From newborns anointed Wrenlee and Dutton to paid consultants who’ll help find the perfect choice for your little one, the baby-naming process has gotten … weird.

Get a compelling long read and must-have lifestyle tips in your inbox every Sunday morning — great with coffee!

baby names

Baby names gone wild! / Illustration by Matt Harrison Clough

It’s a random Tuesday night, and my husband, Christian, and I are doing what we typically do: bingeing a TV series du jour as we lounge on the couch in our sweats, our dog snoring beside us. Lately, though, we’ve been adding something new to our evening routine: Clementine? Swipe left. Andromeda? Hard no — swipe left. Sutton? Hmmmm, not bad. Swipe right. Mira? Cute! Swipe right. Fallon, Rowan, Carina …

No, we’re not opening our marriage — or separating. We’re searching for a name for our first child.

Before we found out our baby’s sex, I had presented a single boy name to Christian, who immediately loved it. We agreed that would be the name we gave our son, simple as that. When we learned we’re having a girl, though, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory. For whatever reason, girl names seemed so much more difficult. We went from snip-snap to absolutely flummoxed.

“I can check out some name books from the library,” I said to him. His response? “We have the internet.” That’s how we discovered Babyname, a Tinder-like app that helps you sort through and narrow down choices. We swipe when we have downtime — together or apart — and the app shows what names we’ve “matched” on, upping our list of potentials.

I’ve noticed, though — from the choices Babyname offers and the birth announcements I’ve seen recently on social media — that modern parents aren’t interested in having their kids be just another Emma or Christopher. Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, I was surrounded by classmates named for Catholic saints and too many Jackies and Jessicas to keep track of. But now, the Ashleys, Courtneys and Samanthas of my generation have been replaced by Eloises, Hazels and Willows. Goodbye, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! Arlo, Hudson, Oliver and Theo have entered the chat.

While some of these names might have family ties or be influenced by trendy shows like Bridgerton, many of them seem to be by-products of our millennial/Gen Z era, of New Age parents who want their kid to be someone — someone different. Maybe we’re a bit traumatized from being one of 30 Jennifers. Yet there’s immense social pressure (typically from older generations) not to pick something too “weird.” Oh, and don’t forget: The name can’t already be in use by someone in your social circle, or it’ll look like you stole it and don’t have any brainpower of your own.

The desire to find a unique name — to be both part of and ahead of the cool-but-not-common name trend — has even ushered in a wave of baby-name consultants. These self-proclaimed experts in nomenclature, who’ve been taking TikTok by storm of late, will come up with a perfectly bespoke name for your little one — for a hefty price, of course. (Some charge upwards of $30K!)

Wanting your kids to be their own ­people — to make a name for themselves with the name you’ve given them — is a pretty typical hope of parents. But when did everything get so complicated, so ­anxiety-ridden, so out of control? From millennials and Gen Zers manifesting “main character energy” in their everyday lives to the rise of for-hire name experts, we’re living through the Great Name Awakening, where baby names, gently used, are indeed for sale.

For generations, everybody seemingly shared the same name. That’s because the only references for names were religious texts, trades, community members, and your personal family tree. Journalist Clive Thompson notes in a 2019 JSTOR Daily article that Biblical names were the go-to when the Puritans started immigrating to America, followed by “‘moral attributes’ like ‘Faith,’ ‘Mercy’ and ‘Standfast,” and then, come the Revolution, by names signaling the country’s independence, like George, Thomas and Martha.

The mid-to-late-1800s ushered in name-meaning books and lists that sorted names like a dictionary. The next 100-ish years saw parents consulting these “what to name your baby” guides, and there wasn’t much branching out from them. In fact, 91 percent of all children living in 1900 were given a name from the top 1,000 most popular names. (“If you and your best friend were both named Rachel, then you were the Rachels, and that was cool!” says Newark-based Lisa Spira, who’s been a private name consultant since 2000.) This must be why there are four generations of Elizabeths on my maternal side: my mom’s great-grandmother, followed by her grandmother, followed by her mother, followed by her eldest sister. And the men? Josephs galore.

With the exception of the Roaring ’20s — when rule-breaking was all the rage — this approach extended into the ’50s, as Americans continued to prioritize conformity, says Sophie Kihm, editor-in-chief of Nameberry. In turn, parents chose names that signaled their child was part of the crowd. “Looking at the Social Security Administration stats from, say, 1950 to 1960, you have approximately one-quarter to one-third of the babies being born given a top 10 name,” adds Jennifer Moss, co-founder and CEO of Babynames.com.

