I blame Reese Witherspoon. In 1999, she had a daughter, she named Ava. She planted a seed in a lot of people’s heads. Myself included. When we went to name our daughter in 2003, Ava was barely on the Top 100 baby name list according to the Social Security Administration. By 2005, Ava showed up on the Top 20 list and is now at No. 5. My Ava now runs into situations where she is Ava V., so much so, that her nickname at home is now just V.
I blame the Bible for Benjamin. When he was born in 2001, Benjamin was squarely in the middle Top 100, but now is No. 12. Luckily, Ben doesn’t run into a lot of Benjamins, until we go to our temple or his Jewish summer camp. Then he might be one of two or three in his class or cabin. At camp, he became known as Villalpancakes, a mixture of our last name and his apparent love of pancakes at camp.
These were never scenarios we considered when naming our children, but according to baby name expert Bruce Lansky, who wrote the book “100,000+ Baby Names,” there we should have considered when naming children, and following trends is just one of them.
Lansky, who is also a children’s book author, tells me I actually did well at following trends. For boys, especially in Texas, Biblical names are very trendy. In 2014, Jacob was No. 1 in Texas, and the top 10 boys included Noah, Ethan, Daniel, David and Matthew. The U.S. chart had Noah at No. 1, as well as Jacob, Ethan, Michael, James and Daniel.
For girls, parents tend to choose names that are glamorous or movie star names, rather than biblical, though Ava (which is a form of Eve) and Abigail (which has Hebrew roots) are the exception. In the U.S., there are a lot of namesakes of Olivia de Havilland or Olivia Wilde with the No. 1 name, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Emily Blunt, Isabella Rossellini and Mia Farrow or Hamm. In Texas, it’s Sophia Loren with the No. 1 name as well as the spelling Sofia at No. 7, followed by Emma Watson, Mia Farrow, Olivia Wilde, Emily Blunt, Ava Gardner, Lucy Liu, Isabella Rossellini and Victoria Beckham.
You’ll also notice a trend of old-fashioned names being popular again. For girls, as well as these names, Charlotte makes the Top 10 and Nora, Eleanor, Annabelle, Penelope and Alice are on the rise. For boys, William, Liam and Alexander show up on the Top 10 as well, and Oliver and Sebastian are also gaining in popularity.
Why is that? First, some celebrities are choosing those names, thus making them popular, but also, think about who is having babies right now. They probably had beloved grandparents or great-grandparents with these names and are honoring them, Lansky explains.
“There’s something special about your grandmother or grandpa that’s a quality that you would love to adhere to a baby,” he says.
He does warn that some names aren’t worthy of recycling even if your dear Meemaw had them. “Hazels and Wandas and Mabels — those are awful names,” he says.
Instead, he suggests finding a new version of that name or use some of the same letters in the name. So, the way I turned my grandfather’s name William, who went by Bill, into Benjamin. I honored Bill, but didn’t stick my child with what I thought of as an outdated name. Apparently, I was wrong on that, because William is in the Top 10.
Another trend that Lansky has noticed is people choosing less popular Biblical names for their sons like Isaiah and Ezekiel or it’s nickname Zeke. That’s especially true in parts of the South.
For girls, parents also have been choosing gender-neutral names or names that were once boy names. It’s this idea that their daughters might get a fare shake with a less “girly” name. That’s why Madison and Harper show up in the Top 20 girls’ names and why Kennedy and Skylar are on the rise. Celebrities are on board with this, too. Tiger Woods named his daughter Sam, not Samantha, in 2007.
“Names like hemlines and fashion go through cycles,” Lansky says.
Lansky makes these suggestions when choosing a name:
Rule out the Top 10, and then next 15.
Look for names that are on the rise. Maybe they just appeared on the Top 100, or they are slowly climbing from the 80s to the 50s, but not yet reached the Top 25. You can find the list of popular baby names on the Social Security Administration’s website.
Remember what a celebrity did and then reconsider. That’s especially true for Britney (Spears), Paris (Hilton) and Miley (Cyrus), or Ivan (the Terrible), Adolf (Hitler) or Charles (Manson or Whitman, you take your pick).
Avoid going too “girly” or too “macho.” It’s the 2010s, after all.
Consider versatile names such as Elizabeth, which your daughter could change into Liz or Beth or Betsy (no!).
Consider the meaning as well. Though not as important as the name itself, it’s good to take a look at what it is supposed to mean and whether you want your baby to have those qualities.
Consider a name that is right for a baby and right for an old man or woman and every stage in between.
Don’t go for a unique spelling. “By changing the spelling, parents make it harder to pronounce,” Lansky says. “It’s an awful thing to have to deal with all their lives. It will make them unique, just because they will be uniquely pissed off. Why is that a good thing?”
Really looking for something cool: consider food or place names. That’s how we get Brie and Kale and Brooklyn and Austin (though there’s a lot of Austins in Austin).
Realize, that if you think you’re coming up with a cool name, you probably are not the first to come up with it. And that’s OK. What happens to pregnant women or people who are thinking about having a baby is they gravitate to every baby carriage or kid in the park and ask the parent what that kid’s name is. “They are taking their own private survey,” Lansky says.
Test out a name before you decide on it. You might think it’s a good idea to hide the baby’s name until he or she is born, but nothing will prevent a bad name like floating it out there to trusted friends and family members. They might come up with a horrible nickname that you hadn’t thought of or not get your line of thinking. Read expressions and body language, not just what they say.
You also could just do what we did. Print out two copies the Top 100 names list. Give yourself and your partner each a copy. Circle what you each like and compare. You might just end up with one name in common and that’s how your kid gets named.