How to Avoid a Popular Name without Picking Something Weird

Now, the title of this post may be a little misleading: I’m a strong believer that “weird” is in the eye of the beholder (see my celebrity names post), and “popular” is similarly subjective. But I notice that the vast majority of parents I see posting on name message boards or talking to friends about names for their children say they want the same thing: a name that’s uncommon, but not weird.

The problem? Not a lot of people are able to nail this balance. Parents often all settle on the same “uncommon” name, making that name very common in the process. Naming trends change, and the names that were popular in the 80’s aren’t so popular now that 80’s babies are having children of their own. Parents may not have ever met a girl named Harper in their entire life, but unless they’re hanging out with lots of babies, it’s unlikely that they would have.

So how do you find a name that’s actually uncommon?

  1. Check the SSA stats- the Social Security administration releases data each year around Mother’s day. It’s very accurate and can be viewed nationally or by state, so you can check if a name is more popular where you live.
  2. Avoid names that are trending up- if you track the data over time, you can see whether a name you like is rising or falling in popularity. Nameberry has wonderful graphs to do this. If you’re concerned about your chosen name being to popular, try to avoid names that have had a sudden, recent rise in popularity.
  3. Look for names that have had a long, steady history of use- if you look at Nameberry’s popularity graph for the name Joel, you’ll see that it has been used pretty steadily for as long as records have been kept. It’s never ranked higher than #60, but it’s never been lower than #400 either. Its use is pretty constant, with no major spikes or drops in popularity. For parents who want an uncommon-but-not-weird name, this is a great sign. Joel is unlikely to become suddenly trendy, and its ranking is fairly uncommon (#154 ). But it would be hard to argue that it’s a “weird” name. Its steady history ensures that you’ve probably heard the name, even if you don’t know many people named Joel. Names with graphs like these are great for parents seeking a fit in/stand out name.
  4. Don’t rely on the names you heard as a child- Popular names are very generational. There may very well have been 3 Jessicas and 4 Jennifers in your grade, but it’s unlikely that there will be any in your child’s class. Neither Jessica nor Jennifer rank in the top 200- they’re less popular now than names like Penelope, Londyn, and Ximena. The generic names of your child’s generation won’t be the same as yours- Jayden has replaced Jeremy, which replaced Jeffrey, and so on. If you must look to your own community, look at the birth announcements rather than your classroom memories.
  5. Screw it and just pick the name you like- I think this is the best strategy. If you love the name Sophia, and no other name compares, just pick Sophia. Don’t settle for something you don’t like just so you won’t have to share. And popularity isn’t what it once was- in 1975, the most popular name (Jennifer) accounted for 3.7% of all baby girls born. But in 2015, the most popular name (Emma) accounted for only about 1% of baby girls born- less than 1/3 the proportion of Jennifers. In 1975, that 1% of baby girls would not have been #1, but instead #9. Popular names are less common than they once were. And rare name or not, your child will be unique- it’s not the name that makes the person.
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