As Y2K approached, parents grew less concerned about having their kids blend in and began getting creative instead. In 1988, Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, the eventual founders of Nameberry, published their seminal text Beyond Jennifer & Jason. The book, which categorized names by style and offered insight into trends, “came at a time when the U.S. started seeing more diverse names. The cultural context was changing and allowing more room for individualism,” Kihm explains.

Nearly 10 years later, the Social Security Administration (SSA) started compiling data on the names of Social Security number holders tracing back to 1880, and it’s been publishing the top 1,000 baby names — plus what’s rising and falling in rank — ever since. Its lists have influence: By 2000, “Only 75 percent of girls were given a name from the top 1,000 most-­popular girl names, and that percentage had dropped for boys, too, to 86 percent,” writes Thompson. Now? Less than eight percent of newborn boys and girls are bestowed names in the top 10.

Choosing an offbeat baby name has become a virtue in today’s America. Sometimes, picks seem different when really, they’re just riffs on popular names. (Remember the Hayden/Jaden/Brayden craze?) “Names tend to rise alongside similar-sounding names,” says Kihm. “For example, Olivia is at the top for girls, Oliver is number three for boys, and Olive is now rapidly rising. You can choose an uncommon name like Lilia, but she’s likely to know a Lillian or Lilith. Her name might seem popular even when it’s not high up on the list.” That means, socially speaking, you can “get away” with a variation and not worry too much about people judging you for picking a name that seems plucked from Mary Poppins’s bag of tricks.

It’s also true that our culture is laser-focused on the idea that the more eccentric the name, the more interesting your kid might be. We see celebrities pushing the envelope — Gwyneth Paltrow naming her daughter Apple, Nicolas Cage choosing Superman’s Kryptonian name Kal-El for his son, and Elon Musk and Grimes’s offspring: X AE A-XII, Exa Dark Sideræl, and Techno Mechanicus. Names like these open the floodgates for us plebeians.

“Your name gives you your identity, and I feel like when you have a more common name, you might get lost in the crowd,” says Cass Matthews, a local lifestyle influencer (@cass_andthecity) and mom to almost one-year-old daughter Wilde Soleil. “My husband, Kellen, and I both have more unique names for our generation, and we enjoy that about ourselves, so we wanted to give our daughter a similar experience. We didn’t want her to be another Brittany of her generation.” I feel that. Surprisingly, I didn’t meet another Laura until I got to college, a fun fact I wear like a badge of honor.

Plus, our lives are so much more visible and curated now because of the internet. Today’s expectant parents are more reliant on Google, social media and apps (like the one Christian and I used) than on outdated physical resources — and the results are skewing unconventional. Filling my feeds are Instagram posts with inspo lists of “Cool Cowboy,” “Inspired by Trees,” and “Cute Bird” names; TikTok reels boasting alternatives to Charlotte along with “barely used!” names — a.k.a. ones that appear only a handful of times in a given year — and photos of adorable sweaters embroidered with Ellery, Reeslyn and Tofu. (I wish I was kidding about that last one.)

Every social media post makes a statement about who you are and how you want to be perceived. Want more followers or attention? Make your main Instagram feed aesthetically pleasing! It only follows that your kid’s name would reflect your overall vibe. But you can’t put a filter on your baby’s name, and being so online lends itself to more scrutiny, criticism and self-doubt. There are “tragedeigh” groups that weigh in on and make fun of commonly used names given ridiculous spellings, and influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers satirize contemporary choices. “This is the name that our child will likely live with for the rest of their life, and we want them to be happy with it at all life stages,” says South Philly resident Rianna Saia, who is due in May with her first and has found the name-decision process challenging. “We don’t want to pick a name that will lead to teasing, comparing or mispronouncing.”

Both partners need to come to the table with a list of names, so you have twice the choices and it’ll feel like an equal process. Otherwise, you’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall.” — Jennifer Moss, co-founder and CEO of Babynames.com

It took my colleague, Philly Mag food editor Kae Lani Palmisano, her entire pregnancy to make the final call. (Her daughter, Eureka, was born this past October.) “Eureka was always a contender, but my husband, Jon, and I didn’t settle on it right away because we were afraid it was too abstract and out-there,” she says. They actually went to the hospital with another name picked out, but Palmisano recanted: “As I was being induced, I looked at my husband and said, ‘We have to name her Eureka’ — I think the drugs gave me the confidence to follow my heart. For a solid 36 hours, I was afraid I made an impulsive decision, but her name has become very natural. She’s Eureka, and I can’t imagine her being anyone else.”

