Why Your Baby Name Choice Is Making You Miserable, Part 2

Mar 22nd 2012

Yesterday I discussed the "paradox of choice": that we try to maximize our options to give ourselves the freedom to pursue happiness, yet research shows that an abundance of choices actually makes us miserable. Now I'd like to show how baby name choices have exploded in the past generation, escalating angst and remorse for parents.

In theory, American parents have always had a wide-open choice of names. Choice, though, isn't just about the theoretical options available. It's about the culturally and psychologically realistic ones. (We all have the theoretical choice to wear our underpants outside of our khakis and tie socks to our ears for warmth, but none of us dresses that way.) In the past generation, our realistic baby name options have skyrocketed.

Historically, names in the English-speaking world were a relatively constrained set, with a small collection of classic names dominating. In England in 1800, the top three names for boys and girls accounted for more than half of all babies born. Traditions to name after relatives and benefactors clarified choices even further. I think it's fair to speculate that the typical name-selection process of that time was a straightforward one.

By 1950 in the United States, you needed 79 names (through Gregory for boys, Paula for girls) to get the same population coverage that those six names achieved in England in 1800. Today, it would take 546 different names, including names like Raegan, Yaretzi, Jace and Heaven. And even those names barely scratch the surface of what's considered "normal." There is no longer any pre-defined set of acceptable names. That means there is no limit to your choices.

The names marketplace does plenty to drive that message home. The very existence of a national top-1,000 names list encourages parents to think of 1,000 different names for boys and girls as “popular.” Then there are baby name dictionaries. You know how they like to include the number of names they list in their titles, impressing parents with the vast choices available? (“50,000 Best Names!”) Well, the number of titles doing that has skyrocketed, and so have the name totals themselves. Take a look at what an expectant parent would have faced in bookstores over the past century. Each dot below represents a new number-laden title, and the y-axis shows the number of names promised:

Baby name books with numbers of names in their titles

Yes, the current leader promises a soul-crushing 140,000 choices. That's already a guaranteed recipe for misery, but there's more. Today's parents also want to choose names that are distinctive and not too popular. Popular, of course, means "well-liked." So you're choosing from a limitless menu...with the most appealing options crossed out.

Now add in the perceived importance of the decision. In all phases of parenting, we've seen a rising obsession with doing all possible to give your child every advantage. Names are naturally part of that, and with good reason. As I've discussed before, your name literally means more today than ever.

Endless choices, challenging criteria, and high stakes. It's a decision-maker's nightmare. And brace yourself for the final kicker: both parents have to agree.

Take a deep breath, expectant parents. It's tough, and there's no magic bullet. But we're here for you, and we’ll make sure that the BNW book and tools keep focusing on making your decision easier, not harder.


By Jane 7 (not verified)
March 26, 2012 3:00 PM

Hmmm. Anna's endorsement of the name Anna is making me reconsider Rose as a girl name. It's dh's fav, but I wanted something with a little more pizzaz. Still, I'll bet the experience of actually being named something like Rose or Anna or Sarah or some other super simple, but pretty and traditional name, is basically pretty good. I bet there aren't a lot of Annas that hate their names.

March 26, 2012 3:22 PM

Jane-You probably can't go wrong with any of them. How did you feel being a Jane? I think of the three above that Sarah would be my pick.

March 26, 2012 4:28 PM

I could be wrong but I thought Jane7's name wasn't actually Jane!

I know an Anna and she does really like her name. I also know quite a few Sarah's and they seem keen on there names too.

Rose is lovely and goes well with Juliet and the boys names.

March 26, 2012 5:49 PM

Well, if Jane7's name is not Jane then she will have a difficult time answering the question. :P However, I feel like the experience of having a name such as Elizabeth, Jane, Anna, Sarah, any of the classics really, would be similar.

