The Perils of Unusual Baby Names

Posted by: , March 28, 2013 in 3:42 am

surprised baby 300x221 The Perils of Unusual Baby NamesTen Things to Consider When Choosing Hester or Habakkuk

It’s no secret that I love unusual names. I’ve written before In Defense of Atlas and Apple: Ten Reasons Unusual Names Aren’t a Problem, and I haven’t changed my mind. But I do have my hesitations, and a recent exchange with the mom of a very unusually named child got me thinking: what are the downsides to having a genuinely uncommon name?

10. You’ll stand out in a crowd. Waaaay out. I once heard from a mom blogger concerned that I’d listed her kids’ very unusual names here. (Well, one wasn’t all that different. The other one is nearly one of a kind.) I removed all references to both as soon as I read the email, but it is a raindrop in the ocean.

An unusual name means you’ll be a snap to find on Facebook, in a Google search, on archives that have yet to be imagined. It’s always been true if your surname is unusual. For some, that’s a bonus. But if privacy is important, you’re better off with a more common given name. The challenge is, of course, that many parents want a distinctive name when they’re expecting, and will only consider the implications of being the only Gillespie or Sonata later.

9. Prepare to be misunderstood. One of my long-time favorites was Sidonie, an obscure French feminine appellation from a medieval saint’s name. But can you imagine introducing yourself as Sidonie? Despite the three-syllable pronunciation, you’d likely spend your days answering to Sidney and Cindy. Of course, you can repeat yourself and explain your name. But that might get old. Emma, I’d wager, is rarely mangled.

8. How do you spell that? Maybe we should all recognize Hermione and Orion, Caspian and Ariadne. But we don’t, or at least, the librarian at story hour, the registrar at the nursery school, the person who embroiders the mouse ears at Disney World might be so surprised to meet little Opal that she’ll ask the spelling again just to be sure she’s hearing you right. (Well … maybe not Disney World. Mouse Ear embroiderers must hear some interesting choices. Wonder how I apply?)

7. Do you have a thick skin, or wear rose-colored glasses? Unusual names provoke unusual responses, ranging from parents impressed that you used something so stylish and daring, to those who truly believe little Nikita Soren is in for a lifetime of mockery thanks to your senseless choice. Nancy’s sweater analogy is particularly useful here. I guarantee you that not everyone thinks Clio is a great name – they just haven’t got a clue what else to say.

6. Speaking of thick skin, it’s not standard-issue for children. If you’re a professional songwriter and musician, your kid Lyric might find her name as ordinary as Sarah, especially if her school community is filled with other artists’ kids. But what if you’re more of a workaday soul, whose life is more Office Space than Moulin Rouge? Remember the point about standing out? Even if it works for you, it may not work for your kiddo. Of course, the opposite is also true – some kids hate sharing their Top Ten name – so this isn’t a compelling reason to play it safe. It’s just another factor to consider.

5. The impact of a fictional character or headline-maker who shares their name is considerable. This is my main argument for not naming your daughter Kimora. While she’s doing well, it’s one thing. But there’s nothing worse than sharing a name with a celebrity or elected official who is much in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. You can’t control it, of course. But if the scandal-plagued celeb has a fairly ordinary name – Bill or Michael – the association won’t stick. Now try Tiger or Kobe. Imagine you inventively named your son Tiger before Woods went pro. Your sixteen year old is wondering why you didn’t have the foresight to realize that a pro athlete would tarnish his unusual name.

4. Virtue and other noun names suggest particular pitfalls. Grace might be clumsy, but she’s one in a crowd. It’s more exceptional when your Aria can’t sing, or Everest turns out to be short for his age. And let’s not even talk about Chastity.

3. Nicknames present their own challenges. I long assumed that my friend Andi was Andrea, only to discover it was short for Andromeda. While choosing an unusual name with a common short form is one way to soften the impact of #5, it isn’t without problems. It almost intensifies the impact of the real name.

2. Gender bending. After once introducing my son as Alexei, the other parent – our boys were playing with monster trucks on a playground – said to me, baffled, “Oh, I thought he was a boy.” And this essay at You Can’t Call It “It” was an eloquent commentary on the frustrations of being a girl named Tyson. Even when the name is legitimately masculine or feminine, and your child is of the corresponding gender, unfamiliarity can lead people to stumble.

1. You’ll tell the story of the name again and again. If you’ve chosen an unusual name for the right reasons – for a personal meaning, in honor of literary or notable namesakes, to remember a loved one or emphasize cultural ties – this is a tiny thrill, a chance to explain why you named your daughter Svetlana after her Russian grandmother, or how you’ve always admired Atticus Finch.

On balance, I think the reasons to hesitate before using an unusual name are just that – things to consider before you proceed. And yet, Appellation Mountain often attracts angry emails and comments from parents who don’t want to hear anything other than glowing words about their kids’ names, from Aura to Zaphyn.

It makes me think that the moment of hesitation should sometimes be longer.


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