Have You Considered Giving Your Child a Gender-Neutral Name?

I read a VOA article by Katy Weaver that changed the way I thought about naming in general and middle-naming in particular. Katy wrote about how gender identity doesn’t have to be in a name.

Parents are increasingly using gender-neutral names for boys and girls. Gender-neutral names can have the effect of giving girls a “stronger” persona and boys a “softer” persona–which can be good for both genders.

Here are the top-ten gender-neutral names from the 2016 Social Security Admin. popularity survey: Charlie, Finley, Skyler, Justice, Royal, Lennon, Oakley, Armani, Azariah and Landry.

If you’ve read my annual-trend reports you’ll know that girls are increasingly being given names with an “a”-ending (like Ava) or a soft consonant-ending (like Abigail or Harper)–and less of the most popular girls’ names have “i” or “y”-endings (like Zoey). “A”-endings and soft consonant-endings come across to most people as stronger than “i” or “y”-endings for girls.

At the same time, more of the most popular boys names use soft consonants like Liam Noah, and Mason–instead of hard consonants like Michael, Luke and Jack. It’s not surprising that parents are giving boys names that sound softer at the same time they are giving more boys gender-neutral names like Riley and Charlie (both of which have “y”and “i” endings).

So just as the trend towards stronger names for girls and softer names for boys is playing out on top-ten lists, it makes sense for parents also to consider the use of gender-neutral first or middle names for children of both genders. Not only are gender-neutral names stronger for girls and softer for boys, they also allow parents to give their children a choice about how they want to come across to others (based on how they feel about themselves).

In articles I have written about middle names, I have suggested that parents use middle names as a way to give children a choice about what they want to be called. If parents want to give their child an unusual first name, they should consider giving their child a less challenging middle name.

One of my younger brothers decided to abandon his first name, Andrew, and switch to his  middle name (Mitch) when he was still in elementary school. I waited until I was in graduate school to switch to my middle name.

Millenials are a lot more accepting of gender differences than my generation was, so it makes sense to give children a choice of names, one of which is gender-neutral. That gives children an opportunity to select a name that represents how they feel about themselves at any point their lives.

One way to provide children with gender options is to choose names for them that are rich in nickname variations. For example, Alexander and Alexandra have variations children of both genders can choose from as they grow older, including Alec, Alix, Ali, or Zander. When you’re using a baby-name book, look for names that have a long list of variations.

To help you in your search for appealing gender-neutral names, check out the latest edition of my book 100,000+ Baby Names.

Jennifer Love Hewitt Announces a Baby Girl, Autumn James, But the Middle Name Raises Questions

Here’s an upbeat story to warm hearts as we head into the Holiday Season. Former “Client List” star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, confirmed a secret wedding to husband Brian Hallisey and the birth of their daughter, Autumn James Hallisey, on November 26.

I’ve always liked “Summer” as a girl’s name (you may recall Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders). But I’ve wondered whether any of the other seasons would work well as given names. Now that I’ve seen the announcement of Autumn James Hallisey, I like Autumn as a given name more than I’d imagined.

So Summer is great, Autumn is nice; but I don’t think Spring or Winter would work very well as names for girls. (Winter might be a downer, and Spring might be confusing. In addition to being the name of a season, it is also a noun (meaning “source of water”) and a verb (meaning “bounce” or “hop”).  What do you think?

But when I first saw Autumn James, I assumed the middle name, James, was a family name. However, because James is a common boy’s name I found it confusing. And to make matters even more confusing, I recently read Nameberry’s post in which they predict 12 trends for 2014. In that post, they mentioned Autumn James Hallisey as an example of a new trend: using a boy’s name as a middle name for a girl. I find that to be a very confusing idea. What if the name were James Suzy Hallisey–and the parents had used a girl’s middle name for a boy named James Hallisey. That would be confusing too. And either way, using a boy’s middle name for a girl or vice versa, it comes across as both confusing and off-putting.

