Baby Name Zeitgeist

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Stephanie Losee Stephanie Losee is the Managing Editor of Dell Global Communications, where she directs Dell's editorial content strategy. She is a former writer at Fortune and editor at PC Magazine.

I can't believe it's happened for the second time--the little-used name my husband and I carefully chose for our baby has jumped from obscurity to ubiquity in one lousy year. Ava. Even I'm sick of hearing it.

The first time was understandable. Rookie mistake. It was 1994 and I was pregnant with my first child. My husband Tom and I had decided to hyphenate our last names for our children. Not the most euphonious combination, either: Losee-Unger. As the contributor of Losee, I knew our child would have to spell and pronounce it for everyone she met for the rest of her life. (LOH-see, if you're wondering.) So the baby needed an elegant, simple first name, one that can only be spelled one way and that everyone knows.

It was an era of Madisons and girl Dakotas, so we were looking for something old-fashioned, none of this trendy stuff. I remembered how much I liked the name of Meg Tilly's character Olivia Lawrence in the movie Masquerade, and I didn't know any other Olivias in real life unless you count Newton-John, which I don't. The Bible, otherwise known as the baby-naming guide Beyond Jennifer and Jason, said Olivia was ranked something like 81st. So we chose it. My mother said it was beautiful. Everyone I spoke to approved.

Within months the Olivia juggernaut had hit; in no time Olivia was shooting up the list of most popular girl names in America and has remained there. This year it ranks fifth. (Small comfort, but Madison is even higher--third.) Our Olivia has had as many as three other Olivias in her class and has gone by "Olivia L." since kindergarten.

As a Stephanie L., this drove me batty. I happen to be one of the original Stephanies, the group of girls who had the great misfortune to be named Stephanie around the time Princess Stephanie of Monaco was born. Since I'm one week older I can't blame my mother for aping Grace Kelly, but I shared the fate of all the poor Stephanies whose mothers did. I was Stephanie L. in grade school, Stephanie L. in high school, and as an adult I remain Stephanie L. in my book club to distinguish me from fellow reader Stephanie C.

I was embarrassed to say Olivia's name. I could almost hear people snickering under their breath--"follower!" I wondered if it would reflect badly on my work since, as a writer, I'm supposed to have an imagination.

When I was pregnant with our second daughter I was on a rampage for a top-ten-proof name. Having lived around the corner from Greta Garbo in Manhattan and spotted her in the flesh not once but twice, Tom and I were were inspired. How could Americans possibly popularize Greta? It's too Scandinavian, too unbeautiful, the attributes of its best-known owner aside. We chose it and breathed easy thereafter. In the six years since she was born we've heard of only one other baby named Greta.

In the wake of our Greta victory I looked up and realized that although we had avoided the top-ten trap we had been sucked into the other vortex of baby-naming: Theme Names. I'm a veteran of this as well, in addition to being an offender. My sisters and I share the same initials as our mother: SKL. From the moment the three of us kids toddled off to preschool there was no telling whose clay handprint or turkey drawing was whose. It gets worse. If my mother had given birth to any boys, they would have had my father's initials: STL. She didn't, so we named our dog Stewart Theodore.

Unlike my parents, Tom and I hadn't gone the theme route deliberately, but there it was. Both our daughters had Old Hollywood names. Olivia de Havilland and Greta Garbo. What if we had a third girl--imagine the possibilities! We tried to look away from the light, but we were weak. Images of Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Greer Garson danced in our heads--classic names, no kitsch there. It's not like we would have considered Lana.

When I became pregnant with our third we debated which of the grande dames to choose. We weren't worried about the top-ten thing; our Greta triumph had lulled us into complacency. And as far as we knew, the rest of the country was naming their daughters Heaven, backwards. So we completed our Hollywood Legends trio with Ava Greer, somehow managing to put aside the worrisome fact that Reese Witherspoon and Heather Locklear had selected the name for their girls. We began to realize the enormity of our miscalculation just two months after Ava's birth when we saw four photos of neighborhood babies in the window of a toy store in a small town in Northern California. Two of the three girls in the pictures were named Ava. "It's got to be a coincidence," Tom said. I thought: Denial.

Even more coincidentally, thousands of couples around the country decided it was high time to bring back that long-ignored name the same year that we did. Ava has jumped from number 952 in 1990 to 9 this year. Copies of the new biography Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing fill every bookstore window. I want a do-over. Will Ava be scarred for life if I rename her Vivian?

As far as I'm concerned there are only two options for future parents out there. If the special name you choose for your special baby unexpectedly becomes common, she can always go by her middle name. Oh, wait--Brooke Shields named her new daughter Grier. So much for that. How about you avoid my fate entirely and choose a truly radical name, one so rare I haven't heard of a newborn with it even once in the last decade, famous or otherwise: Jane, Mary, or Ann.