Baby Names: Does Popularity Affect Choice?

Kerri Kennedy decided on the perfect girl's name when she was still in college—well before she was pregnant, or even married. An English-lit major, she was a big fan of Jane Austen's novels, and after reading "Emma," remembers writing in her diary that if she ever had a daughter, she would name her after the title character. "I just thought it was such a beautiful name," she says.

Clearly, she's not alone. When Kennedy was in college, the name hadn't even broken into the top 100. But by the time the Chicago English teacher became pregnant in 2006, it had skyrocketed to the No. 2 spot among girls' names, spurred in part, perhaps, by the mid-'90s film version of the book and a slew of other movies based on Austen's books. "We just couldn't believe it," says Kennedy, now 34. Worried that the name would now be too common, Kennedy and her husband decided against Emma and settled on Elizabeth (No. 11) instead. "We just wanted something that wasn't quite so popular," she explains.

Sociologists and name researchers say a growing number of parents are struggling with just such a dilemma: how to select a name for their child that's distinctive, yet not so different that it might elicit taunts or confusion. Twenty years ago, when baby-name books were scarcer and baby-naming Web sites had yet to be born, this was less of an issue. Parents could only speculate as to the most common names that year (at least until their child entered preschool and discovered he was one of several Daniels). When picking a name for their newborn, they were more likely to be influenced by peers, parents or pop culture than the perceived popularity of a certain name. Most stuck to traditional names and spellings. But today, parents are inundated with information. There are dozens of Web sites devoted entirely or partially to the baby-naming process, and an Amazon.com search for "baby names" brings up literally hundreds of titles—from books listing Biblical, Celtic, or even sci-fi names to one offering advice on "how to pick a name that makes a favorable impression for your child." The Social Security Administration may have inadvertently kicked off this growing parental preoccupation with baby-name popularity when it began releasing annual lists of the most common baby names about a decade ago. Its latest list, for 2007, which was just released, finds the same top 10 as a year earlier, but in a slightly different order.

That's not surprising to researchers. In trying to avoid the very top names, many parents just move a little further down the list or opt for a different spelling or version of a common name—think Mia and Maya, and Katelyn, Kaitlyn, Kaylee and Kayla. (The SSA treats each spelling as a different name.) The result, says Ken Tucker, a senior research fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa, is that there's very little difference among the top 10 names (often just a fraction of a percent of the total newborn population) so it doesn't take much fluctuation to move one up or down. The percentage of babies who are actually given one of the top 10 names has been declining for the last several decades, but researchers noted an accelerated decrease in recent years, perhaps because parents now have access to the list and are consciously avoiding the top names. In the late 1800s, the 10 most popular baby names represented about 40 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls, according to data from the SSA. But in 2006, just 9.5 percent of boys and about 8 percent of girls had one of the year's 10 most popular names. The current No. 1 name for boys, Jacob, is actually less common than the 20th most popular name in the mid-1960s, says Laura Wattenberg, a names researcher who gets about 200,000 unique visitors a month to her Web site, babynamewizard.com.

"People now know what the most popular name is and they are trying to avoid it, and, as a result, they're altering the distribution of names," says Tucker. "The characteristics of naming have changed dramatically, even from the 20th to the 21st century."

Researchers say the intense pressure many parents now feel is largely the result of the growing emphasis on names—which are now used for everything from resumes to e-mail accounts, Facebook pages and even URLs—as well as an increased awareness of how a name may affect the way someone is perceived. On the one hand, new parents, particularly those with names like Jennifer or Michael, who grew up being one of many with the same name in their classes, want their child's name to be special. On the other hand, they want to avoid being too original; unless you're a movie star or a world-famous athlete, you're unlikely to name your child Apple, Kal-el, Pilot Inspektor, Phinnaeus or Brooklyn.

There's good reason to be wary of choosing names that are that unusual, says David Figlio, a professor of economics at the University of Florida and one of a growing number of researchers who are studying the impact a name may have on how a child is perceived, and even how he or she behaves. "We know now that names make a difference," says Figlio.

He has conducted studies that have found, for example, that girls with particularly feminine names, like Emma or Anna, are less likely to study math or science than peers with less feminine-sounding names (based on linguistic tests), such as Ashley or Lauren. A more recent study Figlio did found that boys with names that are traditionally associated with girls--Ashley, Kelly, or Leslie, for instance—are more likely to be difficult or disruptive in class than peers with more masculine names, and they're particularly likely to act up if there's a female student of the same name in their class.

Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, concurs: "There absolutely is a perception associated with a name."

His research has found that certain names are significantly more likely to be perceived, for example, as belonging to someone who is highly ethical, fun-loving and popular or successful. ("Jacob" scores highly on all three, while "Emma" is tops on attributes like being ethical and caring, but less so with being popular or successful.)

Still, even those who research names for a living warn parents not to get too wrapped up in the perceptions and popularity of specific names. "Yes, the name is something, but it's important to remember that there are all sorts of other things that influence you, and how others perceive you," says Figlio. "A name is not a sentence."

That's good news for Kennedy, who learned she was pregnant again last year. For months, she and her husband struggled to come up with a name they liked that wasn't too popular. But nothing felt quite right. So, in the end, they decided to use their hearts instead of the list, as their guide. When their second daughter was born five months ago, they named her Emma.