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What's in a name?

Utah birth doula baby

“Do you have any names picked out?” This is the go-to question people ask after they found out you are pregnant, especially if you know the gender. It is a big decision...your child will take it with them their whole life. It may even be possible that the name you choose affects your child’s longevity. There’s a study that correlates that people who have “positive” initials (A.C.E., V.I.P.) live longer than people who have “negative” initials (P.I.G., D.I.E.). People are so fascinated with researching and selecting the perfect name that there are now millions of books and websites dedicated to providing name examples and their meaning. I found out recently from one of my doula clients that there’s even apps such as Kinder (swipe left or swipe right and it will match names that you and your partner both like) that help you choose the perfect name for your new baby.

Name trends ebb and flow and change over time. So what is it about the names you instantly like or passionately dislike that lead you to the final name choice? There are many different fascinating theories about the names we choose for our babies and why we choose those names.

Vowel phonemes

Do we choose our baby’s name in hopes of contributing to the gene pool? It sounds comical, but research shows that there is a connection between what we perceive as size to the sound of a vowel. Based on animal calls and human speech, high and low frequencies signal body size. Lower-frequency sounds are perceived to be associated with larger objects and smaller, higher-frequency sounds are perceived to be associated with smaller objects. As humans this means that we link lower sounds with large physical stature and higher sounds with smaller physical stature.

In terms of gender, most people associate attractiveness and social status based on physical stature: larger physical stature and height is seen as attractive in men, and smaller, shorter physical stature is seen more attractive in women. Thus, when naming a male most people choose names that place a longer emphasis on the first vowel phoneme and a larger sounding vowel. This includes names such as Joseph, Thomas and Adam. Whereas when naming a girl people tend to choose names with higher, small sounding phonemes such as, Sophie, Elizabeth, and Emily. Parents may not purposely choose names based on how large or small the sounds in the name makes, but unconsciously are drawn to names that sound more masuline or feminine, based on the gender of their baby.

Individuality vs. traditional

The current trend for choosing baby names is to not choose trendy names. It’s more common to select unique names than in times past. For example, parents of the current generation are choosing less top baby names than they did in past generations. In the year 1958, the total babies registered with the top baby name was 3,184. In 1988, 2,268 babies were registered with the top name. But in the year 2018 only 881 babies were registered with the top baby name.

In the early 1900’s (and before) people mostly used and reused family names, with children commonly sharing their name with an aunt or uncle. Fast forward to the 1980’s and it was very common to have several children with the same name as you in your classroom. However, today kids with popular names are statistically less likely to share a name with a peer in their school, let alone classroom.

There are a couple of theories as to why choosing unique names is more popular today than it ever was before. First, it could be because the value of individuality has increased significantly. Society (especially Western society) as a whole places more emphasis on standing out, being true to yourself, and developing a unique identity. It also reflects in the social media and job culture to have an individual identity on social media and websites. Having a “personal brand” is often valued when looking for jobs.

Another theory for the uniqueness trend is because there is greater access to names. Books based solely on choosing baby names surfaced in the 1980’s. Before this you had to have been in contact with someone with that name to choose it. Now there are millions of websites, apps, and books where you can narrow down your options based on location, interests, or values.

Political Ideology

Is it also possible that our political beliefs contribute to the name we choose for our baby? Another study looked into how names could actually show whether you are a liberal or a conservative. Political scientists at the University of Chicago explain that names can serve as signals to whether the parents lean towards cultural or economic “wealth”, with liberals being more interested in cultural wealth while conservatives lean more towards economic wealth. As a result liberals tend to choose more culturally obscure, uncommon names as a reflection of their openness (Finnegan, Sequoia, Atticus). Whereas conservatives tend to choose more culturally traditional names (Catherine, Rebecca, John) representing their conscientiousness.

It further explains that liberals also tend to choose more feminine names, using those softer phonemes that were mentioned at the beginning, or names that start or end with vowels. On the other hand, conservatives are more likely to choose names with harder phonemes such as B, K, and D, to show strength and aggression.

Gender neutrality

Popular boys’ names have always been more commonly used than popular girls’ names, meaning that there is more variety in female names. This is becoming even more the case as parents are choosing to name their daughters with more traditionally masculine names, names that have more leadership or strength-related meaning.

This may be related to the world’s focus on a shift in gender roles, including more women in the workplace. This movement of gender roles may be leading to a push in gender boundaries of names.

Although parents are very conscious about what they name their babies, we are less conscious of how vowel sounds or political beliefs reflect in our final decision. When I compared these findings to my own children’s names (I have 2 girls and 2 boys) I found it to be almost spot on! As much as we try to be unique in the names we choose, I guess we’re still predictable.


“Sex-biased Sound Symbolism in English-Language First Names”. PLOS ONE (5 Jun, 2013). Benjamin J. Pitcher, Alex Mesoudi, Alan G. McElligott.Found at

“Baby Names: 2 Reasons We Name Our Kids What We Name Them”. Psychology Today (8 Jun, 2013). Gregg R. Murray, PhD. Found at

“Why Parents are Giving Their Kids ‘Unique’ Baby Names”. ABC Everyday (3 Feb 2019). Grace Jennings-Edquist. Found at

“What’s in a Name?”. National Library of Medicine (Sep, 1999). N Christenfeld, D. P. Phillips, L. M. Glynn. Found at


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