A few years ago, I published my favorite name book, “5-Star Baby Name Advisor.” I’m writing this blog to explain what makes a 5-star name and to provide you with some examples, so you’ll know what to look for and why this process is worth the effort.
When I came up with the idea of 5-star names, I was trying to invent a fairly objective way for parents to rate names so they could increase the odds of choosing a satisfactory moniker for their child (and create a feeling of accomplishment for themselves, for having picked a winner).
I thought, if parents understand the factors that affect how a name will either help or hinder their child, they’ll be able to make a more rational, objective choice. This can help them avoid painful arguments about subjective likes and dislikes, which will make the naming process more fun and increase their probability of choosing an excellent name.
Another plus to this approach is that it gives parents ammunition against suggestions made by friends or family members who are more focused on honoring a relative or saint (who may have an awkward, esoteric, dated or archaic name) than on the benefit to the child of having a strong name.
When I created “5-Star Baby Name Advisor,” I set up a quantitative scoring system for each of the name attributes listed below. For the purpose of this article I suggest parents use a +1 to -1 scale to figure out a score for each factor that makes intuitive sense. (Otherwise you’ll need a lawyer to handle the negotiations and a computer to handle the calculations.)
1. Meaning: Take a look at the meaning of each name you’re considering. Most meanings are fairly inconsequential. But some are great (Jamila, for example, means “beautiful”) and some suggest that a name isn’t right for your baby. (If, say, you have a dark complexion like I do, you may not want to name your daughter Jennifer or Bianca, which mean “white or fair.”)
Scoring: Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2, to -1 based on how positive or negative the meaning is. (Note the meaning of most names is usually OK rather than very positive or very negative, which is why using a neutral rating of 0 or a rating of plus or minus ½ point will be appropriate for most names.)
2. Impression: This is very different from a name’s meaning. You can look up a meaning in any name book. But you can only look up an impression in either “5-Star Baby Name Advisor” or “The New Baby Name Survey Book” (which you should be able to find at any online bookseller). If you can’t get hold of those books, “check the vibes” by looking up famous namesakes and asking friends, “What do you picture or think of when you hear the name _____?” Some impressions are easy to discover: The name Marilyn brings to mind a glamorous, sexy, blond bombshell like Marilyn Monroe. The name Marian brings to mind a quiet, unassuming, and dark-haired librarian who is intelligent and well meaning, like the character from “The Music Man.” If you haven’t seen the movie “The Exorcist,” you might not know that Damian has a “satanic” image. That’s why you need to ask friends and consider Googling names you like—to see which famous people or fictional characters pop up first; those famous namesakes affect the impression that names make. You’ll find that certain names (like Adolf or Elvis) make very clear impressions. You’ll also find that the impressions some names make have deteriorated recently (Lance) or in the last few years (Britney and Paris).
Scoring: Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2, to -1 based on how positive or negative the impression seems to be.
3. Gender Clarity: All things being equal, it’s better to have a name that is clearly masculine or feminine. That way, teachers and classmates won’t be surprised or entertained when a kid named Carroll turns out to be a boy instead of the girl they were picturing. I know that gender-neutral names are becoming increasingly acceptable but, while they can be charming, they introduce an element of risk.
Scoring: Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2, to -1 based on the name’s gender clarity.
4. Popularity & Trend: Names that are extremely popular (on the top-15 list) can create the impression that a name isn’t “unique” to a child. If your child has a top-15 name that’s shared with several children in his or her class, it can create problems. Likewise, if your child has a name that’s so uncommon it’s either unknown or seems strange to classmates, that could create problems.
Scoring: After taking into account problems caused by names that are “too popular” and “too unfamiliar,” give names rising in popularity a positive rating; give names declining in popularity a negative rating. Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2, to -1 based on popularity and trend.
5. Versatility: It’s great to find a name that will grow with your child. For example, look at the name William: As a baby, he can be called Willy; as a child, he can be called Billy; as a young adult, he can be called Bill or Liam; and as an adult (perhaps a lawyer or professor) he can be called William. A female name with tremendous versatility is Elizabeth. If you give your child one of these names, he or she will have a lot of formal and informal options, including a number of perfectly acceptable adult options like Bill and Will or Beth and Liz. Bruce only has one option: Brucey. A child named Honor has no options. (What do you call baby Honor? I have no idea.) Take a look at any name book that lists variations to get a handle on the name’s versatility.
Scoring: Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2, to -1 based on how many formal and informal options a name provides.
6. Spelling: Hard-to-spell names are an inconvenience and a bother for the child. Sara(h) is a name that’s popular spelled both ways, but people named Sarah often say “Sara without an h” when asked their name. Alicia/Alisha/Alycia is a name that could be spelled three-going-on-thirty ways. Ditto for Cayla/Caela/Kayla.
Scoring: Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2 to -1 based on how easy or hard the name is to spell.
7. Pronunciation: Hard-to-pronounce names are also an inconvenience and a bother for the child. Some names are almost impossible to pronounce unless you “know the trick.” Folks in Ireland know that Siobahn is pronounced “sha-VON.” Surprised? People familiar with saints’ names may know that Ignatius is pronounced “ig-NAY-Shus” but others may not. Imagine how annoying it would be to have your name mispronounced by most people who read it.
Scoring: Rate from +1, +1/2, 0, -1/2 to -1 based on how easy or hard the name is to pronounce.
- have an acceptable meaning, at the very least
- make a positive impression
- have gender clarity
- are trending up in popularity (but aren’t “too popular”)
- give the child and parents lots of options (nicknames)
- aren’t hard to spell
- aren’t hard to pronounce.
With this information, it should be fairly easy to understand the difference between 5-star and 1-star names for boys and girls.
5-star girls’ names: Allison. Christine, Diana, Grace, Lily, Maya, Olivia, Sara(h), Vanessa
1-star girls’ names: Blinda, Candi, Eunice, Fifi, Lorena, Myrna, Siobahn, Tanith. Urania
5-star boys’ name: Adam, Carter, Daniel, Jason, Matthew, Oliver, Nicholas, Ricardo, William
1-star boys’ names: Bilal, Cletus, Dorcas, Hussein, Ignatius, Kane, Og, Schuyler, Wiley
You should be able to see how little-known names can create a negative impression; come across as strange; and cause spelling and pronunciation problems (opening the door to lots of teasing—which is tough on kids).
Think about how the names Urania and Og will seem to others on the first day of school, a graduation ceremony, a blind date, or a job interview. By imagining these situations, you’ll see how the seven factors above can help you find a name that will be a plus for your child throughout his or her life.
© 2013 Bruce Lansky
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