So if Autumn James Hallisey is an example of a new trend: using a boy’s middle name for a girl, I hope the trend stops right there. I also hope parents don’t use girl’s names as  middle names for boys. Either practice is a needless source of confusion and a potential source of embarrassment and teasing for the children who are pawns in the game of baby-naming fashions.

Jeremy (“Avengers”) Renner and Girlfriend Sonny Pacheo Name Their Baby Daughter Ava Berlin

I read an article (written by Nicole Fabien Webber, who has a blog called “The Stir”) claiming that the name choice of Ava Berlin Renner “makes the ‘map’ trend official.”

Really? I suppose the thousands of parents who named their daughters Brooklyn (#21 on the Social Security Administration’s list of Top 100 Baby Names) and Savannah (#41) last year “jumped the gun” and picked those names before Jeremy Renner and his girlfriend made the trend official.

Turns out Ava was the #5 most popular name last year. Although it’s a charming “movie star” name, it’s much too popular to use, because there will likely be several girls named Ava in Ava Berlin’s nursery school and, like most tots, she’s likely to feel unhappy about sharing the name with her diaper-wetting buddies.

Berlin is an interesting choice for a middle name. (“Interesting” is a word I often use instead of a pejorative.) It could be the place where Ava Berlin was conceived—in which case I’d say, “TMI.” Berlin is a city that’s rich in history. JFK visited Berlin and said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Unfortunately, he spoke German with a Boston accent and pronounced the first word “Ish,” which can’t be found in the German dictionary, but is likely to be right on the tip of Jeremy Renner’s tongue when he changes Ava Berlin’s diaper for the first time.

Is Berlin as romantic as Paris, as charming as Siena, or as fun to visit as Frisco? I don’t think so. And if Ava Berlin gets tired of sharing her name with her day-care buddies, she’s unlikely to enjoy using her middle name (Berlin) instead.

Hence, all that chatter about the “official map trend” ignores the main purpose of a middle name: to give the individual a comfortable “fall-back position” should the first name not work for the purpose intended.

As you can guess, I’m wondering how many thumbs to turn down for Ava Berlin. I’d like to say one-and-a-half, but I’ll go with: one thumb down.

© 2013 Bruce Lansky
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without proper notice of copyright.


How to Find Charming, Uncommon Names for Your Baby

If you’ve decided against selecting a time-tested traditional name for your baby, here are some ideas for finding cool, uncommon names in odd places (like a travel guide, a restaurant menu, a TV commercial or an art museum). Although picking an uncommon moniker for your child increases the risk of winding up with something that creates a “What were you thinking?” or “You must be kidding!” response, you just might discover a name that turns out to be highly memorable and appealing—thus earning you credit for your creativity and daring.

If you’re willing to pick a safe middle name in case Eureka or Ypsilanti are judged a flop as soon as your friends and relatives see the birth announcement, choosing a cool, unique name for your child can be a big plus for both the child and the parents. Your son Hudson and your daughter Monet may be the envy of all their classmates (as well as their classmates’ parents who will want to meet the pair who picked those charming names).

How do you find charming names like that? Follow this three-step procedure:

  1. Look for names in odd places: a world atlas for place names, TV commercials or print ads for brand names, art museums for art names, menus or cookbooks for food names and baby-name books for uncommon forms of common names, bird or flower guides for nature names. (Did you know that 100,000+ Baby Names has more than 600 lists of names to help parents generate cool, off-the-beaten-track ideas?)
  1. Once you’ve come up with a list of names that are worth considering, spend some time thinking about what they would be like to live with (for your child and for you). Try to narrow your choice down to a few “keepers.”Of course, there’s one more step—putting whichever names you like together with your last name (and any middle names you’re considering) to see how they all sound together. Don’t forget to check out the initials too. Some initials are just plain cool, like P.J., J.P., or K.C. Cool initials give your child another great fallback. It’s like having another middle name—without the clunkiness of actually having two middle names.

Now let’s take a look at a variety of potential names to see if we turn up any you’d call “charming.”

