What’s in a (Baby) Name?

From trendy to classic, choose the right style for your family.

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on September 02, 2014
5 min read

Debating about what to name your baby? Put yourself in the child's shoes. Picture your child not as a cute baby but as a grown-up bearing the name you picked.

"My No. 1 tip is to stop and pretend you're naming yourself," Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, says. "If you're starting out in your life today, is this what you would want to represent you?"

If the answer is yes, you're on the right track. If not, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Apple. Zuma. Blue Ivy. Would these work for your baby?

And trendy names aren’t just celebrities. "More than ever before," Wattenberg says, "parents seem focused on finding a name that is distinctive -- a name that everybody likes and nobody uses."

But what's in vogue one year and out the next is impossible to predict. Here are just a few of the trends:

  • City names, such as Austin and Brooklyn
  • Last names as first names, such as Parker and Coleman
  • Vintage names like Pearl and Ruby
  • Nature names like River, Reed, and Skye

There’s also the long-standing tradition of naming a baby for a relative or someone you admire.

"When people choose a name, we don't realize how much we are influenced by the world around us," Wattenberg says.

As due dates approach, many parents-to-be comb through name books and websites.

"Parents have become much more conscious about the power of a name," Pamela Redmond Satran, coauthor of The Baby Name Bible, says.

She chalks that up to society's heightened awareness of branding and image, but there’s little research to back up the claim. Names that roll off the tongue tend to make more favorable impressions. In one study of 500 lawyers, those with easy-to-pronounce names advanced faster and held more senior positions.

Another survey looking at LinkedIn profiles found that male CEOs commonly have one syllable nicknames (for example, Jack or Bill), whereas female CEOs use full names with two or three syllables (for example, Deborah or Carolyn).

April Groom, a music teacher in Atlanta, was using a highlighter to mark top contenders in name books when something caught her eye -- the CD collection of her partner Victor, also a music teacher.

She had heard of other parents using Miles (after Miles Davis) but wanted to be original, picking Coltrane to honor another jazz great (John Coltrane).

"Good thing [he was a boy] because it was the only name we agreed on!" she says.

Melanie Davis and her husband Brian looked to their family tree. While visiting Brian's parents one weekend, Brian's father mentioned Preston, his grandfather's name. Melanie and Brian looked at each other and smiled -- they had found their son's name.

Eve Chen admits that she named her baby girl Evyn after the "Rock Band" avatar she made up for herself. Most people think her daughter Evyn's name is a mix of her first name, Eve, and her husband's name, Aaron. "I say it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks as long as you like the name and you're not setting your child up for teasing down the line," she says.

A name can even spark a ritual that you can share with your child. Joanne Rendell, a novelist in New York City, named her son Benny after her favorite Mexican restaurant in the East Village, Benny's Burritos. "I ate there all the time when I was pregnant, and now it's my son's favorite place to eat," she says.

For some couples, the baby name discussion can lead to heated conversations.

Maria Lijoi, a mother of two, recalls how her husband Tom nixed every name she proposed, including Stella, her favorite, because he'd feel like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire every time their daughter misbehaved.

"I almost resorted to playing the 'I'm the one who has to deal with being pregnant, can't you just let me have the name I want' card but thought better of guilting him into a name he didn't like," she says.

Tom created a spreadsheet to list acceptable first and middle name combinations before they settled on Alexandra Jane and Caitlin Ava. "We did wait until we saw both girls to make sure it fit," Maria says.

"Names can bring up deep-seated feelings about ethnicity, self-image, and gender identity," Satran says. "The ultimate goal is to try to accommodate each other's feelings and arrive at a name that addresses both of your feelings."

Some parents agonize over the naming process but have a change of heart after the big decision and experience baby name remorse.

Kelcey Kintner, who blogs at The Mama Bird Diaries, says she and her husband had difficulty choosing a girl's name and finally settled on Presley. But from the moment her daughter was born, she didn't look like a Presley. Instead, they nicknamed her Summer, a name the couple hadn't even discussed, and then later changed it officially.

"If a child is young enough and the parent really feels awful about it and the spouse is in agreement, then maybe the best thing is to change the name before the child starts responding to it," Satran says. "But if it's a case where the parents disagree and the baby's already there, then you should learn to live with it. A lot of times people are overreacting. As your child gets older, it's less and less about you, and more and more about them."

Still unsure about picking a baby name? Keep in mind these three tips:

  1. Share your top picks. Ask a few friends whose taste you trust to be sounding boards. Wattenberg says, "If you actually think your family and friends are all going to hate the name you chose, that's a warning sign."
  2. Think like a local. "Naming style is a local thing," Wattenberg says. "Landon is a perfect example of a name that is a top five huge hit in certain areas of the country like Louisiana but not Massachusetts."
  3. Spell it with ease. Don't go for a trendy spelling. "A lot of parents try to make a name distinctive by spelling it differently," Wattenberg says, "but you spend most of your life saying names, not spelling them."