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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.

"My wife and I thought we were on to something original in naming our son Jaden," says Dan Dement of his 6-month-old. "But now we find out that Will Smith, Andre Agassi, and Britney Spears have sons named Jaden, and we fear that lots more are on the way." (The Carlsbad, California, dad has got that right: 12,871 little fellows named Jaden and Jayden—Spears's choice—will turn 2 this year, not counting the Jaidens and Jadons.)

Names and baby-naming fashions are changing much more quickly today than ever before. Jayden, for instance, first entered the Top 1000 just 13 years ago and has already catapulted to number 54; Jaden's at 88. Ethan has leaped up to number 5 in the same time period. And Nevaeh (heaven backwards) jumped all the way to number 70 in a mere five years. Contrast this with newcomers of the past, Jennifer and Karen, which took three decades to move up a few hundred places.

Spelling variations, too, have become another way to give a name a tweak of originality. Example: Whereas 30 years ago there were no Kaylees in the Top 1000 girls' names, in 2005 eight different spellings of it were given to around 11,000 little girls (Kaylee, Kayleigh, Kayli, etc.).

Stars have tremendous power to confer cool on a name, either by infusing it with their own glamorous image or by choosing it for their child. Reese Witherspoon, for instance, has inspired thousands of little Reeses, and by picking Ava for her own daughter has likely helped push that name up the popularity list. And celebrities like Demi Moore (with daughters Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah) and director Robert Rodriguez (with sons Racer, Rebel, Rocket, and Rogue) have elevated the art of cool baby-naming to new heights.

As greater numbers of kids get unusual names, more types of distinctiveness become typical, and the stakes are raised. Thus we get girls named Seymour, boys named Romy, and children of either sex named anything from Peyton to Jordan to Justice. Ethnic distinctiveness is another earmark of this trend, with names from outside the typical American/European list becoming almost the norm, whether it's the Irish Tristan or the African Ajani—and whether or not the family is of that culture.

"My husband is of Iranian descent, and I chose my son's name because it means 'universe' in Farsi," says Odette Faghani, the Santa Clara, California, mom of Kayvan, 2. "I did like the cool factor, too, and since most people don't know the origins of the name, it's always a good conversation starter."

Some parents even believe material benefits will come to a carefully named child. "It was important to me that our kids' names be perceived as cool because we want to give them every advantage in life," says Charity Hand, the Hickory, North Carolina, mom of sons Thomson, 6, and Chase, 1, and daughter Taylor, 3. "A name that's cool just might be the name that gets more attention on a résumé someday. And we want friends to see them as cool because they're extensions of our tastes and personalities."

But cool, by its very nature, is an ever-changing concept. Choosing a name that's going to stay cool over your child's entire lifetime may be impossible. Ethel and Maurice, for instance, along with Shirley, Debbie, and Caitlin, Ricky, Bobby, and Jason, were all cool names at one time.

The only solution: maybe avoid cool entirely. "Kareem and Cosmo—these were the names my sweet, excited, and effortlessly cool husband picked for the boy half of the twins we were expecting," says Marijane Funess of Pelham, New York. "Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I just asked him to consider how hard it can be for a kid with an 'unusual' name. He thought about it and came up with Nicholas. Our son's nine now, and even though there are probably a dozen Nicks in his school, the name seems to fit him to a tee, and we marvel at how names do become the person."

Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran are coauthors of Cool Names for Babies and The Baby Name Bible