Trendy Baby Names a Sign of Group Think?

Experts, authors say the latest trends in baby names may annoy us in adulthood.

December 3, 2009, 7:22 PM

Dec. 4, 2009— -- In the future, names like Dick, Jane and Mary may sound exotic to the ears of the little Emmas, Ethans and Madisons who are just starting kindergarten now.

Since the 1960s, whole sets of names seem to rise and then burst in popularity bubbles faster than the stock market. Many parents are surprised to find out that the seemingly unique name they picked for their child is shared by what seems like half the kindergarten class.

According to the Social Security Administration, differed in popularity, many of the new names were virtually unheard of 15 years ago -- many were not even in the top 1,000 baby names.

New York City just released its top 10 names of 2008 this week and they were, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene:

GIRLS: Sophia, Isabella, Emily, Olivia, Sarah, Madison, Ashley, Mia, Samantha and Emma.

BOYS: Jayden, Daniel, Michael, Matthew, David, Joshua, Justin, Anthony, Christopher, Ethan and Ryan (tie).

Names differed in popularity by ethnicity -- for example, among Asian Americans in New York, Sophia was the most popular name, among Hispanic parents, Ashley was number one, for black parents, it was Madison and white parents chose either Olivia or Esther.

For a list of the most popular names nationwide, visit the Social Security Administration Web site.

The trend makes for an interesting time in preschool, but psychologists, economists and authors who study names say parents should beware -- picking the wrong name can seriously hurt your child from teasing in childhood to hurting job prospects as adults.

"Really, it's been emerging over the last century, but in the past 50 and 60 years … there's been a shift… from names being a tradition or accustomed to, to being 'anything goes,'" said Todd M. Gureckis who co-authored a study "How You Named Your Child: Understanding the Relationship Between Individual Decision Making and Collective Outcomes" with professor Robert Goldstone in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science this October.

Gureckis researched how these trends in baby names develop. He found that in the early 1800s, the United States baby names fluctuated up and down year to year. The collection of names stayed relatively static, however, because names were considered traditional.

How Do Baby Name Trends Begin?

"Certain names were popular and certain names were less popular," said Gureckis. But, "they would pass their name down from their grandfathers."

By the 1960s, Gureckis found naming traditions slowly started to change, and by the 1980s, people were naming children according to which names had "momentum."

So, while Opal was popular in 1885, chances are that it would be less popular in 1886, and bounce back in 1887. But if Kimberly was popular in 1983, chances were that it was going to get more popular in 1984, and in 1985, in 1986 and so on.

Moreover, many parents who think they are being individualistic in their choice of a name are unaware of how they are influenced by society when they set out to pick a unique name, researchers say.

The difference, Gureckis theorizes, is that, without tradition, people start to take their naming cues from others around them -- even if it's an unconscious process.

"People may discount the degree to which there's a name environment that we live in everyday: You go around, you meet people, you hear names in the news, on the radio," said Gureckis. "Even if you go look at baby name books, that name environment is going to bias you."

So, if a couple somehow feels "Olivia" has a distinctive ring to it, Gureckis said it's likely their neighbors down the street felt the same way.

Names can die off, too, especially when a name gets too popular too fast. Gureckis said other researchers have shown that it will likely die out quickly. "For example, Nevaeh really grew dramatically and because of its rocket growth, it might disappear in the next couple of years," said Gureckis. Nevaeh is "heaven" spelled backwards.

In that way, Gureckis argues that baby names could be an easy marker for how many "motifs," artistic sensibilities or even ideas change in our culture and influence one another.

Jeff Bradley, author of the book "Hello, My Name Is… A Guide to Naming Your Baby," noticed these trendy names carry a stigma, too.

"It's a great way to show you what your parents were watching on TV," said Bradley. "I think it kind of dates people. If your name is Beyonce, then 20 years from now, 30 years from now, people are going to have you pegged."

Adapting Baby Names From TV

Parents of all of the newly named "Emmas" may have been influenced by an episode of the TV sitcom "Friends," where two characters name a baby Emma.

Similarly, parents of an "Aiden" may have been subconsciously influenced by the "Sex and the City" character Aidan Shaw. However, Aiden might have already been influencing the writers of "Sex and the City."

The show debuted in 1998, but the baby name Aiden shot up out of obscurity starting in 1994. It went from not being listed in 1993 to 935th most popular in 1994, 545th most popular in 1998 and 16th most popular name in 2008, according to the Social Security Administration.

Coincidentally, another Aiden Shaw, a popular British porn star and author, shot to stardom in his field in the early 1990s. ABC News asked readers whether they liked their names, and a number of people clamored to report that they felt "dated" by their once-trendy name.

"It's WAY too common," wrote in an Ashley from Jefferson City, Mo. "I was born in 1984 and my mom was really into "The Young and the Restless" soap opera. Needless to say, that's where she first heard of the name Ashley, and hence, I got my name. Little did she know thousands upon thousands would follow from that same year!"

Others suffered from creative spellings, another side effect from the anything-goes naming culture that Bradley noticed in his book.

Tabbitha from Cleveland, Ohio, wrote that she can't stand her name, in part, because of the spelling. "It's very rare for me to meet someone new without them asking me if I can wiggle my nose (Tabitha was the name of the nose-wiggling daughter on the TV show "Bewitched"). It gets really old after 20 years! Not to mention my mom decided to spell it differently, so no one ever gets it right," she wrote.

"I try to tell people, remember, you're not just naming a cuddly little baby. You're naming a high school student on the track team, you're naming an adult, a future professor, one day, you're naming an 80-year-old," said Bradley.

Bradley says the creative spellings have, for the large part, created big problems for children as they grew older. Creative spellings are perhaps even more common than the parents who make up their own names.

For regional differences, Bradley guesses Utah is the most unusual. While writing his book, he came across a Mormon couple who noted all the strange and unusual names among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in their area. A full listing can be found at their Web site, but a sampling from Bradley's book includes: Tchae, Xko, Corx, G'ni, Vvhs, Garn, Ka, Deauxti, Xymoya, Sha'Kira, Zy, Xela, Nivek, Zon'tl, Zagg, Xan, Judziah Datz (a female, named after a "Star Trek" character), K'lar (ditto), Jarna Nazhalena, Chod, Xarek, Grik, Stod, T'Shara, Tral, Sherik and Curg.

When You're Discriminated Against Because of Your Name

Besides strange looks and spelling questions, some research has shown that people with creative names from African American communities face discrimination as they grow up and enter the professional world.

In 2004, Roland Fryer, an economist and assistant professor at Harvard University, worked with ABC News' "20/20" to demonstrate the bias some people face with a "black-sounding" name.

The crew sent out 22 pairs of identical resumes, the only difference being the name. The "white-sounding" names were downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than the resumes with names popular with African Americans.

A woman named Tinisha from Greensboro, N.C., wrote to, saying she felt similar discrimination. "I hate my first name because it is uncommon. My name, I feel, identifies me before I can introduce myself and people can learn who I really am," she wrote.

"I have lost out on job interviews and internships, I feel, because they see my ethnic first name. I asked my mother why she gave me that name that would make it harder for me in the professional community, and her statement was that she thought it was beautiful and I should just get over it. Maybe..."

Others writing in to to gripe had names that included: Tamela, Caryl (a man), Randal (a woman), Remarse, Keesha, Kate, Griffin, Tereve, ChaRee, Belva, Erich, Thelenna, Royann and Hedy.

Some people, however, still seem to relish the unusual names they were given. A "Diane Charlotte" from Houston, Texas, wrote that she loved her name.

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