When Lum and Chin Nguyen had their first child, 26 years ago, they wanted to give him an American name. Newly settled in North Carolina after being rescued floating off the coast of Vietnam, they chose Duke, in honor of nearby Duke University and the television show The Dukes of Hazzard. Best of all, the name could work in both their old and new cultures by spinning its spelling to Duc.
Or Duck, as the boy’s teachers insisted on pronouncing it, to the great amusement of his classmates. Mortified, Duc Nguyen decided to reinvent himself and his name. His new choice was tried-and-true Americana and impossible to screw up: Wes.
Ever since the Puritans named their babies Through-Much-Tribulation-We-Enter-the-Kingdom-of-Heaven, and even Fly-Fornication, America has been a land of naming freedom and self-expression. While other governments impose restrictions—German parents have to choose a name that clearly indicates the gender of the child and is not a surname, and the French, among others, forbid names that might expose a child to mockery—in the United States, anything goes.
In 1950, nearly 30 percent of all babies were given one of the top ten names, a proportion that’s now shrunk to less than 10 percent. Goodbye, Dick. Goodbye, Jane. Hello, Addison and Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward), both names in the current top 40.
“My wife and I wanted a unique name for a baby we perceive to be special in this world brimming with 6.7 billion souls,” says Gunther Lie, 35, whose infant daughter is named Amstel. Yes, like the beer—a choice designed to forge a bond between the baby and her beer-loving grandfather with Dutch roots.
“Your name is a way of marketing yourself,” says Wes Nguyen, who turned his personal adventures in naming into a career as a corporate product namer. “When we create a new name for clients, we create imagery behind it, and I did that when I chose my own new name. Wes reminds me of the West Coast, of someone young and sophisticated and innovative. I think of a surfer, of someone who has work-life balance.”
Teajai (pronounced “TJ”) Kimsey, 44, hadn’t set out to rebrand herself when she changed her name from Tammy Lynn Jones, but it worked out that way. Kimsey made the switch to leave behind an unhappy childhood. “When I hear the name Tammy, all the horrible stuff I went through comes up, but when I hear Teajai Kimsey, I think fresh, bright, hopeful, intelligent—all the things I didn’t think I was when I was younger. Changing my name was like getting an eraser and starting over as this new person.”
A century ago, immigrants often changed their names as a first step toward assimilation, with Bridgets morphing into Bettys and Giovannis naming their sons plain old John. Now parents are going back to their ethnic roots for inspiration. With assimilation no longer the issue, the classic Italian name Giovanni is close to being in the top 100 names for boys, and Gianna has already made it into the top 100 names for girls.
Giving your child an ethnically distinct name can be a double-edged sword. “I grew up hating my name,” says Orly Telisman, 35, named for her grandfather Orrin. But in college, she discovered an unexpected advantage: Orly comes from the Hebrew word for light. “Explaining my name gave me a way to say, I’m Jewish, which culturally and spiritually means a lot to me,” she says. “To appreciate my name, I had to grow into my own skin.”
The search for a name that screams “I’m unique!” leads some parents to invent names or play with traditional spelling. Besides the classic Irish Aidan in the Social Security list of top 1,000 names, for example, there are also Aiden, Ayden, Aden, Adan, Aaden, Aydan, and Aedan.
Nouns that symbolize a feeling, a value, an animal, or even a thing that carries special meaning for the family are rocketing up the charts. Just look at kids named Sincere, Justice, Colt, and good old Cash. Noble is the name chosen by Paulette Kouffman Sherman, 38, for her infant son. “We were looking for something original, spiritual, and strong, and Noble means ‘aspiring to high values,'” Sherman says. “We wanted to give him an individual name, not so much so he could get attention, but as a way of saying, I am myself, I am different, and I’m proud of it.”
Sometimes bucking the latest trends means choosing something that others might see as decidedly out of style. Lee Krasny, 34, named her now-two-year-old daughter Dorothy, after the girl’s maternal great-grandmother. “We struggled for a long time with whether to name her Dorothy or just use the D and select a modern-sounding name, but it seemed most authentic to go straight up.”
The reaction to using the original, most popular in the 1920s and ’30s, was mixed, Krasny says. “We’ve gotten curious, intrigued, and ‘Are you insane?'”
A downside of a “creative” name is that it may come with baggage, not all of it positive. “I always felt I was prejudged by my name,” says Gestin Skaggs, 43, whose parents named her for a word they heard in a German love song. “I’ve either had to overcome some stereotype of a short, fat German man or live up to an expectation that I’m a really wild and creative thinker. People ascribe all kinds of personality traits to me that I don’t have.”
But that’s a small price to pay, say the teens with offbeat names we spoke with. “I’ve met a lot of people because of my name. They hear it and think it’s cool,” says Calypso Gibaldi, 15, named by her ocean-loving father for Jacques Cousteau’s boat. “If my name was Jane, I’d be average like everyone else.”
Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz are the coauthors of Beyond Ava & Aiden: The Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby, The Baby Name Bible, Cool Names and of the baby-naming website nameberry.com.