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The baby name boom

“Theodore” and “Matilda” might be adorable, but modern parents are terrified of trendiness. Enter: TikTok baby name consultants.

These days, the most unique thing you can do is name your kid “Ashley.”
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Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

When my sister was pregnant with her children, she had a single rule: They could not, under any circumstances, have “trendy” names. Unquestionably adorable options like Theodore, Oliver, Charlotte, and Nora were vetoed over their rankings on the Social Security Administration’s annual list of the most popular names in the US.

She had a perfectly good reason: When she was born, in 1989, my parents named her Emily not only because they liked it, but also because they didn’t know of anyone else with the name. Within a few short years, however, Emily would become the single most popular name for baby girls, a title it held for more than a decade. “Everyone could spell and pronounce it, but it wasn’t terribly common,” a baby name book author recently explained on the abundance of Emilys, proving that even when parents try their best to project a sense of originality onto their children, it’s sometimes the least original choice they could have made.

Baby names, it seems, have never been more crucial to get right. On TikTok, a slew of creators have built followings of tens of thousands discussing baby name trends, and crucially, baby names to avoid because they’re trendy. They reveal baby names they liked but didn’t use, and baby names they never want to see again; they predict famous influencers’ baby names (sometimes with terrifying accuracy) and what names will soon be all over every daycare’s class list. Baby name inspiration TikToks have gone ever more niche: You can find viral videos that suggest “old money” names (Caroline, Elizabeth, Charlotte), “main character” names (Blaze, Arrow, Falcon), or “aesthetic” names (Rowan, Wren, Atlas). Their accounts are called things like @WhatsInABabyNameDoula, @NamingBebe, @DreamBabyNames, and @NamesWithSteph, many of whom now have paid consulting businesses where they help parents-to-be make one of the biggest choices of their lives.

Colleen Slagen, the nurse practitioner behind @NamingBebe, says that she’ll sometimes get comments from people asking why anyone in their right mind would pay someone else to name their baby. “For some people, [baby naming] is naturally a fun process, and for others, it’s actually very stressful, because they haven’t spent the last 30 years of their lives thinking about baby names,” she explains. She’s been obsessed with baby names for as long as she can remember; in elementary school she’d fill journals with the names of her future children and discuss her favorites with her sister. She offers three packages: a video consultation with 16 baby name options for $99, an eight-name package with extensive name analysis for $175, and 16-name package with name analysis for $250. So far, she estimates she’s done close to 100 consultations, some with people who weren’t even expecting a child at the time. “I think it’s fun to have someone analyze you and your partner’s taste and come up with something that suits you,” she says. “It’s a form of flattery.”

Baby name gurus guess that the topic has gained massive popularity because of our cultural fascination with uniqueness. Blame it on Reagan’s “cult of rugged individualism” or perhaps, your phone. “My guess is it’s gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media,” says Slagen, referencing the common practice of announcing your child’s name on Instagram, often with personalized Etsy merch. “Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case. You told your family and small circle of friends. Now you see all these names on social media and it makes them feel like they’re super popular, which makes people want a unique name even more, because they’re like, ‘Well, a girl from my high school used that name so I can’t use it,’ even though they’re never going to see that person.”

As a Jessica, @DreamBabyNames’ Jessie Paquette is intimately familiar with the burden of having a trendy name. “I always say to my mom, ‘You carried me for nine months and you come up with Jessica? After all that work?’” Now that she’s pregnant with her first child, Paquette has a rigid set of rules: It cannot be in the top 200 most popular baby names, she can’t know anyone with the name, it has to be pronounceable by her family members with Boston accents (meaning “Parker” and “Arthur” are out), and it has to be professional-sounding. “People got really angry when I said that,” she adds. (Some commenters said that it was weird to imagine your baby sending out job applications; Paquette argued that “you’re not just naming a baby, you’re naming a future adult.”)