By Sharalyn (not verified)
March 27, 2012 1:46 PM

danasurfside, my son was going to be Katherine Elise if he had come out the other sex. :-) Then my SIL took Elise (her daughter's middle name is Georgia after her father). Personally, I love Elise Sophia from your choices.

Scout, I too was going to suggest the possibility of Suzette for a middle name that would honor. With your four choices, Karina Suzette sounds the best to me if you used that.
I like all your names, although I must admit partiality to Karina and Anna (but not together). I prefer the Elisabeth spelling (then that would be the top one for me). :-)

By Lurker.no.more (not verified)
March 27, 2012 7:35 PM

*This is completely random and I apologize if it throws things off course.

Does anybody know of a song with the name Liam in it?

My nephews are Jon@h, Li@m, and No@h.

The eldest was premature and had to undergo open heart surgery days after he was born. His parents hadn't agreed on a name yet, but both liked Jon@h and felt it was important that their child have a name in case the surgery wasn't successful. Thankfully, he is now a healthy 10 year old.

Li@m came next and the name was his mother's choice. He appeared healthy at birth (although also premature) but at six months still had difficulty sitting up. That’s when years of seemingly endless tests began. He was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Now an 8 year old, he is a sweet and determined little boy who loves the color blue (his newest crutches are periwinkle) and is at the top of his class in reading and math.

Lastly, there is No@h. By this time it was decided that they would use a surrogate. Once baby boy # 3 was on his way, dad insisted that it was his turn to pick a FN. He wanted No@h. End. Of. Story. No health problems to report here, just a very happy (and healthy) 4 year old.

Recently the 1940’s Johnny Mercer song ‘Accentuate The Positive’ was introduced to the family.
It instantly became a favorite due to the lyrics:

To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark?

(Man, they said "We'd better accentuate the positive")
("Eliminate the negative")
("And latch on to the affirmative")
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

Li@m already feels like the odd man out, and the fact that he is the only one without an Old Testament name with a famous story attached to it is a point of contention.

I was wondering if anyone knew of a song that has the name Liam in it?

I'm sorry for rattling away; sometimes tangents get the best of me.

March 27, 2012 11:58 PM

Lurker.no.more: I think your typed lyrics speak for themselves in that you don't need a song with the name Li@m in the specifically. Take a look back at the last line "Don't mess with Mister In-Between". Now from your description Li@m is the middle child. If he feels like this fits him then I would go with that. Otherwise I do not know of a song with Li@m in it. I'm pretty sure that Li@m is a derivative name and up until recently wasn't standing on its own. You may want to find a good story about a William. Prince William is the first one that come to mind. There are many William's throughout history as well.

March 28, 2012 12:44 PM

I'm a long time lurker, and am due with a boy at the very end of May. I am stumped as to which direction I want to go in with naming this child so the topic is very apropos. I will be back with specific thoughts/questions/ and begging for help with names when I've had a chance to think a little bit more about this. But my question for now is, wasn't there a post on alternative boys names? It may have been years ago but wasn't there something about how hard it is to choose a boy's name? That there are so many less choices for boys? Anyone remember or can find that post?

March 28, 2012 2:19 PM

Feel like a bit of a suck up but I was thinking that the BNW book actually does make the name choice easier because it gives categories to stay within so instead of 140,000 names there are like 50. It worked out this way for me b/c I first got the book when I had 3 kids and already all of the kids first names and two of their middles were in the timeless category. The next two kiddos first and middle names have also ended up being from that same category. Of course that has put me in the somewhat silly situation of anticipating the new edition and hoping that a few names have been added - like Laura has to bless our future choices. =)

By MasiLikeTheStore (not verified)
March 28, 2012 2:49 PM

I have had experiences similar to Tiana. My parents gave me a family name but chose the pronunciation to sound more "english". The result has been an interesting mix of people who write Macy when they hear my name and people who say Massey or Maisie when they see "masi". I have actually found this circumstance to be very useful. If someone telephones me and mispronounces my name, I have immediate feedback that this is not a person who knows me. (very useful in the days before caller ID). I also have a good sense of how much someone cares to go to the trouble of checking the spelling of my name. Ultimately, I have found it to be useful to have a "difficult" name because it has given me more information about the people around me.

