Many years ago, as a college undergrad, I worked with a Korean girl named Eun Ha, who went by the name Jenny. She wrote her name “Eun Ha (Jenny) Park.”

When I learned she and her brother needed a ride to the state immigration department, more than two hours away, I volunteered to drive them so they could avoid a Greyhound bus. The conversation to and from was fascinating as I learned about the many differences between Seoul and the Midwest.

“How did you choose your American names?” I asked Jenny.

“Oh, my grandpa chose them,” she said.

I thought for a moment. “But how did he choose them?”

Jenny furrowed her brow. “Well…Eun Ha is Korean for Jenny,” she explained.

I nodded slowly. “Oh. Right.” I was too embarrassed to keep asking questions, but her explanation made no sense to me. It still doesn’t. It’s not as though Jenny is a name with concrete meaning, like Hope or August. It’s just… a name. So how can it have a Korean equivalent?

* * *

As part of my job, I work often with Chinese young adults. Almost all of them use an American name. Cui goes by Alice, Mei goes by Sabrina, and Tong goes by Jack. I always thought it would be neat to pick your own name after you became an adult, when you have a real opinion about it.

I met this week with a fellow who goes by Jackie. His wife is expecting a baby in August, and they are trying to think of a good name for their son, who they plan to give an American name only.

(“The Chinese name can come later,” he explained, though I don’t get how that works)

“How did you choose your American name?” I inquired.

He smiled. “You know who is Jackie Chan?”

I nodded, and he continued. “I like Jackie Chan, but I come here and now I learn that Jackie is a girl’s name.” He frowned. “I think now I will choose a new one.”

I sat up in my chair. “Really? Neat! What will you pick?”

He told me he really likes names that start with J, and that’s what he’s focusing on for his son as well. He asked what I thought about James or Justin.

“Those are both good names,” I told him. “How popular do you want the name to be?”

He had obviously given this some thought. “We want a name that is easy to spell and not hard to say,” he explained, ticking off items on his fingers. “It should be not too popular but not unusual or strange.”

babynameI brought up my web browser on my computer, where I typed “Social Security Baby Names” in one tab and “Nameberry.com” in another.

I showed Jackie how to check the popularity of a name over time on the Social Security website, and how to look at trends on Nameberry. He was impressed and couldn’t wait to show his wife.

I was impressed, too — that someone who was a visitor in our country was so practical about naming his child. Jackie went by some of the same rules I did when naming my little Peanut. Here’s the list I used:

  1. Must not be in the top 500 names in the last 5 years
  2. If one hears it, they must easily know how to spell it (No “Quaneesha.”)
  3. When it is written and one reads it, they must easily be able to pronounce it
  4. Must not be in the top 500 names in the last 5 years
  5. Nothing gender-ambiguous (Sorry, “It’s Pat.”)
  6. Nothing too ethnic (Siobhan and Avishek were out)
  7. No obvious bad nicknames (Regina was out; I’ve been to Saskatchewan)
  8. No names after something in pop culture, like a TV show, movie, or book; names from classic movies or books are OK. (Suck it, Katniss)
  9. Must not be in the top 500 names in the last 5 years

As you can see, avoiding the most popular names was really, really important to us. I hate when names become so popular that you can guess their age from their name.

A few examples that span the decades, with their pretty-safe-bet ages:

  • Edith – 90+ (with the exception of one Edith I know in her 30s, but she was named after her great-grandmother, and goes by her middle name)
  • Dorothy – 80+
  • Janet – 60 to 70
  • Susan – 46 to 67
  • Donna – 46 to 67
  • Ashley – 25 to 35
  • Britney – 20 to 30
  • Madison – 6 to 15
  • Emma – Under the age of 11
  • Sophia – Under the age of 7

The name my husband and I chose for our daughter didn’t even crack the top 1000 until 1963. It’s peak was in the 1990s, nineteen years ago. It fell completely off the chart in the early 2000s, came back on for a few years, and made its last appearance in ‘08, in the 700s.

And we LIKE it that way.

I have trouble understanding the parents who name their child one of the most popular names, and then claim later that they “had no idea!” It’s not as if this information is top secret, people.

(There’s this thing that Al Gore invented called the Interwebz. Hello, Google!)

Nameberry even forecasts trends in names, based on the searches that women do on their site. It’s pretty slick. You can learn what names are on the rise, to avoid being the first one to name your kid Clover if it’s going to become “the big name” for the next decade.

(Sadly, Nameberry has predicted this as an up-and-coming name, thanks to the damn Hunger Games books.)

I pity the poor kids who have to explain their name to people who will never understand the reference: “I was named after a character in a badly written book that nobody has ever heard of today because it was garbage.” I’m referring to all the Edwards and Bellas out there named after the Twilight books. 🙁 It’s very sad.

A new family moved to my town when I was in high school; a boy and two girls, one of which was named Yentil. Yep, a slightly misspelled homage to a Barbra Streisand movie. Not a single person near her age knew what Yentl was, and she was constantly explaining her name with an embarrassed look on her face.

airwrecka-ericaI love to get together with friends and play Who Knows of the Most Outrageous Name? Someone in the group always has a distant cousin named Fonda Dix (who married into the Cox family), and so-and-so’s sister taught a student named La-A (that’s ‘la-DASH-ah’).

Don’t doom your child to a future of using his last name to distinguish himself from the other seven Aidans or Landons in his class. (I had just 32 kids in my first grade class, and 3 of them were named Jamie). Name them something simple and slightly uncommon, but don’t try too hard.

We all hear the stories of the parents who tried so hard to be unique that they made their kids a laughingstock (see photo of Airwrecka, a.k.a. Erica). But you can do just as much of a disservice to your kiddo by being unoriginal.

Find the happy medium. And when you holler your kid’s name at the playground, hopefully just one kid will look up instead of twelve.

Why stop now? Keep reading, friend.

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