Place Names

For Boys: Chad, Frisco, Hudson, Reno, Rio and Santonio

For Girls: China, Georgia, India, Kenya, Siena, and Skye, Virginia

Practical Considerations: Most of these names are recognizable enough to be quite easy to spell and pronounce. Most of them also paint a picture (that is, either charming or memorable—or both). I can imagine a difference of opinion about the “charm factor” for China, India, Kenya, Hudson and Reno. But I doubt many would find Rio, Siena, Santonio or Frisco problematic with regard to charm.

Food and Spice Names

For Girls: Brie, Cinnamon, Ginger, Olivia, Pepper, Saffron and Sage.

For Boys, Herb, Huckleberry, Macintosh, Oliver and Sage

Practical Considerations: Olivia and Oliver are variations of Olive and both make a positive impression and work well as names, as does Brie for girls. Ginger and Pepper both create a “spunky” or “spicy” impression for girls.  Sage is more of a gender-neutral name which can work equally well for either gender. Herb is a rather old-fashioned name and, of course, the “H” isn’t silent. In my opnion, the shorter variations of Huckleberry (Huck) and Macintosh (Mac) work better for boys than the longer versions.

Color Names

For Girls: Amber, Blanche, Cinnamon, Cocoa, Ebony, Ginger, Ivory and Raven

For Boys: Russell, Rusty

Practical considerations: Color names can be a blessing when you’ve put off picking a name until you are cradling  the baby in your arms. Color names can help you describe your child’s most striking physical attributes (such as hair color and complexion) in a name that can break a tie and “seal the deal.” (Notice that several spice names also work as color names.)

Brand Names

For Boys: Chevy, Harley, Levi, Lincoln and Stetson

For Girls: Chanel, Kia, Macy, Mercedes and Sierra

Practical Considerations: Most people are familiar with these brand names, so spelling and pronunciation aren’t likely to cause problems. However, these brands will probably appeal to people on different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, in different parts of the country, and with different tastes. Chanel, Mercedes and Lincoln are more upscale; Macy appeals to the broad middle; Levi, Stetson and Sierra appeal to folks who may live out west or enjoy country-western music; Chevy is an “All-American” brand and Kia is a zippy brand that appeals to folks with modest bank accounts or with a “green” sensibility.

Ten or twenty years ago, many parents who shopped at Wal-Mart and Target chose Tiffany as a name for their bouncing bundle of joy, perhaps to project a more upscale image. You don’t need a 7-figure income to pick a million-dollar name.

Art Names

For Boys: Calder, Jasper, Hockney, Leonardo, Raphael, Rockwell, Sargent and Stuart

For Girls: Hartley, Mona Lisa, Monet and Stella

Practical Considerations: There’s a risk in choosing an “arty” name that won’t be immediately recognizable to most people. However, many of the names on the list above are familiar to most people. Who has not heard of the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Monet’s water lilies, Calder’s colorful mobiles, Norman Rockwell’s poignant illustrations for “The Saturday Evening Post” and Georgia O’keeffe’s mesmerizing close-ups of flowers and iconic southwestern images.

Alternate Forms of Common Names

For Boys: Geo (a short form of George), Lucky (a familiar form of Luke), Rafa (a short form of Raphael), Ringo (a Japanese name meaning “apple”)

For Girls: Nita (a short form of Anita and Juanita), Rita (a short form of Marguerite and Margarita), Cielo (a Spanish form of “Heaven”), Colette or Cosette (French forms of Nicole)

Practical Considerations: Most of these names are easy to spell and pronounce. Both French names (Cosette and Collette) make a literary or arty impression. Cielo not only sounds beautiful, it means “Heaven” in Spanish. And Nita is like Rita, a short Spanish form of names ending in “nita” or “rita.” The boys’ names are mainly short forms of names that are more religious, arty or stodgy. Most are informal and fun. Of course, it may be hard to imagine Ringo, Rafa and Lucky as classical composers, Ph.D. candidates or members of a prestigious law firm.

