just not willing to sacrifice our sense of style for them. However, we will give babies a family name as a middle name. That's where you put your family homage. A parent wrote to my advice column asking for suggestions for a middle name that combines all four grandparents' names.

Q. Is there a downside to offbeat names?

A. There's great value to being able to cover your tracks. If you have a unique name, everything you do — not only as an adult but as a child — will be forever traceable on online, so there's that danger. And, while unusual names are trending, the point to remember is that if you want to know what names succeed and make a person well liked, they are simple, friendly names. Every politician today runs under his nickname. No one knows what Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal's real names are. No one's life was ever ruined by a popular name.

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.

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