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The Plague of the Popular Name

The Plague of the Popular NameWhen I grew up, I was plagued with a boy name. My name is Alexandra, but my friends have always called me Alex. I hated it. I was so ugly, my mom made me keep short hair, and my name just didn’t help. When I finally did outgrow the boy look, I still had trouble with my name. Once in middle school, a substitute teacher wrote me up for trying to sit in the “wrong” seat in class. (By the way, ‘Alex’ and it’s variants is a very popular girl’s name lately.)

But on the the other hand, I had four friends named Amy and three named Jennifer. What I always wanted for myself was a normal name–something that didn’t make me feel like a weirdo for having a boy’s name, but not such a popular name that I had to use my last initial all the time.

Needless to say, I wanted to be careful while choosing names for my children. When I was pregnant with my son in 1996, I lived in Korea. I was 23, married a year and a half, and none of my friends were having babies. So when my husband and I started talking about names, we really didn’t have any outside influences. I told him I had always liked the name Jacob for a boy. It flowed nicely together with our middle name choice, and so Jacob was our boy name. I had never personally known a soul named Jacob, but I thought it sounded nice. Classic, but not too old fashioned. We weren’t as sold on a girl’s name. We had two (Anja or Grace) and said if it was a girl, we’d just have to look at her and decide what fit. My best friend’s name was Tanja, but I certainly didn’t know an Anja or a Grace.

We had a boy. His name is Jacob. And like I said, I had never known anyone else with that name.

We returned to the States when he was just a few months old. Imagine my surprise when the first person I met with a baby the same age told me her son’s name was Jacob! (He had the same middle name, too!) We soon moved to a small town with a large Amish population. Many of their boys were named Jacob, but they always choose Biblical names, so I didn’t think about it. But then we moved again, and my son started Kindergarten. There were three Jacobs just in his class…

Turns out, Jacob was the 5th most popular boy name of the 1990s, and has been the #1 most popular name in the US since 1999 (according to the Social Security Administration). How could I have been so unlucky?

Then 11 years later, I became pregnant again. When our ultrasound revealed that the baby was a girl, we revisited the names. We had generally become enamored of Grace in the intervening 11 years. We told my mother-in-law. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “I don’t like names with one syllable. I’ll call her Gracie.”

Hmm. Nope. Couldn’t do Gracie. Besides, I know how to use the internet now and saw that Grace was fairly popular (it was not even on the radar back when I first thought of it in 1996). So the name conversation started again.

At church soon after that, a friend of mine who was due two weeks before me found out she was also having a girl. “Have you picked a name?” I asked. “Yes! Anya.” Different spelling; same name. I felt deflated. How could this happen? We went with a hybrid name. AnnaGrace. I still haven’t met anyone with that name, though I know a MaryRuth, JoLynn and a few other combos. A lady in the waiting room of my pediatrician’s office told me that combined names are very popular right now. Sigh.

There are sociologic implications behind how I could have picked the same names as millions of other women without having consulted them. The same childhood media influences, etc. But the bottom line is this: most of us want our babies to have names that do double duty. They fit in while standing out.

The easiest way to know if a name is “too” popular for you is to consult the internet. The Social Security Administration has compiled a handy list for every decade and recent individual years. There are several articles right here on BabiesOnline, too! But a word of caution: recent research supports the idea that boys with very unpopular names tend to have social problems. In that light, maybe Jacob isn’t so bad.

What about you? Do you like your name? How did you choose your baby’s name? And do you mind if it’s too popular?


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