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Baby Names: Why Cool is Hot

Frank Heckers

Gone are the days when most parents just called their child Ralph or Neil or Lisa or Ellen—something traditional or just a little trendy—and moved on. Sure, we wanted a name we liked, but we also wanted, in a way, to fit in.

Nowadays, a perusal of any preschool's class list suggests that more and more parents are after a name that stands out, that is actively, obviously different from other kids' names. A name that's cool.

Time was, most kids were named what everyone else was named: for family members or saints, or following traditional ethnic or religious protocol. But that's changed. A lot. How did we get here?

The cool-name movement began slowly and quietly around 1947, when, for the first time in 67 years, Mary was knocked off the number one spot for girls' most popular names (by Linda). Over the decades the definition of what it's okay to name your child has expanded considerably, and more and more the goal seems to be to find a name that's different from other names. In recent years the trend has exploded, with parents looking to new sources for names, from surnames to word names, place names to nature names, to entirely invented choices.

Of course "cool" has become a powerful force in our culture in various ways. Pregnancy, parenthood, babies, and kids can all have that aura—from baring our baby bumps and taking prenatal yogalates to dressing our babies in hip clothes. And certain baby names, many parents think, also say that they're hip, that they haven't become stuffy or lost their sense of style just because they have a baby.

An unusual quality is definitely one of the prime things that makes a name cool, with the ultimate being that elusive name that's easy to like and understand but also somehow distinctive or even one-of-a-kind. Being an individual is carved into the American national consciousness, and names have become one more way to express this, with celebrities like Oprah, Viggo, Beyoncé and Madonna leading the way. To a certain extent, by choosing names we think are just a bit outside the mainstream, we're saying to our kids "Go, be yourself."

Yet finding such a name can be tough. As more babies are given less-common names, the what's-cool bar is raised ever higher and the name that seems cool today may be cold—or overheated—tomorrow.