I also really liked being the only Masi I know. However, it seems like Macy and Maci are becoming a lot more popular. Most schools keep trying to call my daughter by my name and me by her name since I have the more "likely" name for a 4 year old. I won't even get started on my husband's situation. He has a name that was extremely rare 40 years ago but is, I think, in the top 10 now.

That said, I was sad not to have personalized tchotchkes when I was a kid...but nowadays with digital printing and other personalization technologies, this is less of a burden than it used to be.

March 28, 2012 3:32 PM

In the news today near me:
On Saturday, March 24th the Toomey’s gave birth to three girls and one boy: Audrianna; Jesilyn; Kennedi; and Hunter. They have a 3yr old girl named Madison also.

I think those names go well together as a sibset.

March 28, 2012 6:59 PM

To play off of zoerhenne's news, here's a GAME!

Congratulations! You too have given birth to quadruplets this week: 3 girls and a 1 boy. What are their names? Feel free to match them to your existing kids' names.

I already have two girls:
Phoenix and Indigo

My new quads are named: Eden, Aria, Skye and Banyan. I tried not to repeat first initials for ease of labeling!

March 28, 2012 7:21 PM

My darling little grandson Elliott is now two years old and in pre-school. My son, who hitherto was not familiar with many little tykes, has been astounded by the variety of names borne by Elliott's little classmates. His bestie is named Kash--when I heard it I assumed Cash, but apparently that was an unwarranted assumption. My son and daughter-in-law live in an exceptionally diverse community with families from all over the world, and this is reflected in the list of toddlers my son sent me:


Yash is a male name from India. (I don't know if this is a boy or a girl--if a girl it may be a parental creation.) Alessandro is Italian. Ayaan is the name of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch activist--the child may be Somali or perhaps her parents wished to honor Hirsi Ali. Tiago is a form of Santiago. So one small pre-school class is a mini-UN. Personally I am thrilled that Elliott is attending school with such a(n apparently) diverse group of children.

March 28, 2012 7:59 PM

Miriam, your grandson's preschool list is fabulous! I haven't yet posted a selection of names from my kids' yearbook, but will do so when Laura puts up the new post. I love seeing such diverse names and thinks that it has to bode well for the new generation to be raised in such a multicultural environment.

Tirzah, if I had to name quadruplets right now to match with Sarah, Peter, and Alexander, I think I'd choose Rachel, Anna, Katherine, and Stephen. Then I'd check myself into a sanatorium since I'm still addlepated from Alex's nighttime interruptions.

March 28, 2012 11:23 PM

Elizabeth T-Can we room together? I personally think 2 is plenty but naming games are always fun. So to go with Eric and Natalie (and barring dh veto power) I'd go with:
Brian Maxwell
Lindsey Noelle
Kimberley Elizabeth
Valerie Paige

Miriam-Great list! I love the diversity in the preschool names in some areas.

By Lurker.no.more (not verified)
March 29, 2012 4:19 AM

zoerhenne: Thanks so much for your suggestion!
I explained it to Liam and now he's thrilled that the song references him four times and the others only once each.

He went around the house all afternoon quoting "Don't mess with Mr. In between".


March 29, 2012 7:47 AM

Lurker.no.more: Glad to be of service :) Sometimes it's that outside of the box thinking that does the trick. Give them all hugs from me.

March 29, 2012 9:06 AM

zoerhenne, if I roomed with you in the sanatorium, I might get less sleep than at home because we'd be up all night talking names! In the absence of having quadruplets to worry about, it sounds fantastic. :)

I love the story about Liam and his song.

