by Laura Wattenberg
From Aaliyah to Zvi, the range of name choices is dazzling. If you're a sleepless parent-to-be, it can look like a vast landscape with no road map. To make sure you keep your bearings, here are some basic principles for understanding names -- and finding that one perfect name that speaks to your heart.
Not long ago, I heard an expectant mother beside herself with outrage. She had just learned that another woman in her small town had "stolen" her baby name! No, she admitted, she had never met the woman. But for years now she had been planning to name a baby Keaton, a name she had personally invented, and now there was another little Keaton right across town. Someone must have told that other mother her own secret, special name. Thief!
Chances are this was not really a case of name larceny. That mom had just run into a startling fact of baby name life: our tastes, which feel so personal, are communal creations. Keaton? Well, it's a surname ending in n, a style parents are flocking to for fresh ideas that sound like classic names. K in particular is a hot first letter. And don't forget that almost every parent today grew up watching Alex Keaton on "Family Ties." So just like that outraged mom, thousands of parents across the country have independently "invented" the name for their kids.
We live in a shared culture with common experiences that shape our likes and dislikes. That means overlapping tastes -- and as a rule, the closer two people are, the greater the overlap. Many of us have had a long-cherished name "stolen" by friends who had long cherished it themselves. It's frankly unnerving to discover that the quirky name you've always just happened to like is now a chart topper. What ever happened to individual style?
Before you panic and name your son Aloysius, remember that communal taste is really a good thing. That shared perspective is exactly what gives names their style and nuance. It's also the context that lets you define your own style, meaningfully. Use the backdrop of your social group, your community and your generation to choose names that make the kind of statement you're looking for. And if you do meet another Keaton, take it as a positive sign that your son will be fashionable. Parents are the ones who worry about a name standing out; kids are happy to fit in.
I can see a runway model wearing a sheath dress that's so gorgeous I could just melt looking at it. But I know perfectly well that the same dress on my real-world figure would be a train wreck. Similarly, I know that the stylish Irish name Kennedy, paired with my last name Wattenberg, would sound like someone falling down stairs.
In names as in clothes, the key is to choose the styles that flatter you. Run down this basic checklist before you make your final choice.
Length and rhythm: Sullivan and Flanagan match in style, but Sullivan Flanagan is a red-flag name. Watch out for sing-song rhythms and tongue twisters.
The "Justin Case" Syndrome: A perfectly reasonable first name can meet a perfectly reasonable last name and create something perfectly ridiculous. When you have a candidate picked out, say the full name out loud repeatedly to look for hidden landmines. Include nicknames, too -- Benjamin Dover is one thing, Ben Dover quite another. Meeting in the middle: Look carefully where the end of one name meets the beginning of another. Jonas Sanders will be heard as Jonah Sanders or Jonas Anders. Alexander Anderson sounds like a stutter.
Special cases: If your last name is a common word, it's especially important to avoid alliteration. Jenny Jumps and Walter Wall sound like characters from a children's picture book. If your last name is a common first name, take special care to choose first names that won't make you sound inside-out. Nicholson Thomas, for instance, is asking for trouble. And if your last name just is trouble (Rump, Hogg, etc.), you can use the rhythm of a long, rolling first name to draw the emphasis away from it.