WETZSTEIN: Sea of unique in baby names

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Here’s a celebrity quiz. The following names belong to children of people in celebrity news: Ever, Carys, Emerson, Grier, Sailor, Brooklyn, Zuma, Bronx, Magnus and Ikhyd. Can you tell which names belong to a girl and which belong to a boy?

The answer is below.

Authors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell say it’s not just celebrities giving their children unusual, odd and ambiguous names. Non-celebrity parents are caught in the name game, too.

It used to be that parents wanted their children to have common, popular names, partly because “having a weird name would get you beaten up,” Ms. Twenge and Mr. Campbell, both psychology professors, wrote in their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.”

But in the 1990s, unusual names came into vogue, and fewer children were given common names.

Today, less than one-third of boys have one of the 50 most popular names, Ms. Twenge told me. In comparison, in the mid-1950s, two-thirds of boys had the popular names. This sea change means millions of Americans have “special” names that are often difficult to understand, recognize, pronounce or spell.

Why such a shift?

“Our theory, which we’ve tested, is that parents are much more concerned with their children standing out,” Ms. Twenge said. “In the previous era, they were more interested in their children fitting in.”

Proof of this trend toward unique (or Uneek, Uneque and Uneqqee, all actual names of California children) names can be found at the Social Security Administration’s baby-name-tracking Web site, which has data going back to 1880.

It shows that Americans have largely abandoned Debra, Diane, Carol and Cheryl (all top 20 baby boomer girls’ names) for previously unknown or rare names like Madison, Addison and Chloe.

For boys, many names have remained popular (e.g., Michael, Daniel, Joseph, William and David). But once-very-common names like Larry, Gary and Ronald have been displaced by Jayden, Aiden and Logan.

Factors like immigration or ethnic diversity didn’t explain the rise in “special” names, but the trend fits perfectly with Ms. Twenge and Mr. Campbell’s theory that the entire nation has become caught up in unhealthy levels of attention-seeking, self-absorption and empty self-esteem.

America’s growing shallowness, incivility, exhibitionism, celebrity obsession and materialism can all be linked to a “relentless rise of narcissism in our culture,” wrote Ms. Twenge and Mr. Campbell. The remedy is to seek real relationships and cultivate qualities like humility, self-compassion and mindfulness.

What can soon-to-be parents do if they want to avoid saddling their child with an annoying or weird name?

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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