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.
So long, John … Hello, Barack
American baby names through the years
1587 – First English colony, sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, established on Roanoke Island off North Carolina; of the 109 males, 23 were named John; 15, Thomas; and 10, William.
1619 – The first slaves arrive in Virginia and are renamed by their masters. By the 18th century, the names given to slaves are often those not used for whites. Favorites include classical, mythical, and biblical choices: Cicero, Jupiter, and Jemima.
1640s – Strict Puritan colonists comb the Old Testament for righteous names, from Abigail to Zedekiah, and also use “virtue” names like Temperance and Humility.
1892 – Rose, Daisy, Lillie, Pearl, and Ruby are all in the top 100, reflecting the vogue for flower and gem names.
1924 – John finally loses its long-held position of top boy’s name to Robert.
1935 – Shirley (as in Temple) is No. 2 on the list as celebrities start to influence baby names.
1947 – As Irish Americans gain a foothold in mainstream society, Irish names like Brian, Ryan, and Kevin become more popular.
1954 – Michael is the No. 1 boy’s name and will continue to be for 43 of the next 44 years.
1967 – Flower power names like Harmony, Sunshine, and Rainbow are a trendlet; gender barriers blur as boys grow their hair long and names become unisex: Jamie, Jody, Stacey, and Tracy.
1969 – Frank Zappa names his first son Dweezil, following daughter Moon Unit, sowing the seeds for the crazy-celebrity-baby-name phenomenon.
1970 – Love Story, featuring tragic heroine Jennifer Cavilleri, is the No. 1 novel, and Jennifer begins a 14-year reign at the top.
1977 – The miniseries Roots launches a genealogy craze that inspires African American parents to look to African sources.
1991 – Blue-turned-pink name Ashley hits No. 1, and a new generation of feminist working moms favor such androgynous names for girls as Courtney, Whitney, Lindsey, Taylor, and Cameron.
1999 – Michael is knocked out of first place by Jacob as Old Testament names regain favor.
2000 – Christian rock singer Sonny Sandoval announces on MTV the name of his daughter, Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward), giving it a huge boost in popularity. Other spiritual names—Heaven, Genesis, Trinity—also rise.
2009 – Barack Hussein Obama becomes president, presaging a new multicultural naming era and a slew of kids named Barack.
Am I a Joseph or a Joey?
By Joe Kita
Did Chris Moneymaker become a champion poker player by chance? Is Bruce Fear selling insurance by pure happenstance? Is it a coincidence that Harold Stopp, MD, performs vasectomies? (All real people, by the way.) In my case, do I have a genuine talent for getting people to trust me (as all good journalists must), or is it simply that the name Joe has unassuming, friendly connotations and that Kita is simple, direct, and memorable, just like good prose? Would I even be in this line of work if my name were Kurt Words? Got you thinking? Here are a few more points to ponder.
Initials affect your health. An analysis of California death certificates showed that men with positive initials—like J.O.Y. and H.U.G.—live about four years longer than those with neutral initials. What’s more, P.I.G.’s and D.I.E.’s lived nearly three years less than the neutrals. In another study, MBA students with C and D initials had lower grade point averages than their classmates with A and B initials, while lawyers with A and B initials went to better schools than their C and D colleagues.
Juniors are, well, junior. A study determined that men with Jr. after their name scored lower in a variety of psychological categories than those with the addendum II, III, or IV. Researchers speculate that juniors are continually reminded of their younger, subordinate status.
By comparison, the IIs, IIIs, and IVs are generally viewed as the latest in a long line of respected individuals and thus feel special themselves.
Given names carry more clout than nicknames. “Compared with nicknames, given [or formal] names connote higher levels of success and morality but lower levels of popularity and cheerfulness,” explains Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA. So if you’re running for public office, using a nickname just might garner you more votes. But if you’re trying to establish yourself as, say, a consultant, then your full given name will convey the reliability, intelligence, and trustworthiness clients want.
To give kids the best possible start in life, name them right. Last year, New York Times science writer John Tierney conducted a contest to determine the worst bad name. The winner: Iona Knipl. Don’t make the same mistake Ms. Knipl’s mother made. If you’re in the process of naming a child, consult Mehrabian’s name chart (a sample, below).