Rules of Thumb - Choosing Baby's Name

by Laura Wattenberg

second trimester bellyFrom 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.

Rule #1: Personal Taste Isn't So Personal

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.

Rule #2: All Last Names Are Not Created Equal

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.

Rule #3: All Naming is Local

Popularity rankings are useful, but to understand your real-world name environment you should look around your own neighborhood. America is a big, diverse country, with many different name trends operating at once. Money, geography, ethnicity, and education all swirl together to form "microclimates" of style, with local spikes in the use of particular names.

You can look up Oliver and say "ah, popularity rank #267, I won't meet many Olivers." But if your friends have kids named Julius, Lucy and Charlotte, you should expect to see Olivers on your block. Not to say that's a bad thing. In that kind of community Oliver won't risk teasing, whereas he might find it rough going in a sea of Kaydens and Madisyns.

Rule #4: Other People's Opinions Matter

As a parent, the choice of a baby name is entirely up to you. Why should you listen to what anybody else has to say, let alone your crazy friends and relatives?

Some food for thought: the choice may be yours, but you are making it for someone else. You are just a trustee in this matter, assigned to handle the affairs of another person who is unable to act because he or she has not yet been born. And those crazy friends and relatives? They are going to be your baby's friends and relatives before long. Don't let them bully you, but don't completely ignore them, either. As a group, they represent the society that's going to be hearing, and judging, your child's name for a lifetime.

You don't have to flag down every passing car to ask for opinions, but it's worth choosing a few level-headed confidantes to air out your ideas. They might just spot something you missed -- the new Muppet with the same name, or the obscene meaning of the name in French. You can always swear them to secrecy afterwards, and they'll be tickled to be in on the surprise.

Rule #5: Choose the Name You Would Like to Have Yourself

This is the top piece of advice I give expectant parents. We all have many factors in mind when we choose a name. We may want to honor our relatives, or our ethnic heritage. We may see baby naming as an opportunity for personal expression. Use whatever criteria you like to narrow down your name choices, but before you fill in the birth certificate, stop and give the name this final test: if you were starting life today, knowing everything you know about the world, is this the name you would want to represent you? If so, you can feel confident that you're giving your child the best birthday present possible, one that will last a lifetime.

Laura Wattenberg is the author of The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby. A writer, researcher, and software designer, she developed the Wizard's name-finding techniques after becoming frustrated in her search for names for her two daughters. She lives outside of Boston.

Copyright © Laura Wattenberg. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.