Are There Pitfalls In Unconventional Baby Names?

So, what’s the baby’s name?”

My friend breathed an anguished sigh and then mumbled something that sounded like Ren.

“Ren,” I repeated.

“W-r-e-n.” She spelled it out. “Like the bird.”

Oh, okay I get it.

“At least he’s got a second name, Moses after my late husband.”

I sighed back in sympathy. I know what this feels like. Seven months ago, my family welcomed one of these oddly named additions, this one called Isla.

Not Ayala? I said hopefully when my daughter announced the name.

No Isla  Pronounced Ay-la, “the s is silent like in Island.” 

“But nobody will get that,”

“There’s a movie star Isla Fisher,”

I had never heard of the Australian actor. Neither, it seems had Isla’s Latinx babysitter who spent months with my granddaughter Is La with a non-silent S. Imagine what will happen when she gets to first grade. 

Isla and Wren won’t be alone.

Whereas names were once chosen to remember departed loved ones, or in the Sephardic world living ancestors, many of today’s parents seem determined to demonstrate their originality in their naming choices. Leading the pack is Elon Musk who’s famously given his brood numerical formulas instead of nouns. 

Unusual names have consequences. In Freakonomics Stephen Dubner shares the tale of a pair of African-American Christian twins unbelievably named Winner and Loser. Loser, who came to be known as Lou grew up to be a police detective and Winner? Sadly, he became a petty criminal. 

What about the famous teaching about names being prophecies, Perhaps that only applies to Jews? So should we discourage unusual names?

The jury isn’t quite out on that one though there is research to suggest that saddling one’s sons with names like Ashley and Shannon might cause them to act out around sixth grade especially when they’ve got girl classmates with the same names. Paradoxically girls with those same gender-neutral monikers don’t become overly aggressive. Instead, they gravitate to STEM subjects. Conventionally-named females find their way into the humanities. 

What seems to matter the most is the child’s feelings. According to Jean Twenge of San Diego State University who has studied this subject extensively, kids with high self-esteem like the letters in their names, particularly the first letter.

What about parents who chose unusual spelling for common names? Northwestern University’s David Figlio finds that these kids may suffer from slowed spelling and reading capabilities.

“You have the child named Jennifer spelled with a “G” – her teacher says ‘Are you sure your name is spelled that way?'” Figlio said. “That can be incredibly hard on a person’s confidence.”

According to Twenge parents who chose unusual names may also have unusual parenting styles.

“The type of parent who would give a really unusual name is often going to parent differently from a parent who says ‘I want to give my child a name so they fit in,'” Twenge said. 

But if your child grows up to become a corporate CEO all bets are off. In a recent paper called Being Extraordinary, a team of business school professors found that CEOs with more uncommon names possess greater power, and operate businesses in an environment with more growth opportunities. 

Looking for unconventional leaders say these researchers?  You can often tell by their names.

So good luck to you Isla and Wren and Elon Musk’s numerical offspring. We’ll love you no matter what you are called.

And babies, if you ever climb the corporate ladder, Mom and Dad’s uncommon taste may have a big payoff someday.