By ALEXANDRA ALTER
Wall Street Journal Online
What’s in a name?
Sociologists and name researchers say they are seeing unprecedented levels of angst among parents trying to choose names for their children. As family names and old religious standbys continue to lose favor, parents are spending more time and money on the issue and are increasingly turning to strangers for help.
Some parents are checking Social Security data to make sure their choices aren’t too trendy, while others are fussing over every consonant like corporate branding experts. They’re also pulling ideas from books, Web sites and software programs, and in some cases, hiring professional baby-name consultants who use mathematical formulas.
Denise McCombie, 37, a California mother of two who’s expecting a daughter this fall, spent $475 to have a numerologist test her favorite name, Leah Marie, to see if it had positive associations. (It did.) This March, one nervous mom-to-be from Illinois listed her 16 favorite names on a tournament bracket and asked friends, family and people she met at baby showers to fill it out. The winner: Anna Irene.
Sean and Dawn Mistretta from Charlotte, N.C., tossed around possibilities for five months before they hired a pair of consultants — baby-name book authors who draw up lists of suggestions for $50. During a 30-minute conference call with Mrs. Mistretta, 34, a lawyer, and Mr. Mistretta, 35, a securities trader, the consultants discussed names based on their phonetic elements, popularity, and ethnic and linguistic origins — then sent a 15-page list of possibilities. When their daughter was born in April, the Mistrettas settled on one of the consultants’ suggestions — Ava — but only after taking one final straw poll of doctors and nurses at the hospital. While her family complimented the choice, Mrs. Mistretta says, “they think we’re a little neurotic.”
Karen Markovics, 36, who works for the planning department in Orange County, N.C., spent months reading baby books and scouring Web sites before settling on Nicole Josephine. But now, four years later, Mrs. Markovics says she wishes she’d chosen something less trendy — and has even considered legally changing her daughter’s name to Josephine Marie. “I’m having namer’s remorse,” she says.
The chief reason for the paralysis is too much information. About 80 baby-name books have been published in the last three years, according to Bowker, a publishing database — compared with just 50 such titles between 1990 and 1996. More than 100 specialty Web sites have popped up offering everything from searchable databases and online snap polls to private consultations.
One site, BabyNames.com, says it draws about 1.2 million unique visitors a month, a 50% increase in five years — and 3,000 people have used its customized naming service, which provides 12 names for $35. Just this month, the site began offering half-hour phone consulting sessions for $95. “It’s so overwhelming, it’s hard to know where to start,” says Patricia Martin of Williston, Vt., who is expecting a baby in September.
Then there is the seismic influence of Google. When Julie Tiedens, 34, a high school teacher who lives near Eau Claire, Wis., typed her favorite name for a girl, Zoe Rose, into the search engine, she was forced to go back to the drawing board. The name was already taken — by a British porn star. “It was on the first page that came up,” she says.
Celebrities (think Apple Martin, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf-Lee) are helping to drive up the pressure. And the growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”
Academics say there’s been a demonstrable shift in the way people name children. In 1880, Social Security Administration data show that the 10 most popular baby names were given to 41% of boys and 23% of girls. But in 2006, just 9.5% of boys and roughly 8% of girls were given one of the year’s 10 most popular names — a combined decline of about 33% from the averages in the 1990s, says Cleveland Kent Evans, an associate psychology professor at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb. and a past president of the American Name Society. So while a once-ubiquitous name like Mary has fallen from No. 1 during most of the 1950s to No. 84 last year, many new names are taking off. Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward) ranked No. 43 among the 1,000 most popular names in the U.S. in 2006 and Zayden, another recent creation, was given to 224 boys.
“Names have become a matter of fashion and taste,” says Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson.
Not everyone is happy about this development. Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of “The Baby Name Report Card,” has conducted surveys of how people react to different names. He found that more common names elicited positive reactions, while unusual names typically brought negative responses. To him, giving children names that stand out may ultimately be no different than sending them to school with their hair dyed blue. “Yes, you can have someone stand out by being bizarre, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good,” he says.
For Scott and Katie Keppler of Rye, N.Y., the decision to seek help stemmed from a fundamental disagreement. With their second child on the way, Mrs. Keppler, 40, an accountant, wanted something traditional to match their first son’s name, Liam. Her husband, a software salesman, preferred unique names like Jolt for a boy or Jilly for a girl. “He was harassing me with some really strange names,” Mrs. Keppler says.
To break the deadlock, Mr. Keppler, 40, decided to spend $25 for a service on BabyNames.com that provides six options based on everything from a couple’s mothers’ maiden names to their general taste preferences (traditional, biblical, trendy, unique, ethnic and wild, among others). When their son was born in March, they tapped their favorite name from the list: Max Phillip. The Web site was a truly impartial third-party, Mr. Keppler says. “It wasn’t a grandmother, it wasn’t an aunt.”
Madeline Dziallo, 36, a beautician and mother of two in LaGrange, Ill., turned to a consultant when naming both of her children, Ross, 3, and Natalie, eight months. That consultant, Maryanna Korwitts, a self-described nameologist based in Downers Grove, Ill., charges up to $350 for a package including three half-hour phone calls and a personalized manual describing the name’s history, linguistic origins and personality traits. “She was an objective person for me to obsess about it with rather than driving my husband crazy,” says Mrs. Dziallo.
Despite all of her planning, Mrs. Dziallo began to panic about the name Natalie two weeks before her due date. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be calling her from the delivery room’,” she says.
Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn’t want their son to be “one of five Ashtons in the class,” says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a “cool” name that would help his son stand out. “An unusual name gets people’s attention when you’re searching for a job or you’re one in a field of many,” he says.
