How to Choose a Baby Name That Stands Out

To find a name with the qualities that you're truly looking for, it helps to have a map to the wide world of other-than-popular names.
01/22/2014 06:20 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Do you prefer uncommon names for your children? Or do you like distinctive names? Or maybe unusual names, original names or unique names?

That may sound like a string of synonyms, but there are many different ways for a name to stand apart from the crowd. Each way makes a different impact. And as we speak, countless parents are aiming for one of those targets, but ending up at another.

To find a name with the qualities that you're truly looking for, it helps to have a map to the wide world of other-than-popular names. Here is my breakdown of the three major categories: uncommon, distinctive, and unique.

1. Uncommon
Uncommon names are the simplest kind to identify. Just head over to the official baby name popularity list. Any name currently ranked around #500 or below in America is quite uncommon nationwide. (The 500th most popular boy's name is given to just 1 in every 7,500 babies born.)

Of course, your baby won't be a baby forever. A truly uncommon name shouldn't be too frequent in the adult population, either. A name like Chad, for instance, is uncommon among newborns (#588), but ubiquitous among 30-somethings.

You can check for past trends in the NameVoyager popularity grapher. Mouse over the graph of an individual name to see its popularity rank in each decade. Any name that hasn't cracked the top 100 in the past couple of generations should be safe.

Why You Might Want an "Uncommon" Name:

  • It's a concrete criterion that's blessedly easy to identify.
  • It satisfies the basic goal of distinguishing your child's name from others'. With an uncommon name, your daughter isn't likely to be given another child's report card by mistake. Her name won't be easily lost in a database, or on the Internet.
  • Why an "Uncommon" Name Might NOT Be What You're Looking For:

    Uncommon doesn't necessarily mean a name that stands out. Variations on common names, for instance, might be statistically rare, but still sound like one in a crowd.

    2. Distinctive
    Distinctive names carve their own niches in looks, sound or style. You're likely to notice them, and unlikely to confuse them with other names -- even if they're relatively common.

    Compare the names Naomi and Kiley. Naomi is a very popular name, ranked among the top 100 girl's names in America. Kiley, meanwhile, fits my definition of "uncommon." Last year, there were six Naomis born for every Kiley.

    Yet no other name looks or sounds like Naomi. It's an Old Testament classic, but with a style very different from a Hannah or Rebecca. No other names rhyme with it. And Kiley? While that name may not rank in the top 500 for girls, here are some names that do:


    Together, those names absolutely swamp Naomi in popularity. Then there are the thousands of boys with names like Riley and Kyler. The effect is to make Naomi a more distinctive name than Kiley, despite its individual popularity.

    Distinctiveness and popularity are linked, of course. A top-10 name like Alexander can't really be called "distinctive," despite its unusual sound. You might also argue for combining spellings of names like Kiley, or at least judging their popularity based on the top-ranked sound-alike (Kylie is #59). But it's possible to look at the quality of distinctiveness separately from popularity, and if you want a name that's memorable and stands out, you'd be wise to do so.

    Does the name have other common spellings? Do any popular names rhyme with it? Does it have a trendy nickname or suffix? More broadly, a third of American boys now receive a name ending in -n. If you want a distinctive two-syllable -n name for your son, the deck is stacked against you.

    Why You Might Want a "Distinctive" Name:

    • Your goal is for your child's name to sound fresh and stand out from the crowd.

  • You're trying to avoid generational name trends that could age fast.
  • You prefer a name that people know how to spell and pronounce, but don't want to settle for "ordinary."
  • You want a name that's both uncommon and distinctive-sounding, so you're combining this with the statistical filter.
  • Why a "Distinctive" Name Might NOT Be What You're Looking For:

    • You're looking beyond names that sound distinctive to people you meet. You want names that are distinctive in a Google search!
  • "Distinctive" isn't necessarily enough to make a statement. You want a name that reaches out and grabs you.
  • 3. Unique
    I'm not using the term "unique" literally. Finding a name that absolutely nobody else in the world has is an ambitious goal, and frankly, a counterproductive one. Focusing too tightly on uniqueness means easing up on other important priorities, like a name that's attractive or pronounceable. What's more, you could construct a name that's statistically unique -- say, Ellyzzybeth -- but ends up as more of a spelling headache than a real fashion statement.

    My "unique" category represents names chosen for their wow factor. They're surprising or unfamiliar and attract notice. Their forms and origins are limited only by the imagination, but they are bound by their shared demand for our attention.

    Perhaps the names come from an unexpected source, like a chemical element or a poetic form. Perhaps they're meaning names based on adjectives rather than nouns (compare Faith vs. Faithful). Perhaps they're traditional names associated with a different time and place, like Odysseus or Etheldred. Or perhaps they're entirely new inventions dreamed up to catch the eye like crystals shimmering in the light. Parents aiming for this invented brand of uniqueness often incorporate rare letters or even punctuation to set their creations apart.

    By this definition, a "unique" name need not even be super-rare. Apollo ranks in the top 1,000 for boys, but I dare you to breeze past that name in a class list. Parents who name their sons Apollo are stepping off the beaten path and choosing a name that makes a statement. Too much popularity, though, can move a name out of the "unique" column. A generation ago, Genesis was an unconventional choice, but as a top-100 staple today, it no longer packs the same power to surprise

    Why You Might Want a "Unique" Name:

    • You're a creative, original individual, and you can't stand the idea of a boring, conventional name.

  • You know that a child is a special miracle, so her name should reflect that.
  • You believe that helping your child to stand out and attract attention will give her an advantage in life.
  • Why a "Unique" Name Might NOT Be What You're Looking For:

    • You're concerned about your child fitting in as well as standing out.

  • In the case of meaning-based unique names: you want a name that will mold flexibly to whatever kind of personality your child has.
  • In the case of newly invented unique names: you want a name that will be easy to spell and/or pronounce.
  • You can't stand the thought of people responding negatively to your child's name. Popular does mean well-liked, and names that make a strong style statement tend to be the most divisive. If you choose a name like this, be prepared to smile calmly as you explain it and spell it out, and teach your child to do the same.