Choosing a name for your child is a momentous decision, and one that says a lot about a parent's values and outlook. So what does it mean that, according to two recent studies, a steadily increasing number of parents are picking unusual or offbeat names for their offspring? Here's a look at the studies, and the explanations their authors put forward for America's newfound love of esoteric baby monikers:
What constitutes a "strange" name?
Basically, a name was considered unusual if it wasn't in the Top 50 names for its year. So Jayden wouldn't be unusual in 2009, when it was No. 8, but it would have been considered odd in 1999, when it was ranked No. 254. If you want to see what names were popular when, the Social Security Administration is keeping track for us.
What do the studies show?
The first study looked at 325 million baby names, from 1880 to 2007, and found a steady if uneven move away from common names; there was a big uptick in odd names when the baby boomers had kids and again in the 1990s. The second study found regional differences, with parents in "frontier" states choosing much more adventurous names. Think Track, Willow, Trig, Bristol, and Piper Palin. "Sarah Palin, even though she talks about traditional values, she's a perfect representative of frontier naming," says baby-naming expert Laura Wattenberg.
What's the perceived benefit of an unusual name?
Parents believe it will help their child stand out as an individual in a crowded classroom and a crowded world, says Jean Twenge, a researcher at San Diego State University. There's also the hope that a world where children's names are routinely diverse may become a more tolerant place.
Is there a downside?
Narcissism, says Twenge. The "most compelling explanation" for the trend is that parents are anxious to guarantee that their child is seen as "special," Twenge argues. It's not clear that "having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life," but to the extent it reflects "a parent's overall philosophy," it could be a bad omen.
How do researchers explain regional differences?
People who live in "frontier" states out west tend to be more culturally individualistic, says University of Michigan researcher Michael Varnum, who led the second study. Varnum and his associates found that the more recently a state joined the U.S., the more likely its residents are to give their kids offbeat names. So Hawaii, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest have a much higher proportion of unique names than the original 13 colonies.
Is this just a U.S. phenomenon?
No. Varnum's team compiled two other data sets, on unusual names in new vs. old Canada, and Europe vs. the New World, and the results held. The eastern Canadian provinces, which were settled earlier, favored popular names, while the western provinces opted for unusual ones. And the same trend was true of Old World countries like Ireland, Spain, Hungary, England, and Denmark versus the "frontier countries" they colonized: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S. People who are drawn to the frontier, says Varnum, are more likely to value "individualism and foster and reward individualistic values such as uniqueness and self-reliance" compared with their contemporaries in more established parts of the country and the world.