THE BLOG

Unusual Names: Why -- and Why Not -- To Name The Baby Wyclef

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Unusual baby names are becoming more and more, well, common these days. A mere one percent of babies are named Emma or Jacob, the most popular names, and only about ten percent are given one of the Top Ten names. Compare that to a hundred years ago, when five percent of babies were given the most popular names John or Mary, and 30 percent of boys and 20 percent of girls received one of the Top Ten Names. For the first time, less than half of all babies get one of the Top 50 names.

And it's not only American parents who are choosing unusual baby names. Chinese parents, seeking individuality in a country with 1.3 billion people sharing only 129 surnames, are turning to unconventional combinations of letters, numbers and symbols for their children's names. One couple wanted to name their baby 1A while others use the @ symbol, pronounced "aita" and meaning "love him" in Chinese.

Many European countries restrict the pool of possible names, though many parents are testing the centuries-old boundaries. But Belgium, with no such laws, over half of children receive such unique names as Testimony, Cherub, and Edelweiss.

If you're considering giving your baby an unusual name, your biggest question may be: How will an unusual name affect my child for better and worse throughout his or her life?

Having an unusual name associated with low socio-economic status -- one that contains such markers as apostrophes, little-used consonants such as z or q, and invented spellings -- can have an actual negative effect on a child's performance in school, according to Florida State psychologist David Figlio. "Teachers tend to treat children differently depending on their names, and these same patterns apparently translate into large differences in test scores," said Figlio, who found that children with conventional names such as David or Drew performed better on tests than their own siblings named Damarcus or Da'Quan.

When you control for poorer or less educated parents, most modern studies find that children with unusual names do as well as others in school and with peers. The probability of an unusual name having a positive effect on a child's development is as large as that of it having a negative effect, says Martin Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University who authored one such study.

The authors of Bad Baby Names claim that the bearers of such monikers as Ima Muskrat and Happy Day were less distressed by their names than they were proud of standing out in the crowd - though that may be truer for Happy than for Ima.

Your associations with your own name can influence what you do with your life, affecting where you live, which career you choose, even whom you fall in love with, according to psychologist Brett Pelham. Pelham found that dentists are named Dennis more often than are, say, bond traders, and that people named Georgia are more likely to become geologists, move to Atlanta, and marry men named George than they are to make choices less connected with their names.

People who like themselves and their names tend to be attracted to other people, places, and things connected with their names, says Pelham, who named his own son Lincoln because people associate that name with compassion and caring. The disadvantage of a very unusual or unique name, according to Pelham: No cultural associations, or ones that it's more difficult to anticipate and control.

If, after weighing the evidence, you're still interested in choosing an unusual name for your child, start by searching through the nameberry master list of unusual baby names. A few possibilities: Arava, Ceres, or Keturah for girls; Eben, Gower, or Piran for boys; Calixto, Padgett, or Sorrell for either.

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