Baby-naming Trends

By: Cleveland Kent Evans

Common and Unusual Baby Names

newborn baby
The name you give your children will become lasting and important parts of their self-image.
Lisa Spindler Photography Inc/Photonic/Getty Images

Is it better to have a name common to your age group, one that everyone has heard, or an unusual name, one that may cause comment when people first hear it? Psychologists and sociologists have studied this question for years and still cannot agree on the answer.

Names and Stereotypes

On one hand, a great deal of evidence shows that when people hear a particular name, they have strong and specific stereotypes about what sort of person bears that name. For example, most Americans expect a woman named Courtney to be attractive and successful but one named Bertha to be loud and obese. Research has found that teachers may give a higher grade to a school paper by a student named Michael than to one by Hubert, even though the papers are identical.


Photographs of attractive young women called Jennifer are more likely to win a beauty contest than equally attractive pictures labeled Gertrude. Employers are more likely to grant African-American job applicants interviews if they have names like Angela or James rather than Tamika or DeJuan. Much of this research has found a strong correlation between the frequency of a name in our culture and its rated desirability, especially where names for boys are concerned.

Unusual Names

On the other hand, research that compares actual people with common first names to those with unusual names often shows the latter having an advantage. People with unusual first names are more likely to be listed in Who's Who and are more successful as psychologists. College women with uncommon first names score higher on scales of sociability and self-acceptance; they are also more likely to have a positive sense of individuality, which helps them to resist peer pressure.

Why do these different studies seem contradictory? Part of the answer is that the first set of studies forced people to form impressions based on the name alone. In contrast, recent research shows that including information about an actual person compensates for most of the negative effects of stereotypes and creates a different context in which to view a name.

For example, if told we were going to meet a man named Igor, we might conjure up the image of an ugly, stupid, and evil character like Dr. Frankenstein's henchman. But if Igor turned out to be a handsome and intelligent young man who explained that his parents had admired the composer Igor Stravinsky, we would probably find his name to be intriguing and sophisticated.

Names and First Impressions

Another reason for the conflicting results from this research is that uncommon names and names with negative images are not necessarily the same. Boys called Derry or Quinlan and girls called Cosima or Prairie will have a chance to create their own first impressions, free from established stereotypes. They can develop a positive, individual self-concept unhampered by the negative images that go along with names such as Adolf, Ethel, Myrtle, or Elmer.

In the final analysis, of course, your choice of a common or unusual name depends on what you believe is best for your child. After all, there are many occasions in life, such as submitting a job application or seeking admission to college, where a name does have a chance to create a positive image on its own. Having a popular name such as Emily or Jacob might be an advantage. If, on the other hand, individuality and creativity are especially important to you, a more unusual name might be better.

But whichever line of thought you follow, remember that a name is more than just a neutral label. The names you give your children will become lasting and important parts of their self-image. Of course, merely selecting a desirable name for your child does not guarantee happiness and success, but boys called Buckshot, Cartel, Craven, Furious, Hades, Lucifer, or Rope and girls called Density, Jealousy, Mirage, Passion, Sanity, Secret, Tyranny, or YerFancy will have a hard time overcoming the belligerent or ridiculous images names such as these evoke. (All these names were given to real children born in the United States since 1995!)

Many parents consider baby names that will reflect their strong ties to their ethnic heritage. Other parents rely on customs to help them choose. In the next section, we will discuss how ethnicity and customs have influenced baby names in the United States and around the world.