Yolo. Wolf. Chia. Which one isn’t a child’s name? (Hint: All three appeared on several birth certificates last year.)
In a world where simply being unique isn’t good enough anymore, some parents have taken to naming their kid exactly that — Unique. Or Eunique, depending on how they prefer to spell it. More than half of parents polled last year said they favor unusual names, which is up nearly 10 percent from 2013, according to the parenting site BabyCenter.com. And this trend is only expected to grow, say researchers, who’ve found that more than ever, baby naming is tethered to a narcissistic urge to be different. Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, poses this question: “Does having a name like Messiah then predispose you to narcissism?”
There’s been a rise in more distinct names like Messiah, Major and even Princess.
Unusual names are nothing new, though they’ve recently become more commonplace and at the same time more differentiated. While society went through individualistic swings in the past, as people moved from more communal dwellings to urban centers, these days the shift away from blue-collar gigs to more white-collar jobs is driving the movement from “we” to “I.” That’s because white-collar professions reward standing out — or, more aptly, rising above — whereas the working class tends to promote collectivism. “People higher in social status show a greater preference for uniqueness and tendency toward narcissism,” says Arizona State psychology professor Michael Varnum. No wonder there’s been a rise in more distinct but suggestive names like Messiah, Major and even Princess in the past couple of years.
Exclusive-sounding titles aren’t all bad, of course. Thorvald Blough’s name reflects his family’s tradition of carrying on patronyms based on his male ancestors. (He goes by Thor because it’s easier for people to “cope” with.) The fact that it’s also the name of a Scandinavian superhero? Well, that’s been helpful inspiration — especially when the 23-year-old recently moved from his hometown in California to London to pursue a career as an opera singer. “Not many people would do that,” he says. “Maybe having the name Thor and always being a little bit different gave me the confidence.”
Being a male opera singer is one thing, but how many greats do you know with the name Thor? Some studies show many of us live up to the names we’re given — Denises are more likely to become dentists, Lawrences lawyers and Raymonds radiologists. So there might be something to calling your kid King. At the same time, unusual names can also be correlated to lower levels of social adjustment if they’re too different. Most people are subconsciously attracted to the familiar, so they tend to be drawn to, say, the names Elizabeth or David instead of Juju or Braven (both of which showed up on birth certificates last year). “The interesting paradox is although people still prefer more common names, parents are less likely to give more common names,” Twenge says. “They place more emphasis on uniqueness.”
Now there are no rules. We’ll name our kid after a fruit or a direction, or two directions.
— Jean Twenge
Overall, parents are more likely to pick outlandish or gender-flexible references for girls, such as Shiloh or Hayden. Meanwhile women’s names rarely get passed down through the family tree the way men’s names do, which is a sign society still puts more worth in men than women, some experts say. Names that sound like they’re from lower socio-economic classes or minorities are also often discriminated against. For instance, job applicants with “black-sounding” names are less likely to get callbacks. And professors don’t respond as often to emails from students with feminine or ethnic monikers. “You have to be careful: Naming practices reflect — and reinforce — values,” says Ryan Brown, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
It’s a never-ending cycle: As the poor begin to borrow names from the rich, the rich keep finding new syllables to differentiate themselves. That could explain how you end up with names like Apple (thanks, Gwyneth) or North West (courtesy of Kanye and Kim). “Now there are no rules,” Twenge says. “We’ll name our kid after a fruit or a direction, or two directions.”