March 29, 2012 10:57 AM

Tirzah - I'll play. I already have Paul, Clare, Mark, Katharine, and James. I'll add Mary-Grace, Lucy, Theresa, and Andrew. My quads are a little "s" heavy I guess.

March 29, 2012 1:10 PM

Sharalyn, I too prefer the Elisabeth spelling, however hubby's mom is named Lisa, and he refuses to have any part of her name in our daughter's name!

By Amy3
March 29, 2012 2:44 PM

To go with Astrid, I'd name my quads Beatrix, Harriet, Petra, and Solomon.

By Daffy Castilian (not verified)
March 29, 2012 4:02 PM

"But we're here for you, and we’ll make sure that the BNW book and tools keep focusing on making your decision easier, not harder."

I'm a pretty cynical person when it comes to claims like this, which is why I want to congratulate you for actually living up to it.

You are making the world a better place and I thank you.

March 29, 2012 11:14 PM

Hmm quads.....

I guess (today, may change tomorrow) to go with Astrid I'd have:

Cordelia Delphine
Ariadne Juliet
Zinnia Mathilde
Casper Silas

March 29, 2012 11:31 PM

@Amy3 - I do love both Harriet and Solomon! Great taste ;) Sadly Harriet was vetoed by DH so it's not an option. Although he might forget he doesn't like it before next time around.

By NoahsMom (not verified)
March 30, 2012 5:30 AM

My husband and I had some "rules" that we wanted to follow when naming our son. One of the most important to me was that my Russian family could easily pronounce it. We picked the name "Noah", thinking what could be easier to pronounce?

Right away, this started causing problems. First, my family started using the Russian equivalent of the name, which sounds like "Noy", which I truly hated. Then, there was another issue that never occurred to me: they wanted a diminutive or pet name to call him by (this is common in Russian - think "Misha", "Sasha", "Sashenka", etc.). Noah doesn't lend itself well to the typical Russian diminutive constructs ("Noachka" is hard to say and feels wrong). So now we finally found a middle ground: my parents privately call him "Nova" or "Novatchka". It's obviously not his actual name, but I don't mind how it sounds and it's easy for them to say.

Just wanted to share this story because in my case, I specifically wanted to avoid this situation, yet found myself right in the middle of it anyway. I can't say I regret the name choice, but if I knew this in advance, I probably would have picked a different name.

By Kate, mom of T,G,J,X, and T (not verified)
March 31, 2012 7:40 PM

PennyX -- my son is X@vier J0seph, and we know a little X@vier P@trick -- either of those helpful/inspiring?

By Erin Not Irving (not verified)
May 14, 2012 6:21 PM

I have to agree with this comment 100%. I was born in the 70s, when everyone was named Jennifer, Melissa, Amy, or Amanda. What I would have given to have a normal name like that. I also hated not being able to find anything personalized, and I am so tired of correcting people on my name that I don't bother unless I know I will be seeing them again. Even then, I may answer to Ann, Erica, Erwin or whatever unless I particularly like the person. That's why I named my son David. No questions on David, ever. No listening to someone go and on about how their cousin's sister's friend's stepdaughter thought about naming their child David, no needless explanations that David can be a girl's name too (because it can't, as far as I know.) Just David. He can be unique on his own, with a normal name.

By Erin Not Irving (not verified)
May 14, 2012 6:22 PM

Oops, my comment was in agreement with Tiana.

By ShelleilikeShelley (not verified)
May 14, 2012 7:41 PM

Dear TianalikeDiana, you mentioned that your father named you after an actress that he admired and that you were born towards the end of the 1950.  I did a quick search on the IMDb and came up with Tiana Lemnitz.  Here is her wikipedia page link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiana_Lemnitz  I hope this help answers some questions.

By S Ross (not verified)
May 14, 2012 10:46 PM

For some reason, when I saw the name Elise, Alexandria immediately came to mind.  I heard a non-iron clad rule that the fewer sylables a first name has, the more the middle name should have.  

