Every year, expectant parents eagerly await the Social Security Administration’s latest Top 100 lists for boys’ and girls’ names in the United States. Many parents-to-be like the security and familiarity of popular names. However, it’s important to note that the popularity issue cuts two ways: Psychologists say a child with a popular name seems to have better odds of success than a child with an uncommon name, but a child whose name is at the top of the popularity poll may not feel as unique and special as a child whose name is less common.
Perhaps a good compromise is to select a unique version of a popular name for your baby. This involves taking a popular name and customizing it with a touch of individuality. Here are some tips to help you do just that:
1. Choose a Variation.
One easy option is to look for variations of a Top 100 name you like. For example, Jake and Kobi are variations you might want to consider for Jacob. If you’re worried that William is too popular, you might want to consider Will and Liam. For girls, Emilia and Emmaline are forms of Emily.
2. Choose a “Name-Book Neighbor.”
Find a popular name in any baby name book, then scan the names around it to find the “name-book neighbors.” These names contain some of the same letters and sounds as the popular name, but are often more unique. For Olivia, you’ll find Olinda and Olympia. For fellas, a name-book neighbor of Matthew is Mathias, and a name-book neighbor of Michael is Micah.
3. Change the Spelling.
If you like the sound of a popular name but want to give it a unique treatment, an easy trick is to change the spelling. You can make the change as subtle (Hannah to Hanna) or dramatic (Michael to Mikkel) as you wish. The main concern, however, is that changing the spelling of a traditional name may lead people to misspell or mispronounce the name—which could be a daily inconvenience for your child.
4. Combine Names.
An additional way to put a unique twist on a popular name is to combine it with another name. You can make a double name separated by a space or a hyphen, such as John Paul or Mary-Kate, or you can make a single name, such as Michaelangelo or Emmalee. If you want to add a personal touch to a combination name, combine your own names or the names of special relatives. If your names are Carl and Linda, combine them to get Carlinda. If the grandfathers’ names are Daniel and Steven, combine them to get Staniel. The possibilities are endless—but keep in mind that sometimes the results can be quite silly.
5. Add a Prefix or Suffix.
Adding a prefix or suffix to popular names is especially prevalent with names of American origin used by African American families. Common prefixes are Da-, De-, Le-, La-, Sha-, Ja-, and Ta-. Common suffixes are -a, -ia, -ina, -ita, -la, -en, -o, -ta, -te, -us, and -y. When you add these to popular names, you get unique versions such as Lakayla, Deanthony, Sarita, and Josephus. Throughout history, the suffix -son has been used to link a father’s name to a son’s name, as in the case of Jackson and Jameson. These names are commonly used as first names for boys and girls. Borrowing from this custom, you can add a twist to a popular name (or perhaps your own name) by adding -son.
6. Use an Ethnic Variation.
If you like the name John but find it too popular, consider giving it an ethnic spin: Sean (Irish), Zane (English), Gian (Italian), Hans (Scandinavian) Janne (Finnish), Honza (Czech), Ian (Scottish), Janek (Polish), Jan (Dutch and Slavic), Jean (French), Johann (German), Jens (Danish), Juan (Spanish), or even Keoni (Hawaiian). For girls, Katherine has many interesting ethnic variations, including Kasia (Polish), Ekaterina (Russian), and Kathleen (Irish). You may choose an ethnic variation to reflect your heritage, or perhaps you’ll simply choose an ethnic name on its own merits. (Just be careful when you pair the first name with your last name; you might get strange results like Juan Kowalski.)
As you can see, there are several ways to make a unique version of a popular name. With these techniques, you can stray a little or a lot from a popular name, depending on your comfort level and your imagination. In the end, you may come up with a name that’s the best of both worlds.
© 2013 Bruce Lansky
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