Last Names of Famous People

For Boys: Beckham, Lincoln

For Girls: Anniston, Lennon, Harlow

Practical Considerations: Here’s a way to find charming, uncommon names. I recently added Anniston, Lennon and Harlow to 100,000+ Baby Names when they landed on the top-1,000 girls’ list. Ditto for Beckham when it landed on the top-1,000 boys’ list. Lincoln, of course, is the last name of a famous president which just moved onto the top-100 boys’ list at #95. It’s not exactly “uncommon,” but it’s not too common, yet, to use. Did you notice that Anniston is not exactly spelled the way actress Jennifer Aniston spells her last name? Parents who selected it for their daughters presumably added the extra “n” so Anniston could function as an updated version of Ann, a girls’ name that has been used in English-speaking countries for centuries.

Nature Names

For Boys: Ash, Clay, Cliff, Forrest, Jasper, River, Robin, Sage

For Girls: Gale, Heather, Ivy, Lily, River, Robin, Sage, Stormy, Violet, Willow,

Practical considerations: Here’s another effective way to find charming, uncommon names. In the process of compiling a list of boys’ and girls’ nature names I noticed that this category provides an excellent source of gender-neutral names.

I hope that reading this post motivates you to consider other off-the-beaten-path name categories such as: literary names (e.g., Webster)  sports names (e.g., Kirby)  and celestial names (e.g. Orion).

© 2013 Bruce Lansky, © 2015 Bruce Lansky
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without proper notice of copyright.

When Children Don’t Like the Names on Their Birth Certificates

You will appreciate the convenience of having a solid middle name as a reasonable back-up the day your child decides he or she doesn’t like the name you’ve chosen.

Sources of dissatisfaction are many and varied. Maybe the name:

  • is too often misspelled or mispronounced;
  • is too uncommon and comes across as strange or weird;
  • is so popular, several other children in your child’s class answer to the same name;
  • is too boring;
  • makes a strange or negative first impression;
  • has a literal meaning that is either negative or misleading (for example, a child named Raven with blond hair and a fair complexion);
  • doesn’t have enough formal and informal options that would enable the name to “change” as the child grows up;
  • is a constant source of teasing;
  • or simply doesn’t fit the child.

While choosing a unique, uncommon name can result in many of the problems listed above, choosing a “safe” traditional name can produce a different set of problems. That’s why choosing an attractive middle name that goes well with your last name is a smart move. (Picking a “political” middle name that doesn’t work well as a safety option can be a huge mistake.)

Recently, Uma Thurman named her daughter Rosalind and added four “middle names.” Six months later, she calls her daughter Luna, which was not one of the middle names she gave her. Her daughter is too young to have complained. Thurman must have figured out that none of the names on her daughter’s birth certificate worked quite as well as Luna. (If you’ve read my article on that topic, you may remember I described the four middle names as “alphabet soup.”)

If you or your child has an “aha” moment and decides that the first and middle names don’t work, you need to take action to prevent your child from taking even more radical action (like changing his name to Rocketman). Here are some strategies to try:

  • Come up with different forms of the chosen name; for example, Liam is a short, Irish form of William. Luna is actually a short form of one of the “alphabet soup” middle names Thurman originally came up with (Altalune). In comparison with the original four “middle names” she picked, Luna, though highly unusual, is a major improvement!
  • Try a name-book neighbor, a name that may sound or look similar to the name you’ve chosen but which has a different “vibe.” A young woman with a very popular name, Sara, told me she was tired of it. I came up with Syrah and she’s been a happy camper ever since. In a recent article, I mentioned that a money manager thought his given name, George, was too dull and stodgy. He happily switched to Geo.
  • Many parents pick beautiful names like Alexander or Alexandra and then forbid the child (or the child’s friends) from calling him or her a different version of that name. Big mistake. The beauty of a versatile name is that there are many versions of the name that can be used as the child grows up. Enjoy the fact that your child (or your child’s friends) have come up with a version of the name that they like using.

Guide the process of selecting an alternative name, so it doesn’t go too far astray. Better Alex or Alec than Tralala or Zoot.

© 2013 Bruce Lansky
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without proper notice of copyright.

