Our first child has a rather weird name. Ransom is a genuine, old name, but the effects of choosing it actually made me determined not to make such an ethereal pick again. I’ve finally joined my husband on the plain-vanilla baby names bandwagon, just as everyone’s getting off it: in 2012, a third of American parents picked baby names that weren’t in the top 1,000, while the corresponding number in 1950 was 5 percent. All our other children have and will have normal, human being names from the conventional lexicon.
I couldn’t help but think of this when reviewing Rich Cromwell’s article about choosing the name Aoife for his daughter. It’s prompted me to both explain why I won’t be following my own example (or his) with any subsequent children, and to ponder what might be in our cultural Kool-Aid to prompt this huge diaspora of baby names.
Names Can Open Doors or Shut Them
First, as usual, my complaints. It’s unnecessarily obnoxious to go around correcting people’s pronunciation and spelling of your or your child’s name every single freaking time you utter it. Further, it’s an impediment to relationships, because people forget weird names easier (strange but true—you might think they’d remember unusual names better, but they don’t) and then just won’t call out to you as much to get that relationship going because they can’t remember your name and are ashamed to own it. I am not overstating this. My own parents misspell Ransom’s name. He has birthday cards with “Ransome” and “Randsome” and “Randsom” on them. I’m not sure one birthday card or package has ever spelled his name correctly. And “Ransom” is even a completely normal, regular word! Whenever I go places, meet new people, and introduce my children, they catch on his name and ask, “Branson? Ramson? Rancid?”
Speaking of which, guess what he’s getting called on the playground until he’s 19. That or “Random.”
I’m not the only frustrated one. A recent study of 3,000 British parents found that one-fifth regretted the names they’d given their kids, and parents who had chosen more unusual names were more dissatisfied, largely for reasons similar to mine (constant re-spelling and -pronouncing). There are other practical reasons to give kids normal names. This paper finds that boys given names usually given to girls misbehave more and have lower test scores. A number of studies have found that a more regular name on, say, a resume or class roster will have a better callback rate or teacher perception of the unknown student than an unusual name. But the research on this isn’t conclusive—some studies have found that the kind of parents who are likely to give a child a high-class or trashy name are the real life-makers here, not the names themselves.
Red Names, Blue Names
Perhaps the most fascinating study on this topic that I found analyzed Census Bureau data and voting returns to conclude that political “ideology has a very strong relationship with both the types and the sounds of birth names, but low status mothers of all races are more likely to choose uncommon names, especially for girls. In contrast to their high status and conservative peers, educated, white mothers in liberal neighborhoods are signiĕcantly more likely to choose uncommon names and names with more ‘feminine’ phonemes [letter sounds] like AHo and L and are less likely to choose names with ‘masculine’ phonemes like K.” So the two groups most likely to choose weird names are poor, uneducated moms and educated, left-leaning moms. On the Freakonomics podcast, one of the study coauthors explained:
[O]ur educated liberal mothers tend to be choosing names that are obscure cultural references. And so these are the Esmés and the Unas and the Archimedes and the Emersons. And we think this is a way that liberals sort of signal their cultural — for lack of a better word — their sense of cultural superiority.
Baby-name watchers have also pointed out that the oddest names, such as Paislee, Liberty, Rykan, and Scottlynn, happen to be more common in red states than in blue states. “The reason for more outlandish-sounding names cropping up in conservative quarters is simple, [Baby Name Wizard author Laura] Wattenberg says. Women in red states tend to have their first children earlier than women in blue states. A 23-year-old mom is more likely to come up with something out of the ordinary than one who is 33.” Parents in blue states tend to bestow more traditional names. Combining this with the study above suggests that red states have more odd names, not so much because of politics, but because red states have poorer populations (although less income inequality) and younger mothers.
My Baby’s Name (TM)
These are precisely the demographics who are now having children but largely providing them no fathers. So my hunch about this is: Children are, for poor and young women, a marker of personal identity like careers and education are for older, educated, middle- and upper-class women. As researcher Kathryn Edin found, “’Both women and men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder see having kids as the ultimate form of fulfillment’: given their bleak economic prospects and minimal hope of upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities available to them.” A poor mom’s children are her brand in a way that an alma mater or place of employment is to a wealthier mom.
This is not all bad. Children do provide a genuine measure of meaning in life, and they can help mature their parents. They are good in and of themselves, not for anything they produce or do, and deserve to be treasured. And babies are unique; they have a singular blend of personality, DNA, environment, and parenting that no one else in history or eternity can possibly experience. Given that, one might think it salutary that more children are finally receiving the one-of-a-kind names they deserve.
While we each are individual, however, we each are born into a community. We’re born as part of a whole. No man is an island, and no child is an emblem. America has always been ethnically diverse, but in former days more people of all origins considered it important to signal their belonging to the broader community with things such as children’s name choices than considered it important to signal their societal alienation. Clearly, that’s reversing.
Yes, parents are free to name their children anything. But they should neither abuse that freedom nor their children with names like Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Conley. Children deserve names within the frame of normality. Not something weird we made up or derived from some Hebrew word or picked up from a fifteenth-century novel or smashed together from pretty-sounding syllables. Not something that proclaims their and their parents’ self-obsession and rejection of life’s other binding relationships.
I’m not picking on Rich any more than I’m picking on myself. Our son’s name means a great deal to us because it in fact does signal our family’s ties to something greater than even each other. It’s an enduring mark of gratitude for a faith that kept me from killing a child I didn’t want. That faith and that child ransomed me from selfishness (or at least some selfishness). So it may be and is indeed likely that other people’s children, whatever their names, can and have performed similar acts of mercy even just by existing. And how would an onlooker know whether an unusual name signifies parental self-absorption or self-sacrifice?
They wouldn’t. But, all the same, our next baby will have a meaningful name that other people have heard before.