Alicia Silverstone recently gave birth to a boy whom she named Bear Blu. Around the same time, Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon had twins: a girl called Monroe (as in Marilyn) and a boy called Moroccan (as in the decor of a room in their house - really). Naturally, Carey and Canon are "on trend" - unusual baby names have increased in past decades. In the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, five per cent of babies were given the most common name; now it's one per cent, which means that the most common baby names (Emma and Jacob in Canada) aren't as common as they used to be. This leaves room for more unique monikers. North American parents seem to be pulling inspiration from Twilight (Isabella) and reality TV (Maci - from the MTV series 16 and Pregnant - and Khloe with a K, as in Kardashian). And of course from decor.
But why does this kind of flexi-naming get people so riled up? The New York Post announced Moroccan's arrival with the headline: "Have celebrity baby names gone too far?" The blog thingsiwanttopunchintheface.com calls out celebrities for their devil-may-care naming: "Kids have enough problems without insecure yet narcissistic parents saddling them with a nutbar name." Many a message board grumbler equates weird names with child abuse.
Creative baby naming, however, may not be damaging. In the book Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner cite a study showing that kids with unusual names who struggle in school are more likely to be born to poor or uneducated families. But when socioeconomic factors are removed, kids with weird names appear to have no better nor worse social outcomes than those with conventional names.
Even so, unorthodox baby naming among the rich and famous seems icky because it reads as self-promotion - exploiting a kid to gain column inches (see this column). Ashlee Simpson, for instance, is famous for almost nothing except naming her kid Bronx Mowgli.
What's more surprising than celebrities giving their kids attention-grabbing names is that non-celebrities are doing the same through random vowels and misspellings - Jayden, Aaden - and fantastical inventions (like Nevaeh, "Heaven" spelled backward). This isn't about following the lead of the well-known, but taking a stab at self-expression. Weird names mark a generational shift from the conformist 1950s, when everyone was a Dick and a Jane. A study published last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found the trend of unique naming took off in the eighties - when the Me Generation baby boomers were naming their kids - and caught fire in the 1990s.
The study cautions that a cohort of little snowflakes with one-of-a-kind names may ultimately become a nest of narcissists. I suppose it's possible that a kid named Unique could be self-involved and less empathic, forever set apart. On the other hand, giving kids unique names could mean they become free spirits, tolerant of difference - the opposite of sheeple.
The shift in how we name seems a piece of a new, rabid parenting culture. In the past two decades, parenting has become a multi-million-dollar industry that starts in the womb (Baby Mozart). Plowing through baby-naming websites and books is a new parent's first indoctrination into the endless, pointless quest for perfect parenting. Forty years ago, finding the right name was largely a private and perhaps not so complicated process. Now, naming feels like the first public act in what will be a life of scrutinized judgments about birthday parties and French immersion, with every decision debated in the blogosphere and every photograph forwarded.
My husband and I were name wafflers. The names we managed to agree on for our kids seemed "taken," boring, silly or unable to sustain a double-barreled last name. Both our kids were named - beautifully, in my opinion - days after their births. I confess to a Mariah moment when I discovered that my daughter's name had risen through the popularity charts in the first few months of her life. Out of my head, drenched in Internet anxiety and wanting my snowflake to stand out, I called the city to see about changing it. But I was put on hold for so long that the kid started crying and I realized I should probably consult my husband on the matter, so I hung up. Her name - happily - remains the same - and it's not Bear Purpl.
Of course, these naming shenanigans had more to do with me than her, which is why, in the end, extreme baby naming is unpalatable, a function of parental ego or fretfulness rather than a celebration of the kid. In Denmark, Danes are legally obligated to choose from a roster of 7,000 government-approved names. In 30 years, let's ask Moroccan what he thinks about limiting parental choice. He will invariably name his son Donald.
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