It wasn’t the first time she’d incurred the wrath of TikTok. In March, she posted two videos about baby names people may not know are trending, which included Silas, Asher, Ellis, Finn, and August for boys and Eloise, Maeve, Sloan, Freya, Aurora, Matilda, and Clementine for girls. Though most of these names aren’t particularly high on the Social Security lists yet, she scours moms-to-be apps like Peanut to predict what will be trendy in a few years. “In all my videos I’m like, ‘If you like it, use it anyway, this is just my opinion!’” she says. “And then people are like, ‘You’re a terrible person and I hope your child hates you.’”

The irony here is that having an extremely popular name used to be the norm. For most of American history, according to the Atlantic, families typically named their children after an ancestor, which meant that there were usually several Marys or Johns per age cohort. It wasn’t until the cultural shifts of the 1960s, with smaller families and fewer children performing labor, that parents wanted to bequeath babies with names that reflected their individuality. “Parents are thinking about naming kids more like how companies think about naming products, which is a kind of competitive marketplace where you need to be able to get attention to succeed,” Laura Wattenberg, the founder of Namerology, told the magazine.

Baby names have always held a special place in internet culture; nothing bonds strangers quite like a really bad one. There are not one but two Facebook groups with over 100,000 members called “That Name Is a Tragedeigh,” referring to the American predilection for using quirky spelling on traditional names to make them feel different. The meme of a woman next to a chalkboard of all her unused baby names — Taylee, McKarty, Nayvie, Maylee, and then the winner, Lakynn — is now more than 10 years old, but still pops up any time there’s discussion of “unique” names, often associated with Mormons in the Western US who, some have argued, give children distinctive names because it’s one of the few life areas that the Mormon church doesn’t have control over. And of course, never forget the iconic feud between two influencers who both named their babies “Baby.”

These days, naming children can feel like an unwinnable game — you could be accused of trend bandwagoning if you name your daughter, say, Harper; you’re called a “tragedeigh” if you go with something truly original; or you’re simply a bore whose child is destined to be one of a billion Liams — hence the baby name consultants who say their DMs and emails are overflowing with requests from confused parents. Taylor A. Humphrey makes a living off of these consults, which she says have numbered in the thousands. “There’s so much anxiety around what used to be a very mundane part of life,” she says. It isn’t just the desire to give children unique names, but also the pressure to please picky family members, friends, and — since we’re all influencers now — the leering public.

Humphrey, who has been name consulting since 2018, also works with actual influencers, bringing in anywhere from $350 for a handful of baby name suggestions to $30,000 for “baby name branding,” which helps people in the public eye choose a name that reflects their personal brand, as well as other services. She also works with parents who experience name regret, or the desire to change their baby’s name months or even years after their birth. Most of these cases, she says, come from a trauma around the time of the birth, either during delivery or otherwise (Humphrey also works as a doula and a reiki practitioner to help with such cases).

Names from around 100 years ago — long enough to have been forgotten because the people who have them are likely dead — have a tendency to spring back to life, and that seems to be the case now. “The same thing we see in fashion trend cycles, we see in names,” says Paquette. “We’re seeing Eleanor, Maude, Edith — cool-girl grandma names.” (She personally prefers names that include a “v” sound, like Veda, Vera, or Vienna.) Slagen is also interested in the rise of surnames as first names: Rhodes, Miller, and Bellamy, for instance. (In a recent consultation, she offered my own last name as a suggestion: “Jennings is not a first name you hear often, but it has a “cool factor,” she wrote.) Humphrey, meanwhile, notes the growing trend of overtly masculine names for girls, like Bennett, Earnest, and James.

As someone who also grew up obsessing over baby names and who used to write short stories that involved very large families solely as an excuse to name their members, I tend to liken the fascination to that of personality quizzes or other aesthetic, mostly surface-level self-identified categorizations. “Just as capitalism engenders the belief that our value is determined by our productivity, ‘social’ as a business category influences our concept of the self, encouraging us to see self-categorization on platforms not only as self-realization but as a source of capital,” writes Isabel Munson in Real Life. “Our value then is based on effective self-branding.” Is there a better way to self-brand than by bequeathing one’s child a perfect-but-not-too-popular, original-but-not-too-weird first name?

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