No wonder expectant parents are stressed AF — and turn to those trendy baby-name consultants, not because they can’t come up with a name on their own, but because choosing a name has become so daunting and complicated in ways it wasn’t for older generations. Moss tells me that her team recently asked more than 100,000 site members to rank how hard it is to pick a name. “The majority chose 10, the most difficult,” she says. “People really believe this is a difficult decision to make, but it also shows that they’re taking this process seriously.”

Name consultants are especially helpful when partners can’t agree on a name. This is fairly common, since we all have our own personal style, ancestry and associations to consider. My background as a teacher has eliminated so many names, and there’s no way in hell I’m giving my kid the same name as one of my husband’s exes. We also differ when it comes to risk tolerance and how creative we’re willing to get. “One partner might want something more traditional, while the other wants something more contemporary,” Spira says. “One of them cares a lot about family history, and the other wants a break from ancestry. A lot of times, it’s about compromise.”

Take Levittown-based Joscelyn Santiago, who welcomed her son, Bellamy Edward, in November of 2022. Thanks to the show The 100, she’d loved the name Bellamy for years before she got pregnant, but getting her fiancé on board was tough. “When we watched the show together, I told my fiancé, ‘Bellamy is going to be the name of our son when we have one,’” she explains, “but he did not want to name our baby Bellamy. I told him to bring me a better name and I would seriously consider it, but he never did. It took him until a few weeks before my baby shower — I had mine when I was 33 weeks pregnant — to come around to the name, and now he loves how unique it is.”

This is a pattern Moss says she’s found among male-female couples, with women coming up with the names and the men vetoing them. “That’s a really difficult way to choose a name,” she notes. “Both partners need to come to the table with a list of names, so you have twice the choices and it’ll feel like an equal process. Otherwise, you’re just throwing spaghetti on the wall.”

Once you get your S.O. on board, the general consensus is to keep the name to yourselves. Naming isn’t free from the constant unsolicited input that makes expectant parents feel like they don’t know what’s best for their own children, or from generational differences. (“You’re thinking of naming our grandchild WHAT?!”) “There can be a lot of anxiety around the decision, because people are hung up on the lifelong aspect or are conditioned to be people-pleasers,” says Taylor Humphrey, a leading name expert and founder of consulting biz What’s in a Baby Name? For those parents, “Choosing the ‘perfect’ name means pacifying the people in their lives.” Otherwise, you’ll likely deal with pushback.

Santiago tells me that she shared the name Bellamy with her in-laws prior to her son’s birth. “The first thing out of my mother-in-law’s mouth was, ‘Oh, I don’t like it.’ And my father-in-law would say things like, ‘I’m not going to call him Bellamy’ and ‘It’s not too late to change his name.’ The comments gave me anxiety and made me second-guess my son’s name.” Though Santiago’s in-laws warmed up to their grandson’s name, she and her fiancé plan to keep future children’s names private.

Cass Matthews still encounters snarky comments when it comes to Wilde’s name. “People, even strangers at the grocery store, will say, ‘I hope she doesn’t live up to her name!’ And I’m like, ‘She will — in the best way possible.’ Others have this negative association, but to us, we love her name and the empowering qualities it holds, like ‘unstoppable,’ ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘free.’”

Though Christian and I came up with our “top three” — including our first choice, a name we’ve been partial to for years — we still weren’t 100 percent ready to call our name-hunt quits. So we turned to Humphrey for some professional support. We opted for her starter service — what she calls her Inspiration package — which runs from $200 to $350, depending on whether you want her insight via Instagram reel or email. (We chose the latter.)

Christian and I filled out a fairly extensive questionnaire — it took us about an hour to complete — that covered a range of topics, including names we’re considering and ones we each hate (even if the other likes them!), the places and streets we’ve lived, how we’d describe our lifestyle (we chose “homey” and “modern,” among others), and details about our love story.