Middle Naming: How to Choose a Useful Middle Name for Your Baby

A middle name can be a lot of things. During the naming process, it can be a “trophy” awarded to the partner whose choice came in second, or a “gift” to honor a relative whose name didn’t merit a first pick. And once your child is born, a middle name can be a great “safety pick” for your child, especially if the first name you chose turned out to be a dud.

Unfortunately, if you make compromises or trade-offs when choosing the  middle name, you and your child may have a poor fallback option, and you may regret not choosing something more appropriate.

Here are some typical problems that can arise when picking a middle name:

  • If you pick a “family” name, it might be old-fashioned or ill-fitting. For example, if you choose your father’s name and it’s “Carroll,” which was once primarily a boy name and is now almost exclusively a girl name, your son may not appreciate having a middle name that sounds like a “girl’s name.” Or if you choose your spouse’s last name and it’s “Pierpont,” your child may be teased as “Richie Rich.”
  • If the second-choice name doesn’t work well with the first name, your child won’t be a happy camper, either—unless you point out that it could be worse, by reading the four seemingly unrelated middle names that Uma Thurman chose for her daughter: Arusha, Arkadina, Altalune and Florence.

As you can see, it’s a lot easier to pick a good first and middle name combination if the middle name isn’t a “political choice.” It helps to think about how the names work together with your last name. Here are some ideas that can help you create a charming and euphonious combination:

  • Vary the rhythm of all three names by choosing first and middle names with different syllable counts. Alison Beth Anderson sounds better than Alison Jennifer Anderson.
  • If the first name comes across as traditional, consider an untraditional middle name, like Sophia Saffron Smith. If the first name isn’t traditional, consider a traditional middle name, like Sage Samuel Smith.
  • If the first name is fairly common, pick a middle name that’s more unique. For example: Michael Marcellus Smith or Catherine Chiara Smith.
  • If you want (or need) to include a name that reflects an ethnic tradition, Irish names like Sean or Kevin will blend more easily with non-Irish names than Irish names like Seamus or Padraig.
  • If you want (or need) to include a name that reflects a religious tradition, try to search for names that won’t create the impression your son is destined to wind up as a priest or rabbi: Joshua or Daniel might work better for the child than Moshe or Yitzchak.
  • If the first name is gender-neutral, pick a middle name that clarifies the gender of the child, such as Ariel Oliver Smith or Jordan Olivia Smith.
  • Why not have some fun and pick a middle name that conveys some personal taste, like a favorite color, location, personal quality you value, or performer? If you love Hawaii, you could try Matthew Maui Smith. If you’re a fan of Cher, you could name your daughter Monica Cher Smith.

Should you follow the current British trend of picking two middle names? The benefit is that you can do more “political” favors. On the other hand, a second middle name can distract your focus from what should be most important—choosing the best first name you can. And it can create the problem of finding four names that sound good together. Compare the sound of Emma Olivia Smith with Emma Olivia Isabella Smith. Does the latter combination sound like it contains too much of a good thing?

I’d like to close by providing examples of celebrity baby names from a few years ago, along with some comments which illustrate some of the practical points I made above:

Keelee Breeze (daughter of Rob “Vanilla Ice” and Laura Van Winkle)
*Comment: There’s something cooling about Keelee Breeze—the feeling you get when you wipe your forehead with a frozen popsicle on a hot summer day. The first and middle names go together brilliantly.

Nana Kwadjo (son of Isaac and Adoa Hayes)
*Comment: A boy named Nana? Unfortunately, he can’t fall back on his middle name, Kwadjo.

Nakoa-Wolf Manakaupo Namakeaha (son of Lisa Bonet and Jason Momoa)
*Comment: Unfortunately, there’s not one child-friendly, simple, easy-to-spell or easy-to-pronounce name in the whole bunch (except perhaps for Wolf).

Ocean Alexander (son of Forest Whitaker)
*Comment: Ocean doesn’t work quite as well for a first name as Forest does. Thank goodness for Alexander.

Homer James Jigme (son of Richard Gere and Carey Lowell)
*Comment: Homer isn’t coming back any time soon—and what’s up with Jigme? Luckily, the child has James to fall back on.

© 2013 Bruce Lansky
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without proper notice of copyright.