Today is one of my favorite days of the year. (Not happier than any day where cake is involved, obviously, like a birthday, but a good day nonetheless.)

That’s because today is the day that the Social Security Administration released the most popular baby names for 2012.

I love talking about baby names. For years, the blog that I visited most frequently was Laura Wattenberg’s Baby Name Wizard. When her Baby Name Voyager first launched, I spent an inordinate amount of time plugging in names and watching the cool graphs that resulted. I may just have a strong affection for data!

I bought Freakonomics, which I love, based solely on the one chapter preview in Slate all about names. Sadly, it was the only chapter in the book about names.

At my last job, I was fortunate enough to have a coworker I was very close to who was just as interested in baby names as I was. We didn’t talk about baby names all the time, but whenever either of us came across a new baby name (celebrity or otherwise) that just had to be discussed, we each knew that we could go to the other without feeling weird about it. Even though we now no longer work together, a few months ago I couldn’t help but email her about a trio of sisters I met named Agatha, Ursula, and Matilda.

I’m not a purist about names. I’m not one of those people who rails against totally made up names or thinks that nicknames cannot be real names. If someone is given a name, then for all intents and purposes that name is a real name because someone in the world has it. End of discussion.


But … I do think parents have to be mindful that when they get a little too creative with names, they are not the ones who are going to have to live with the name for the rest of their lives – their kids are. Those kids are the ones who are going to have to correct everyone for the next hundred years and have those names on resumes as the very first thing that employers know about them.

Also “kre8tive” spellings are not particularly effective at achieving the uniqueness that is desired by a lot of parents because if it sounds the same when spoken, it doesn’t matter how it spelled – except of course that your child will be correcting the spelling. Caightlynne Smith is still going to be Caightlynne S. if Caitlin (or Katelyn) Jones is in her class too.

And if your creative spelling violates basic laws of commonly accepted phonics, people are going to think you’re not very smart, and, even though your child had nothing to do with it, they might (unfairly) think that your child is not very smart either. Names make an impression. (And if you ever wanted to see the extent to which names can be creative, you must play “Can you name the most popular baby names beginning with ‘J’ (2009)?” at Sporcle. Oh, and if you’ve never been (sucked into) Sporcle? You’re welcome.)

So all of these thoughts about names led me to distill my preferences into a few simple rules, but I only apply them to myself and obviously don’t judge any other parents for not applying them. Simply put, I knew that I wanted to give my kids names that were uncommon without being weird.

Generally, not “weird” meant a name that most people would be able to spell and pronounce because they have heard of it before. And a very loose proxy for the “uncommon” part is not in the Top 100 names (state or national).

Interestingly, my name fits the rules perfectly, and has spent most of the last 40 years in the 200s and 300s. My husband, on the other hand, has a name that has been in the top 20, if not the top 10, for most of the last 40 years.

With an almost 3-year-old and an almost 1-year-old, I finally got to apply all my thoughts about baby names within the last few years.

Of course, with my son born in 2010, I managed to completely violate the uncommon part. I very briefly considered naming him after either my father or my husband’s father but they both have top 10 names. A combination name may have worked but it felt unwieldy for such a little person.

The name we eventually chose has been my favorite boy’s name since I was a kid, and my husband liked it too, but we still weren’t sure it was the right name.

One issue was that I have a cousin (in another country) who, though a very nice person, I did not want to be perceived as naming my child after. My mom assured us that in our culture, a person is not considered a namesake unless it’s very formally and affirmatively announced (and there’s a ceremony!), so that resolved that issue. Although by tradition, as a namesake, said cousin would have been on the hook for my kid’s school fees, which would have been nice!

Another problem was that the name had cracked the top 100 a couple years earlier and had been slowly but surely climbing up a few spots each year through 2009. Boys names in the Top 100 are definitely more likely to result in hearing your kid’s name on the playground as there are far fewer names people feel comfortable using on boys than on girls, where apparently anything goes.

We looked through about a list of about 5000 baby names before we realized that the one we liked best was the original one.

So I pushed aside my rules and we went ahead and used the name, hoping that maybe its popularity was peaking. Of course, it jumped up even more spots in 2010 and 2011, and today I learned it kept on climbing – even faster – in 2012. Oh well. I knew what I was doing.

In each of my son’s Rec Center classes, there is at least one other kid with with the same name, and when we toured preschools almost all the schools already had one kid with his name (and I hoped they would be in kindergarten in the fall!), and on a couple of occasions we ran into other perspective preschoolers with his name. So there’s a definite risk he’ll be going through school with that first initial of his last name firmly attached.

Whatever. I still love his name, and it really suits him.

For my daughter, I pulled a few more of my childhood favorites out, and the one that my husband and I liked the best really nailed the rules. It’s definitely uncommon, having not cracked 800 in the last decade (until 2012, but it’s still well in the 700s) and actually spending most of the last 40 years out of the top 1000. But it’s not hard to spell or pronounce and, as a bonus, both her name and my son’s name complement each other. Classic, strong names that would suit a pair of siblings in 1913 just as well as a pair in 2013.

I know I might not have any other kids, but I’m still going to enjoy looking at the list this year and always.