Odd Kid Names

From the May 5 New Scientist:

"Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish."  Psychologist Albert Mehrabian of the University of California, Los Angeles, on his study looking at how people reacted to names.  Traditional names aroused positive feelings, but alternative names did badly (The Guardian, London, 29 April)

My first name is unusual for a boy, I was far from popular, and some suggested the two facts were related.  We gave our kids unusual middle names, but common first names, thinking they could choose to emphasize their unusual names when/if they ever felt so inclined. 

So do people who give their kids odd names mainly have odd preferences, wanting their kids to be less popular and more distinctive, or are such people just mistaken about the consequences of their actions? 

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  • Odd Kid Names

  • Julianna

    I wonder if that could be appplied to the poor performance of african american teens. (ShaToya and Domian, as examples)

  • I have an impression that there’s more flexibility for girls’ names than for boys’, though hardly infinite flexibility.

  • Julianna, perhaps people often choose odd kid names as an act of defiance, to identify with some subgroup against a larger group.

  • eric

    I think for some people it is countersignaling (see Harbaugh and To (2002)). If you are rich and famous celebrity, you name your kid Rumer, Scout, Jett, Fifi, Puma, Chastity, Moon Unit or Kal-el, because, dammit, you are so frickin’ rich and famous you can! It’s like, ‘this name would be debilitating for regular folks, but not us.’

  • We can’t forget Moxie CrimeFighter, either.

    I have a common first name, and I go by my bizarre middle name instead — I’d assume that the reaction is not just in a negative direction but has higher magnitude: I suspect that a name followed by some other impression-generating act will get a more useful result if the name is unusual. Would Moxie CrimeFighter’s father be as famous if he and his partner were “Steve & Bob”?

  • I know personally from discussion children’s names with my fiance that we are both in favor of pretty or interesting, but relatively uncommon, names. For example, we’ve considered Adelaide, Mae, Eurastus, and some others, either because of a family connection or just because we like the name. To me, a name ought to make you unique in some way. If you name someone John Smith, you expect them to be an average guy, and John may very well become that person because that’s what expected. With a unique name, however, you stand out as different, for good or bad. That’s what I want for my kids: to feel like they have a unique identity, even though I know we’re all very much alike.

  • Doug S.

    For some reason, I always thought of Robin as a girl’s name, although looking at Wikipedia reminds me that it seems to be gender neutral (Robin Williams is a famous male actor with that first name).

    I wonder if we’re going to see more children named after video game characters in the next twenty years or so… I hypothesize that we’re going to see more male children named “Cloud” in the future.

  • TGGP

    Julianna, I believe Steve Levitt explored that idea in Freakonomics and concluded that the problem is the ignorance of the parent, not the effect of the name. If you are John and your brother is DeShawn, you will both do poorly.

  • rcriii

    My first name is Robert, but when I was young I was called Robin by my family (as was my father in his youth). Sometime in my early teens I insisted on being called Robert, but frankly I don’t remember ever being teased about the name, I think that I was more bothered about it than anyone else. I kind of wish now that I’d stuck with it.

  • I could have sworn that Marginal Revolution had a story about baby’s names being chosen nowadays for their ease of being found in Google (I can’t find it now, maybe it was another blog?). A quick search found this entry on a benefit of unusual names.

    I have a very common first name and a very common last name; the combination always sounds a lot to me like a very unimaginative pseudonym.

  • Having a last name that seems to cause people problems pretty much everywhere, my wife and I chose to give our kids completely conventional first names, though there is a little quirkiness in each case with their middle names. Having read some research that in economics, because the convention is to list authors alphabetically by last name, it is a career advantage in terms of citations to have a last name that falls early in the alphabet, I now regret not having amended my lastname to something like Aatschoegl.

  • Douglas Knight

    Doug S,
    According to babynamewizard, which is probably not the best source for this data, but which has an incredible UI for other purposes, Robin was a boy’s name in the 20s, a unisex name for the 30s and 40s and 10:1 a girl’s name afterwards. I’m surprised that its popularity as a boy’s name continued to rise despite girls’ dominance of it.

  • Eric, yes counter signaling must be the reason for some, but surely not most.

    Gordon, you admit to wanting the outcome of distinctiveness; do you acknowledge a reduced popularity as well?

  • My parents tell me that I was “almost” named Luke Skywalker Yudkowsky, Hari Seldon Yudkowsky, or Hen3ry (the 3 is silent) Yudkowsky. But they “lost their nerve”.

    Since everyone tells me that Eliezer Yudkowsky sounds just like a scientist’s name, I guess they didn’t do too badly. But – parents! – if you’re going to give your kid a normal first name, then for the love of cute kittens, Google to make sure the first-name last-name pair is globally unique. There are other poor bastards out there named “Eliezer Yudkowsky” and they’ll spend the rest of their lives under my ugly Google shadow, being asked if they’re me.

  • Buzzcut

    What about not so unusual but pretentious names? You know, like in that Simpson’s episode when Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel called his kids out of the house:

    “Tiffany, Heather, Cody, Dylan, Dermot, Jordan, Taylor, Brittany, Wesley, Rumer, Scout, Cassidy, Zoe, Chloe, Max, Hunter, Kendall, Caitlin, Noah, Sasha, Morgan, Kyra, Ian, Lauren, Q-Bert, and Phil”

    My favorites are the dead President names:

    Tyler, Taylor, Truman, Carter, Reagan, Madison, etc. etc.

    I also like names that start out as boys names, but gravitate over time to girls names. I’ve got a Taylor and a Lauren next door. Leslie also comes to mind.

    I went with names of other family members, preferably old, rich ones. You never know when someone is going to rewrite their will!

  • Aaron Guy Davies

    “Aaron” strikes me as just about right–it’s rare enough that I’m usually the only one in any given gathering of people[1], but not rare enough to sound “weird”. My middle name, BTW, is “Guy”, which has family history behind it, being my great-grandfather’s first name. “Davies” is slightly annoying, as a large number of people misspell it as “Davis”.

    [1] Including even the majority of mostly-Jewish gatherings, surprisingly.

  • Doug S.

    I always found my last name annoying because I always had to spell it for people. However, I’m the only “Douglas Scheinberg” that Google knows about, so that may be a plus. (For extra “fun”, try Googling my father Norman.)

    I wonder if the female name “Zelda” has grown in popularity since the release of the famous video game series?

    Also, what is “Hen3ry” a reference to? Is it a reference to this Tom Lehrer quote?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I’m planning to give my kids unusual names, deliberately courting the reduced popularity because:
    1) They would develop a better appreciation of genuine friendship and popularity
    2) All the successful people I know have had relatively isolated childhoods

    A friend of mine is called “Gandalf” and now that we’re all grown up, this seems an advantage rather than a drawback.

  • because the convention is to list authors alphabetically by last name, it is a career advantage in terms of citations to have a last name that falls early in the alphabet, I now regret not having amended my lastname to something like Aatschoegl.

    Adrian, let me know if you ever do that, and I’ll be happy to coauthor a paper with you!

  • This business of boys’ names drifting to being girls’ names seems to be
    a widespread phenomenon. Curiously, we never see it going the other way.

    So, I guess parents will have to work to come up with new boys’ names
    to keep the supply up as the girls keep imperializing the boys’ names.

  • Keith Elis

    This is not directly related to the question, but it seems odd that most of us keep the name we were called at birth, a time long before we develop anything remotely like a personality, never mind specific interests, or a definition of ourselves. I have half-jokingly advocated giving kids provisional names at birth with the expectation that parents offer them a chance to change their names later to something the kids like better. Every time I bring up this idea it is received with scorn. It seems most people believe kids would choose ridiculous names. My response is, probably no more often than parents do.

  • Robin, I have no real desire to cause decreased popularity, although I don’t see popularity as something I much care about. Popularity makes things easier, which has goods and bads, just as unpopularity has goods and bads. I’m not sure there’s one I desire more for my child than the other, but I’m not sure that unpopularity is always correlated with distinctiveness. Kids can be mean about names, but I think it’s usually only when they want to be mean. If they want to be friendly, the name won’t be an issue. But I’m not a child psychologist.

  • Keith, I’ve also wondered if taking a new name at 21 will become a tradition over the next generation or so – after people’s angry, misspelled blog entries they wrote at the age of nine start showing up on their first page of Google hits.

  • Doug S.

    Well, names are fundamentally arbitrary, and there are costs involved in changing your name (such as the need to tell everyone else about the change). There actually is one currently existing tradition of name changes in the United States, though – women who marry often change their last name to match that of their husband. Also, with the rise of the Internet, people actually are choosing names for themselves (with occasionally absurd results) whenever they get an email address or AIM screen name. I’ve been “CronoDAS” and “Ronfar” on various Internet-based discussion systems, although I’ve been using “Doug S.” on this blog.

  • ????a

    My (rare, male) name ends in ‘a’ — and this has caused me no end of trouble as a child. My parents say the thought that this might happen has never occured to them. So I would have to add unworldly to the ignorant — arrogant — folish scale.

    Research is on the topic is unequivocal (or so says the baby name book my wife and I consulted when naming our own children): children with unusual names nearly always prefer common names; children with common names are happy with their name.

  • Eliezer’s joke about being named Hen3ry teh 3 is silent is an old Tom Lehrer gag. His is a great story and his albums very funny if you can find them.

    As one commentator mentioned, Freakonomics take on this issue was that the parents who selected odd names were the reason these kids performed poorly.

    I gave my daughter a very odd name. My only thought at the time is that I wanted to name her something utterly unique (or at least not found on google), because that’s what I felt she was. In defending it to my relatives and in-laws, I also developed all sorts of reasons– it makes you stand out, which develops confidence and a bigger sense of self. I grew up with an extremely odd name, so I based my defense on my experience. But at the end of the day, I just liked the name.

    The reaction to her name was pretty uniform– people 10 years younger than me liked it, those older where aghast. My peers (30s) split accross cultural lines– nouveau hippies, shiftless ne’er do wells, african-americans and the crunchies enjoyed it, but the striving moneyed up-and-comers (what used to be called Yuppies) worried that we had irretreivably handicapped her, but supported it in the kind of bland, relativistic accepting ways of Westside liberal society.

  • Doug S.

    I think I’ll give Johnny Cash the last word.

    A Boy Named Sue

  • I knew a couple named Charles and Diana (no, not them) who wanted to name a child “Up” so they could introduce themselves as “Up, Chuck, and Di”. True story.

  • My very practical brother and his wife named my nephew according to the following method: they took the statistics of Swedish first names from the previous year, sorted it according to name frequency and deleted the top and bottom thirds. Then they deleted names with national characters or otherwise not suited for international life, names longer than a certain number of syllables, names that were hard to pronounce or or had non-unique spellings. Each step consisted of winnowing the list according to some new heuristic, which after a while became rather idiosyncratic (no names ending in ‘y’). In the end they whittled it down to a few candidates and selected a favorite. That was how my nephew came to be named ‘Arvid’. His name is – given their criteria – optimal.

  • I suspect that a name followed by some other impression-generating act will get a more useful result if the name is unusual.

    An unusual name definitely makes for a superior byline (and alliteration probably doesn’t hurt). My experience is that it can subject the bearer to suspicions that he chose it himself to attract attention. Some people seem to find this idea admirable; others may be left with a vague impression of phoniness, though no one’s ever come out and said so to my face.

  • Fiona

    hey, I think some odd names are alright such as Fiona, Autumn, Elliot, Jonah, or Ariel, for example. I do think that some names are cruel, such as LaFonda, Kalinka, or Hermianette (all names of people I know) can be seen as beautiful by the parent, but terrible by others. The names may also mean something to the family, so despite the stupid name, they want to keep it going. The only person I really have a problem with is someone who perposfully names their child something as a joke, like Lemonjello, Lilbo Peep, or Ima Hog.

  • chanieca

    umnm kayy , i have a weird name and im not a loser , and i do have alot of friends
    my moms not weird either , kayy …. i like weird names and it doesnt mean im ignorant !
    i think people like different names , it makes me feel special that im different
    i am popular , and i just think that what you said is wrong ! ,
    not being rude because some weird names are just embaressing for kids but i think if you use your common sense and
    choose a good and different name , it doesnt mean anythingg except you dont like being plain and boring like names like sarah or bob or brittany ,

  • Birdzilla

    We used to have a kid in HIGH SCHOOL he played football and some other sports his name was SPARROW TANG kind of like the little bird and speaking on birds i have a book THE BIRD ALMANAC and the authors name is DAVID BIRD