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What's in a Name?

Considering baby names, gender, and trends.

Key points

  • Many expectant parents gravitate to unique names.
  • Naming is a form of self-expression for parents and declaring a unique identity for the child and themselves.
  • With babies born in a pandemic, we might see naming that counters despair and radiates optimism, playfulness, joy, strength, and resilience.

We attach certain meanings, attributes, and qualities of personalities to names. We might have expectations for how a person will behave, what they will do for work, their values, etc. And assumptions are made–right or wrong–about names.

Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Source: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

We are influenced by so much, by a variety of social institutions that socialize us to become who we are, including our families, media, religion, etc. People might be moved by a song, a movie, a television show, or a place and want to select a name for a baby that calls up those good memories and associations every time.

Many expectant parents gravitate to unique names. It's a parental way of making a statement. Naming is a form of self-expression for parents, and it's a way of declaring a special identity for the child and the parents. It's increasingly more common to try to come up with the edgiest name.

You might begin to think that there's a baby-naming contest going on for the most unusual names that sound cool. This seems to be a case of nonconformity that becomes so trendy that it becomes overconforming. There is undeniably an element of narcissism in this "I can top that!" mentality, almost like an uncomfortable sort of branding of children and families.

Almost eighteen years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow gave birth to her daughter Apple, and it seems that that was a watershed moment in naming where anything became possible. We've long seen nouns used as names like Hope, Faith, Joy, and Charity, all flagging morality, purity, and goodness, but Apple, for example, takes using a regular word in a new direction.

Or, we can think of names of flowers, gems, and seasons that have long been popular for girls like Rose, Pearl, and June, respectively, and we see that being extended to related but less typical names like Poppy, Jade, and August. Some popular names are derived from nature like River, Willow, Fern, and Stone. Places are popular as well, such as Madison, Austin, Aspen, and Paris.

The last name as the first name is popular and has been for a couple of decades; these include names like Mason, Hunter, Chandler, Parker, Spencer, Cameron, Presley, Jackson, Carson, Connor, Emerson, Addison, Tucker, Harrison, Riley, and Preston. What is then revealing is how many of these names seem genderless, another obvious trend in baby naming, but these go beyond the androgyny of names like Alex and Sam.

Parents often choose these names, convinced they are coded for boys or girls based on people they have encountered with that name. As a professor, I can tell you for sure that I have had women and men in class with the very same names like Hunter, Chandler, and Cameron.

Also, sometimes parents choose a very gendered name and immediately an androgynous nickname. For example, Charlotte is quite clearly a girl's name, but Charlie is more typically associated with boys.

At the same time, there will always be names that endure, that are timeless, and that will come around again. We've already seen that with names like Charlotte, Evelyn, Edie, Lillian, Sophie, Maeve, and Henry. In the seventies and eighties, you'd be hard-pressed to find those names on a class roster because they might have seemed like names of people more likely to be in a nursing home. Now, these same names are common in nursery schools.

The cyclical nature of names happens because some people are motivated to name after people they cherished in their families, either those no longer with them or those alive they want to honor. It usually depends on religion as to if there is naming after people alive or dead. For example, it is customary to name only after deceased people in Judaism. This means that some names may cycle through generations.

Of course, as naming gets more and more out there with the push to be as unique as possible and new ones exploding all the time, the generational cycle of naming might slow down or cease to exist in the same way.

With babies born in a pandemic, we might see naming that counters despair and radiates optimism, playfulness, and joy, as well as strength and resilience.