Dear Duana,
I am expecting my first child in February, a girl. Every name I used to love now seems lackluster at best. The current front runner is Zoe, but the Social Security Administration reports it is one of the most popular names of the 2010s. I don't relish the thought of my child being "Zoe L." in a class with five Zoes, especially given that her older half siblings have some of the most popular/common names out there - Ava and Liam.  

The spelling is also tricky. I refuse to use those two little dots, but feel torn between Zoe and Zoey. I live abroad so I'd like a name that could work in English, Spanish, and French settings. Some other names I like are Sabrina (but not crazy about Bri as a nickname),Tabitha (is it too weird?), Alicia, Gabriela, Cassie, and Kaya (drawbacks: sounds like Shut up in Spanish and apparently refers to marijuana in Jamaica).

You always have amazing advice. Any suggestions for me? More background: baby is biracial and I'm mostly Irish American.  


I love this letter because it’s how most of us actually think about something like a name.  “I love it, but is it special enough? Is it the best?” I understand this thinking, but I also wonder why we’re always so quick to wonder if our brains are basic?

To dig in specifically, Zoe is one of those names that’s popular because it’s great. Full stop. It’s short but has a lot of style, the Z sound is still both energetic and rare, and let’s be honest, it looks cool. You can rest easy in that, with or without the Y, most people have dropped the umlaut – the name is popular enough that nobody needs to be told that it doesn’t rhyme with ‘toe’. 

So, is it too popular? That’s a matter of taste. The popularity rankings tell us how often the name is chosen relative to other names, but not what that actually means. The closest real number I could find was from the US in 2018, which says that of the babies born that year (and reported, obviously), 5899 were named Zoey and 5062 were named Zoe. So that’s a total of 10961. Which meansnothing unless you look at it as a percentage of the total babies born last year – 3,790,000.  

Then it’s about .2%. Now I’m no statistician, but even I know that’s not right because half those babies are boys, so if you do the corresponding calculations (online, while praying your 7th grade math teacher isn’t watching over your shoulder) it still winds up as around .58%. In other words, .6% of the babies born last year were named Zoe. 

Less than 1%. So that’s the good news. The… not exactly bad news, but news to factor in, is that the most popular name in 2018, Emma, was given to 18,888 girls – or  justabout 1% of the babies born that year. 

To contrast, in 1979, that juggernaut Jennifer was given to 3.3% of all girls born that year. In 1999 Emily was given to 1.4%. So, think of the 40 year old Jennifers you know, or the number of 20 year old Emilys, and then mentally slice that percentage accordingly. 

Does all this math make you feel better, or worse? If what you’re after is a name that isn’t known at all, that evokes what we’ve talked about as the ‘tiny pause’ of marveling and novelty, then no, Zoe isn’t going to give you that. People know it pretty well – though its popularity and distribution varies by location. 

It doesn’t make it a bad name, though. As I’ve said a lot, popular names are popular because they’re great, fundamentally, even if we sometimes grow tired of hearing them. 

So if what you’re after is something more distinct, I can help you there, too. Usually I’d go to my well of beloved Greek names that are similar but somehow less beloved, like Phoebe or Daphne – but actually, they’re not where your tastes seem to lie at all. You like longer, more artistic names with slightly unusual or what I can only think of as ‘acidic’ c and s sounds… and look, there are tons of those, too! 

No, Tabitha’s not too weird, and Sabrina has always surprised me as being below the radar. Cassie strikes us as being sort of familiar but didn’t even crack the top 1000 in 2018, and Alicia is going to stun everyone when people start remembering it again. They’re all great – and if you love one of them as much as Zoe, you should go ahead! 

But if what you’re looking for is the idea of a name you haven’t found yet, here’s where we go next: 

I immediately thought of Acacia. It’s Greek, it’s rare, it’s easy to spell and understand. But it might feel a bit too decorative in view of all the starts-in-a-ends-in-a names out there. You could go with Azalea if you miss the Z, or Ariadne if you want something that sounds different than the average current ‘a’ name… though I’m also inclined to suggest Anastasia because it is AMAZING. 

Moving on, though – what about Zara? Yes I know, the store. But there were stores called Melanie and Laura and a million other names that didn’t stop anyone. If it’s  a bridge too far for you, how about Zosia or Zadie? I mean, neither have a direct French or Spanish translation, per se, but they’re also sounds that are relatively familiar. Or, to capitalize on the old-school glamour, go all the way to Zelda. Yes, really! 

Or maybe you want to go further afield, to something like Soraya or our very own Sasha? Or maybe Marina, or speaking of acid, something like Celia or Cecily or Felicity? Esther? Or if you just want to go hard on rarer names/sounds, and international feasibility to boot, how about Geneva or Genevieve? 

Finally, I want to point out that your letter is relatively rare because two of the names you said you like include a ‘B’. So, in case that sparks something, you might like something like Bellamy or Blanche – which has some of the standalone cool that Zoe does. Astrid? Ingrid? 

Naomi? Matilda? Cordelia? I’ll be honest, I think we hit on the right one a little further back in the article, but I’ll wait for you to tell me which one it is… meanwhile, I think we’re about to create a new name category (or a new name for this one), something to the effect of “Names You Forgot You Already Loved”. 

Can’t wait to find out what you choose – let us know!