At first they considered a family name, Greene, but thought Greene Stone sounded like “some New Age holistic product.” Mr. Stone liked Finn Stone and Flynn Stone, but thought both sounded too much like the name of a cartoon family from the Stone Age. After reading through eight baby-name books, the Stones contacted Laura Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Name Wizard,” for advice. She suggested they avoid names that ended in “s,” given their last name, or names that seemed to create phrases. Her recommendations: Evander as a top choice, with Levi and Vaughn close behind.
When the Stones unveiled the name Evander Jet to family and friends three months ago, Mrs. Stone says they were surprised. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you named him after the boxer,’ when actually it’s a really old name.”
Even parents who are professional name consultants say the decision can be wrenching. As one of the founders of Catchword, a corporate naming firm with offices in New York and Oakland, Calif., Burt Alper says he and his wife, Jennifer, who also works in marketing, felt “tons of pressure” to come up with something grabby.
Although Mr. Alper typically gives clients a list of 2,000 names to mull over, he says he kept the list of baby names to 500, for simplicity. In the end, they named their daughter Sheridan, a family name Mr. Alper liked because of its “nice crisp syllables.” They chose Beckett for their six-month-old son, a name the Alpers thought sounded reliable and stable.
“That C-K sound is very well regarded in corporate circles,” Mr. Alper says, giving Kodak and Coca-Cola as examples. “The hard stop forces you to accentuate the syllable in a way that draws attention to it.”
Name choices have long been agonizing for some parents. In Colonial times, it was not uncommon for parents to open the Bible and select a word at random — a practice that created such gems as Notwithstanding Griswold and Maybe Barnes. In some countries, name choices are regulated by the government. France passed a law in the early 1800s that prohibited all names except those on a preapproved list; the last of these laws was repealed in 1993. In Germany, the government still bans invented names and names that don’t clearly designate a child’s sex. Sweden and Denmark forbid names that officials think might subject a child to ridicule. Swedish authorities have rejected such names as Veranda, Ikea and Metallica.
To capitalize on the confusion, baby-name consultants are opening for business. Whitney Walker and Eric Reyes, 36 and 44, who are based in San Leandro, Calif., began researching baby names when they had their first child in 2001. They chose the name Gabriel Rush Reyes based on the vowel sounds and the way it flowed with the surname.
After hearing from other couples about their dilemmas, Ms. Walker saw an opportunity. When she was pregnant with her second child, she and her husband began writing a book that grouped baby names according to their sounds and rhythms and explained how to break a surname down to its phonetic parts and match it with a first name. After publishing “The Perfect Baby Name: Finding the Name that Sounds Just Right” in 2005, the pair started offering name consultations and workshops, and have since helped two dozen couples choose names for $50 apiece.
Last fall, John Bentham, 36, a Las Vegas theater producer, and his wife, Shannon, 29, who runs a nonprofit foundation, says they felt “enormous pressure” to find a strong-sounding boy name. “I wanted a name that would look good on a marquee or a political banner,” Mrs. Bentham says. Though they had agreed on the letter “j,” none of the names they came up with — Jude, Julian, Jake, Jason, or John Jr. — seemed original enough. They hired Ms. Walker and Mr. Reyes, who produced an 11-page list of possibilities, including Jackson. In March, the Benthams welcomed little Jackson Dean into the world.
Babynamesworld.com, an online database, has drawn more than 5,000 requests for free name advice in the last nine months, a 75% increase since the feature launched in 2005, says Anabel Conner, the Web site’s administrator and a self-described “name nerd.” Many of the advice-seekers ask for alternative spellings of popular names; those requests are fulfilled by 34 volunteer advisers. The site draws 600,000 visitors a day, up from 400,000 three years ago, says Ms. Conner.
Mrs. Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Name Wizard,” has carved out another niche in the business: Parents who like statistics. While searching for a name for her second child in 2001, the only reference guides she could find were dictionaries. So Mrs. Wattenberg, a software designer, created a database of thousands of names using Social Security data. She hand-coded each one to reflect its cultural associations and linguistic origins, noting how often a name appeared in the Bible, soap operas or in the wedding or birth announcement sections of Ivy League alumni magazines. (Her daughters are named Eve and Nina.)
The program inspired her book, which spawned a Web site featuring the name-popularity tracker. Now that’s given rise to a new baby-naming program called Nymbler, which generates lists of similar names based on any name entered.
Some advisers could use a good fact-checker. A few baby-name Web sites, including babynamescountry.com, classify Strom as derived from the Greek word for bed, when in fact it comes from the German word for stream. (The site’s founder says names are submitted by users and are not researched.) On others, Megan is described as a derivation of the Greek word for “great,” but it actually originated in Wales as a pet form of Margaret.
Back to the Classics
Most observers say the parental anxiety — and the current interest in unusual names — should continue to grow. Hitwise, an Internet-traffic research firm, says “baby names” was one of the top 10 generic Internet search terms in 2006, the first year the company tracked such data, ranking it alongside “weather,” “directions” and “maps.” Prof. Evans says he now gets regular calls from couples asking him for advice. “Maybe I should be charging people,” he says.
Others, citing the rising popularity of names like Sophie, Hannah, Violet and Emma, predict a return to the classics. This month, Julia Roberts, who was considered slightly radical for naming her twins Phinnaeus and Hazel, named her newborn son Henry.
As for Ms. Tiedens, who saw her top baby name choice usurped by a British porn star, she’s since adopted a baby boy and named him Jackson Thomas, a name that sailed through Google without any complications. (Jackson was the 36th most popular boy name last year, as ranked by the Social Security Administration.)
Still, she says she’s not completely free from worry. “Now we just need to be concerned about what other Jackson Thomases are going to do in 15 or 20 years,” she says, “and what they are going to put on their MySpace pages.”
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