P.S.  I wanted to name my first daughter Amy Elise but husband nixed that and we went with Amy Michele.  I've always like the name Elise.

By VampireChick (not verified)
June 19, 2012 5:22 PM

The naming war at my home has been of epic proportion. And, as of today, we're FINALLY at a truce.

I'm a fairly oddball whose first name, while unique, was always a nightmare - not spelling and pronunciation wise, but it's such a formal name that never fit me and does not lend itself to any decent nicknames. My middle is quite the opposite: bland and common as the day is long, and lending itself to such a common nickname that when I was in school, I couldn't even USE it. There were already three Nikki's in my class. 

My husband's mother purposely gave him a name that you can make NO nickames from - and he hated that. He always wanted a cool nickname. Now add to this brouhaha that I'm a writer with off-beat tastes, he's a moviephile and we're both avid gamers and nerds ... well, things got interesting.

We began by narrowing down our seemingly infinte choices thusly: we printed out the SS top 1K names and vetoed them IMMEDIATELY. As another poster stated (that I wholeheartedly agreed with) I wanted nothing to do with ANYTHING that was considered popular (not the 'well-liked' definition - the overused definition) or trendy. I'm just not that person. I never have been and it would feel really inauthentic. The other side of the coin of having a unique name is having a name that four other people in your class have. Suddenly, you're Nicole H. among Nicole E. Nicole W. and Nicole B. I was over that EARLY in my childhood and wanted no parts of it for my own kid. We avoided baby books. (I know right? Sacrilege!) The problem that I found with them was that, well, this is the source that most people run to the moment they find out their bundle of joy is coming. It seemed too much of a dangerous liasion for me and hubby. Oh, we flipped through them - and promptly put them back on the shelf. 

We vetoed family names from the beginning as well. He shares his initials with his father - though he is not a jr. He didn't care to follow that tradition and I flat out wasn't going to follow it. LOLOL! We also vetoed strange spellings which involved gratutious splashings of vowels. Reileiee wasn't going to get it. Finally, we vetoed anything that on sight gave any clue as to our child's ethnicity (yes, we're African-American). While we saw names of African origin that we loved, we didn't feel they were a great fit for what we had in mind. 

We then sat and listed all of the potential names we liked. And I do mean ALL. From video games to movies to various mythologies - obscure cultures, constellations, favorite novels/characters (that got ugly... I had to be talked down from Potter for about three weeks; I then spent another few days talking HIM down from Master Chief of Halo fame) ... anything that we loved or related to or heard that was earcatching we wrote it down. And it became clear VERY early that he and I had two entirely different ideas about the naming of boys and girls based on gender. 

I was perfectly content with gender ambiguous names. He was not. He wanted arrogant and egotistical names for a son, whilst shouldering our daughter with frilly nonesense. I wanted names that implied strength of character for our son, and names that lay more on intellect and leadership for our daughter than her perceived beauty. That may be where things got ugly. Compounded with the fact that being pregnant has not made me the most stable minded individual. What I loved on Monday, I couldn't stand by Friday. What he claimed he'd settled on on a Tuesday - by Wednesday night he couldn't be bothered with. It was kind of a mess. 

But we did come to a few more ground rules (yeah... we needed PLENTY! LOLOlL) such as we were willing to go old school - we're talking 1800's old school. We were willing to pair something strange with something fairly tame (though obscure or of low usage) for a middle to ground the first name. We were willing to take from other cultures if the meaning and pronunciation was something we adored - but some cultures we HAD to veto for ease of spelling. And most importantly, each and every name had to be something we agreed on TOGETHER. There would be no renegade naming. 

Today, at almost 20 weeks pregnant (and we started this when I was 5 weeks!) we've got a tight, succinct list of names that we both are very comfortable with. They are obscure enough for us, they're fairly easy to spell, they've got meanings that we like and the warring factions are currently a peace. 

Here's hoping we don't change our minds! 


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