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WETZSTEIN: Sea of unique in baby names

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

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?

"My advice is that there's nothing wrong with a name that's fairly common. That way, people will be able to spell and pronounce your child's name, and that's probably a good thing," Ms. Twenge said.

But in general, she said, parents should "resist the whole idea that it's really important for your kid to be unique and stand out and be special." Parents can love children without making them feel like they are the center of the universe.

Meanwhile, the answer to my celebrity challenge question is that the first five names belong to girls and the rest belong to boys. Their famous parents are, respectively: Milla Jovovich; Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; Teri Hatcher; Brooke Shields; Christie Brinkley; David Beckham and Victoria Adams Beckham; Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale; Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz; Will Ferrell; and rapper MIA.

The latter, by the way, recently chided the media for getting little Ikhyd's name wrong.

"My baby," she wrote in all-caps on her MySpace page, "is not called Ickitt, Pickit or Lickit. ... He's a baby, he don't need press. ... [G]o pick on Apple, Satchel and Moon Unit."

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com