About three days later, Humphrey emailed us a nearly 2,000-word message with all her research and recommendations. She started off dissecting the name combination we signaled as our top choice, noting the meanings, origins, different spellings and SSA rankings of both. Interestingly, we learned that the spelling we prefer for our baby’s first name has never ranked in the top 1,000 in the U.S. and was given to fewer than 10 girls in Pennsylvania last year, while a more common spelling has been in the top 1,000 since the early ’90s and was given to more than 200 girls in the Commonwealth last year. While Christian and I aren’t really swayed by stats, the info did give us something to consider: If we go with the spelling we favor, will others simply default to what’s more frequently used? Will our choice make her stand out more or just become a lifelong frustration?

Humphrey also parsed our other contenders, including the ones I love but Christian loathes and vice versa, and suggested alternatives that shared similar styles or sound patterns. For Nora, which was on Christian’s short list but I’d rejected early on, Humphrey offered Nova, Clara, Claire and Harper as substitutes.

To round things out, Humphrey offered a bespoke baby-name list, complete with a name bank full of suggestions plus potential name combinations. Consisting of 60 names, her curated catalog thoughtfully and thoroughly took into consideration details from our questionnaire, including what sounds we’re drawn to and the name genres we gravitate toward. We found so many of the names Humphrey provided beautiful and in alignment with our taste, including Paloma, Mischa and Simone. (We probably won’t use them, though, which is why I’m sharing!) And we especially vibed with a select few that we’re going to keep in our back pocket for the future.

So, what names might soon take over day-care class lists? Lisa Spira says we’re in a vowel-heavy moment for girl names, as well as ones that rely on the ‘L’ sound, like Eleanor and Lilah. Humphrey tells me parents have been gravitating toward celestial names, or ones that evoke their own understanding of the divine or their connection to the universe. Luna, for example, made its debut in SSA’s top 10 in 2022. In the same vein, atmospheric selections like Brisa, Sunny/Sonny and Aire (thanks, Kylie Jenner) are gaining steam, according to Kihm. This resonates with Matthews, who says she and her husband wanted a name that felt outdoorsy and had considered Sage, River and Ember before coming up with Wilde Soleil, meaning “untamed sun.”

Kihm also predicts we’ll see a rise in traditionally feminine names being used for boys — think Chrissy Teigen and John Legend naming their son Wren, and Rihanna naming her son Riot Rose. “Historically, once a name was adopted for girls, it was abandoned for boys pretty fast, like Leslie, Aubrey and Brooklyn. But that’s changing — we’re now seeing names like Artemis, Eden and Noa rise for boys,” she says.

Kihm and Humphrey both believe some vintage or old-world names will make a comeback, thanks to what’s known as the 100-year rule. (It says names are ripe for revival every hundred years, when there aren’t many people still alive who bear them.) Kihm offers names like Arthur, Sylvia and Georgina, while Humphrey predicts that Betty — the nickname of my late maternal grandmother! — will swing in popularity due to current cultural reference points like Blake Lively’s now-four-year-old daughter and the title of a 2020 Taylor Swift song.

Closer to home, Philadelphians seem heavily influenced by their sports fandom. Last year, Harper, Bryce and Bryson were top choices with regional ties for newborns within the Lehigh Valley Health Network. Two local moms told me they recently named their little ones Fletcher, after Eagle number 91. And while Jason, Kylie and Kelce likely won’t surge in popularity, the beloved center and the Duchess of Delco have become baby-name influencers of sorts. According to Kihm’s December 2023 Nameberry blog post, the couple chose “boyish names that end in a double T” for their girls: Wyatt, Elliotte and Bennett, which are “exactly the style of name that many of today’s parents want for their daughters.”

In the end, Christian and I chose the name we’ve both loved for years, regardless of its ranking. (Spelling still TBD!) As for the middle name, we landed on something unexpected (to us, at least) that still sounds chic and sophisticated. We can foresee ourselves saying these names ad nauseam and still liking them. And bonus: Neither is held by anyone — adult or child — that we personally know.

The cherry on top? Humphrey, a freakin’ baby-name expert, approves: “When paired together, these names signal an unspeakable power. [The combination] feels intellectual, entrepreneurial and oh-so-­feminine. Linguistically, it rolls right off the tongue. The pair’s mellifluous, buttery and ethereal quality is … an absolute dream.”

I’m due after this story will publish, which means you’ll have to wait to know our picks until we announce Baby’s arrival. (We’re following the rule of thumb and keeping our lips sealed.) One thing I can tell you is that the big reveal will be in true millennial fashion: an Instagram post of our girl wrapped in a stylish swaddle, an Etsy-sourced name sign boasting her debut and her identity right beside her.

Published as “Baby Names Gone Wild” in the April 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *