The great baby name debate: why are we so judgmental when it comes to choosing names?

Posted by for Life

Deciding on a name for your newborn child can be a minefield – not least because of the storm of judgment that various choices (especially the unusual ones) tend to invite. But why does the topic of baby names prompt so much unsolicited opinion? Stylist investigates. 

What’s in a name? Well, a lot when it comes to baby names. Celebrities have led the way in niche monikers for their newborns, with Paula Yates blazing the trail back in the 80s and 90s (Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches, Pixie and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily), and the Beckhams (Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz), Gwyneth Paltrow (Apple) and Kate Winslet (Bear Blaze) following suit.

In the years since, A-listers’ baby names have only become more unusual. Among the Kardashian clan are North, Stormi, Chicago and Dream; while Cardi B and Cameron Diaz named their respective daughters Kulture and Raddix. The last year has been particularly fruitful for esoteric choices, with Elon Musk and Grimes raising eyebrows worldwide with X Æ A-12, and hilariously, two influencers feuding after both naming their babies… “Baby”. 

Increasingly, we’re following celebrities’ lead by opting for names that’ll make our kids stand out from the crowd. “In the 1950s only 5% of babies had a name outside the top 1000, now it’s more like 30%, so names continue to become more diverse,” says Rafi Mendelsohn, director at family history platform MyHeritage

But this doesn’t mean unusual names are any less flammable as a talking point. Why do we care so much about others’ choices? And why is there so much snobbery around unique names in our individualistic capitalist society, where we’re otherwise encouraged to stand out?

“Names are deeply personal because everyone has one and they remind us of people who we hold dear to us,” Rafi says. We see others’ choices as a reflection of our own (even if we don’t have kids) – and people frequently won’t hesitate to give their two cents on others’ decisions. “Coming up with a baby name can be a long and emotional process, involving more than just the parents themselves,” Rafi tells Stylist. “The family pressures of naming a child after a much-loved relative can often be at loggerheads with a more eye-catching moniker.” 

Right now, Victorian baby names like Bertie, Olive and Violet are all the rage, but naming trends come in cycles, Rafi explains. “While your child might play with a Martha or Alfie at school, they may also play with someone named North or Levi.” More babies are also being named after pop culture icons, he adds.

Estelle Keeber, 37, from Leicester, named her two sons Jed, 12, and Obi, 10, after Star Wars characters and has found the names to be quite the conversation starter. “It was their dad’s idea, he’s a fan of Star Wars. To start with I wasn’t too keen on the name Jed but as the pregnancy progressed it grew on me. Obi, I loved from the start and they fit so well together.”

The “weird looks” and reactions tend to come from older people, Estelle says, recalling the time Obi was featured in the Daily Telegraph for having long hair and “there were lots of disgusting comments” about his name. Her own family were supportive of both names, but she’s never been bothered by others’ opinions.

“My main concern is the boys themselves. They have to live with it for the rest of their lives,” says Estelle. Jed and Obi like that their names are easy to pronounce and unique at school. “I’ve always encouraged them to be individual and confident and that’s helped when people have had to ask their names twice,” Estelle goes on. “They like to explain that they’re named after Star Wars characters. Most other kids think it’s pretty cool.” Saying that, she admits they’re no more into Star Wars than most other kids.

Estelle blames social media for amplifying other people’s views on baby name choices. “There are so many opportunities for people to voice their opinions, but the child is yours – you have the right to call them whatever you want, regardless of what others think.”

Firgas Esack, 42, from Norfolk, also used cultural references to inspire her four children’s names: Wild (8), Drum (6), Baird (4) and Astro (1). “Wild was partly named because of Where The Wild Things Are, and partly after the Duran Duran song Wild Boys, which he now asks Alexa to play before he gets out of bed in the morning. Drum is named after Bill Drummond from The KLF, and his middle name is Goodluck. Baird, we just liked – their dad is Scottish – but he’s lived up to it as he never stops talking. Astro was a full moon baby, born in a storm in the middle of December.”

Firgas, who says she has “girl spelling of a boy’s name” herself, never worried that those around her would disapprove of the names, but their Grandad on their father’s side did try to make his mark. “He’s from that generation where you name the firstborn son after their father, so he wanted Wild to be Michael. Grandma on their father’s side thought Astro was a bit odd, but as he was the fourth child she was used to it.”

It was important for Firgas that the names reflected her kids’ individuality, and she hasn’t raised them to think their names are unusual. “Wild wants to be a YouTuber, so he loves having a memorable name. My own unusual name is helpful in PR as people remember me – and it’s helpful when it comes to getting domain names or Gmail accounts!”

More significantly than our parents’ cultural tastes, names may also reveal information about our race, ethnicity, religion, education, socioeconomic background and more, which can have a significant impact on our lives beyond first meetings.

“Names influence other people’s impressions of us and can convey implicit messages that on the one hand we are clever, cultured and worthy of recognition and respect, or on the other hand that we are ignorant, uncultured and undeserving of recognition and respect,” says Diane Reay, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor of sociology at LSE. “And of course there is a racial element.”

One study by economist David Figlio surveyed pairs of siblings, one with a working-class name and one with a middle-class name, and found that children with names that sound working-class do worse in school than those with middle-class sounding names, partly due to societal expectations associated with the names’ class connotation. Children with names associated with “Blackness” (including those with the suffixes “-isha” and “-ious”) were also perceived to be from poorer backgrounds and scored lower in tests than their siblings with less race or class-identifiable names.

Another study, which compared the first names of almost 14,500 students at Oxford University between 2008 and 2013 with the general population, found evidence of class differentiated first names. There were three times as many Eleanors at Oxford than average, closely followed by Peters, Simons, Annas and Katherines. Shane, Shannon, Paige and Jade were far less common. Based on the study, an Eleanor is 100 times more likely to go to Oxford than a Jade.

“Race, class and snobbery are all intertwined when it comes to baby names,” concludes Professor Raey. The epitome of such snobbery was arguably Katie Hopkins’ 2013 diatribe about “lower class” children’s names like Charmaine, Chantelle, Chardonnay and Tyler, and “geographical names” such as Brooklyn or London – despite herself having a daughter named India. Hopkins deemed such kids a “disruptive influence” who were unlikely to have “good prospects”. 

Inbaal Honigman, 47, from Holmfirth, and her partner experienced some pushback from family when they revealed the names of each of their four children: Tove (11), Vigo (9), Zevi (6) and Ludo (4). “Our parents took a while to accept some of the names.” The English side of the family was initially resistant to the more Israeli names (Tove and Zevi), while the names ending in ‘O’ “sounded bizarre” to the Israeli side of the family.

“I wouldn’t say racism instructed any of the resistance to the more Israeli names, but rather a fear that they would stand out – God forbid – and not just blend in,” she believes. “There may be an element of fear, of not wanting to draw attention to the kids’ ethnicity, so as to not encourage prejudice against them.”

Inbaal believes that because naming the baby is one of the few things new parents have control over – birth plans, breastfeeding and more aren’t always possible – there’s pressure to “do your best”, which is amplified by social media. “There’s an element of wanting to have a name that lots of people will ‘like’ when you announce it online.”

Her mother, aunties and parents-in-law have all aired their misgivings about each of the four names over the years but she has no regrets and still adores each one. By the time Ludo came along, “no one was expecting a name from the top 100 list,” she jokes. “One of my aunties did say ‘you and your names!’, but I lied and said Ludo was a biblical name, so that took care of that!”

Images: Getty/Octopus182

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