OK, look, I just need something clarified- why is being Emma J and one of three Jackson's suddenly a cultural dilemma. This is new, the desire to be unique, the only Thisbe or Barthes in the school, city, province. I'm just genuinely curious to hear the "name nerd's" reasoning on why popular names should be avoided.

Is it the parents needing to be special and different, or the desire to make our kids special and different? Frankly, I'm just not sure this reflects well on us - I mean the kind of 'hardship' that goes with being one of four Jennifer's might be worth experiencing. Is unique naming step one to calling your kids university prof to demand higher grades? Likewise, why the hell do our kids all have to be so damn 'special'? This seems to be what everyone bitches about millennials and whatever comes next.

I'm a teacher and the thing is - usually, two out four Maddies are pretty awesome. And Thisbe's parents? Well,they often think they're pretty awesome. Full disclosure, I have two kids with non-top ten names that follow the old lady for young kids model. This isn't an argument for Emma- I just want to know your thoughts on why it is assumed so readily that popular is such a bad thing.  


I can’t thank you enough for this letter. Honestly. I love talking about the anthropology of names; I’ve long believed they say a lot about us. But if you’ve been reading this column for any length of time you may know that I reject the ‘official’ meanings of names. I think our group-created ideas of what names mean are much more interesting and accurate.  For example, Buzzfeed has an article that says, among other name assumptions, “Marias do well professionally, but they’re always trying to get past the fact that Maria seems like not a fun name”. Now, isn’t that more interesting and relevant to our times than the official ‘meaning’?

I think the movement towards ‘not-popular’ names is like this – malleable. You are 100% right that our parents didn’t feel this way. The ethos of the 70s and especially the 80s pushed more towards “show that you’re successful and choose a name that reflects that”. Of course there’s my own bias here, but from my perspective, there was no hardship being Jennifer back then. It meant you fit in, that you got what was up. And at that time, that was paramount.

But you know who’s naming kids these days? Jennifers. They’re childbearing age.   So are Stephanies and Allisons and Ashleys and Ryans and Chrises. They’re the ones who have decided that their kids are going to have names that don’t add up to the most popular name in class. And I would argue that they’re succeeding roughly half the time. After all, Maddie was a fad, but it was virtually unheard of when we were growing up. Ditto Liam, Ethan, and Isabella.  

The demand for rarer names, though, is stronger and stronger all the time. Virtually every letter I get wants a name that is unique to their child, at least within their class or soccer team. That, I think, is partly attributed to the age of branding we live in. The biggest lesson of our professional age is that you have to be unique in order to stand out in what is increasingly a terrifying marketplace – so why not have it start with your (child’s) name? And partly it comes back to what you were talking about earlier – whether the trials of being Jennifer are lessons worth learning.   Maybe they are, but isn’t Jennifer the best one to judge that? I came from the other side, and I can tell you (at length) all the trials of being too unique – but at the end of the day, I still come down on the side that having a name of your own, within reason, is a benefit. So I tend to refer to Jen here, the ‘global Jen’. If she or any of her sisters was so frustrated by never knowing who the teacher wanted that she went all the way to Thisbe (or, if you’re watching Kimmy Schmidt, Xanthippe), then she must think it’s important.

However, I have never advocated for originality at all costs, because everyone understands that naming your child Celery is an advertisement of your douchery. No arguments here. 

A note to name-nerd letter writers,

I love getting your letters. In order to give them the best chance of being answered in a timely fashion, could I please trouble you to include the due date in the subject line of your email? Also, please send only one email – duplicates are deleted and may result in your email not being answered. Thanks!