The new formality

Nov 19th 2004

At a kiddie gym class, I watched these boys crowding around the trampoline: Nicholas, Thomas, William and William. Nothing surprising about that crop of classics -- they would have sounded just as natural at a gym 30 years ago. Except 30 years ago, they would have been Nick, Tom, Billy and Bill. The four boys I met go by their full names, and they have plenty of company.

For generations, nicknames were adopted as a matter of course. Every adult Thomas you meet answers to Tom, every Nicholas to Nick. Some names even had a routine progression of nicknames from boyhood to manhood, with a change serving as a kind of coming of age ceremony. One day my neighbor Billy became a Bill, my cousin Benjy a Ben. Yet today's preschool-aged Williams and Benjamins are already wearing the most formal versions of their names, once reserved for occasions like weddings or job interviews.

Of course, among the preschool set what you wear -- clothing and names alike -- reflects more on your parents' tastes than your own. Parents like the melodious sophistication of the formal names, and perhaps the opportunity to reclaim nicknames as personal terms of endearment. It will be interesting to see what these boys do as they approach their own coming of age. An act of adolescent rebellion for the year 2014: "no, call me Billy!"

And in today's news...

Nov 12th 2004

Pleased to see America's finest comic strip, Frazz, getting into the baby name business.

(He's spot on about the mermaid, by the way. The name was unknown for girls before the movie Splash, but has been a top-10 choice ever since that movie's young fans reached child-bearing age.)

Daring -- or yearning -- to be different

Nov 10th 2004

A reader, in response to my post on European naming regulations, took exception to the idea that American parents just want to be "different":

As for being different for the sake of being different, I would think that many of the unusual names are chosen for other reasons *in addition to* being different. Don't a lot of people look for names that are both different AND [beautiful, meaningful, sound good with the surname, etc.]

Certainly, parents aren't just flipping open their dictionaries at random. Most creative name choices are labors of love, selected for sound, meaning, heritage, and other uniquely personal reasons. But distinctiveness is a key component for many families today, a value in its own right.

The evidence is everywhere. Anecdotally, I often meet parents who are horrified to discover that the beautiful name they chose for their child is -- *gasp!* -- popular. Statistically, you can point to the rise of exotic letters like X and Z, and the increasing diffusion of popular names. In the 1950s, the top 10 names for boys and girls accounted for a quarter of all American babies. Today, it's less than a tenth.

But for the most direct evidence of what parents are actually looking for, let's turn to the places they look (besides The Baby Name Wizard, of course.) At sites like and AOL Parenting, "baby names" is reliably the top search topic. At the general search engine, it ranked among the top 10 search terms of the year for 2003. And a large percentage of those searches include the words "unusual" or "unique." According to Yahoo, only ethnic terms (e.g. Irish baby names) outrank "unusual," and at Overture "unique" outranks every modifier except "girl."

So while being "different" is not a sufficient condition to choose a name, for more and more parents, it's a necessary one.