It’s no longer unusual to have an unusual name. Nor is it enough.
Spend any length of time on naming forums and one word will jump out at you: unique. If you’re a stickler for language, prepare yourself: it’s perhaps the most misused term in baby naming. But the use (and abuse) of unique is an interesting phenomenon in its own right.
Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else
Very few names are truly unique, according to the dictionary definition of the word. If it’s a name, someone has used it before. If it’s not a name, someone has probably made it one. The bottom of the SSA list is peppered with weird and wonderful monikers, from playful Abcde (given to 12 girls last year), to literary Salinger (5 boys), to unconventional word names like Alchemy (5 girls), Envy (35 girls) and — of course — Unique itself (115 girls, 10 boys, plus a couple of variant spellings thrown in for good measure).
Even if you allow a little leeway on the literal definition, most very unusual names don’t actually feel all that unique. Take a name like Oriana: it sits comfortably outside of the Top 1000, yet shares sounds with Top 100 choices Olivia (#2), Ariana (#54), Aurora (#66) and Eliana (#93). Booker, Carver and Thayer may be unranked, but they all slip seamlessly into the sea of energetic, 2-syllable, er-ending occupational names which are wildly popular for boys at the moment. Even Alchemy and Envy aren’t a million miles from the likes of Aubrey and Avery, Emily and Everly.
But that’s OK — in fact, it’s almost beside the point. Unique in baby name parlance doesn’t really have to do with the literal meaning of the word, nor even the numbers. It’s a statement, a style, an aspiration.
The steep decline of the truly popular name in recent years has been well documented. Today’s #1 names are given to about the same proportion of babies as those around the #17 mark for both sexes in the 1880s, and the #25 (M) and #18 (F) mark in the 1950s: Samuel, Ella, George and Brenda, in case you were curious. And the average American baby name is now almost six times less popular than it was 60 years ago. It’s tempting to infer from these stats a stark swing away from conformism and towards individualism, in baby names and beyond — and that’s true, to a certain extent. But it’s not the whole picture.
Big trends in naming haven’t disappeared along with the super-names of the past: the Johns and Marys of the 1880s, or the Michaels and Lindas of the 1950s. In fact, the biggest trend of all is occurring right now, and it shows no sign of slowing any time soon.
For the sake of argument, let’s define unique as any name which falls outside of the SSA Top 1000. That’s a pretty limited definition, considering that the label is frequently applied to all manner of non-traditional names (word names, nature names, surname names, gender-benders, non-standard spellings… the list goes on), even if they are actually relatively popular. Still, if we take that as our guide, it becomes clear that unique names are given to a staggering proportion of babies today: far more than John or Michael, or Mary or Linda, have ever been.
In the US in 2016, almost 27% of babies were given names outside of the Top 1000. In the UK, 7% of boys and 9% of girls received a name given to only one or two babies last year — so rare that they can’t even be included in the official data for privacy reasons. Take into account the number of parents choosing what they think of as unique, whatever that may mean to them, and the trend is even more pervasive.
Unique (or, perhaps even more so, Eunique/Younique — given to 13 baby girls altogether last year) may just be the trendiest name of all time. Not in terms of number of births or a sharp spike in popularity or any of the standard measures of “trendiness”, but because it encapsulates an enormous shift in the way parents are naming in the 21st century, and — if the stats are anything to go by — far beyond.