How to Pick a Baby Name—6 Things I Wish I'd Known

Nothing will influence your baby’s life more than his name.

Okay . . . I just made that up. But names are pretty dang influential. Take for example, Darth Vader. If you name your kid Darth, there’s at least an 80 percent chance he is going to turn into a black-suit-wearing, respirator-breathing, force-choking supervillain. (I can hear thousands of nerds screaming in rage right now: “His name was Anakin Skywalker!”)

Hans Gruber? Bad guy. Hannibal Lecter? Bad guy. Ra’s al Ghul? Bad guy. See a pattern? And what about Freddy Krueger?

Do you think Bob Krueger would have become a knifey-glove-wearing killer? No. He would probably be a CPA or something . . .

“Who does your taxes?”
“Oh, Bob Krueger. He’s great!”

Names are powerful. Would I be the same person I am today if my parents had named me Ted? Or Casey? Or Frank? Or Darth?

Names matter. So when it comes to naming your baby, take your time. When you pick a name, let it stew for a bit before getting too excited (or before rejecting a name too quickly). You’re probably going to pore through books and websites to find the perfect name (as you should). Here are a few things to think about as you do.

1. Everybody’s a Critic

When I was working in a customer care center answering phones, I once received a call and answered it the same way I always did: “Hello, this is Peter. How can I help you?”

The woman on the other end laughed out loud: “Deter? Your name is Deter?”

All I could think was . . . what if my name was Deter? She laughed right in my face just because that name was unusual to her. Rude.

But here’s the thing: names are super subjective, and everyone will have an opinion on the names you’re considering for your baby. Some people will keep their opinions to themselves, while others will just blurt out whatever malformed thought spawns in their brain. Now, if everyone seems to dislike your name, then maybe you can have a conversation about it. But for the most part—just like everything else—some people will love it and some people will hate it and some people will be indifferent. If you like it (and it’s not absurd like “Carebear Cookiemonster Herbert”), then that’s all that really matters.

2. Explaining vs. Defending

Because everyone is going to have an opinion (and freely offer it to you completely unsolicited), it’s important to make a distinction between explaining yourself and defending yourself.

Names are personal. They have stories behind them, and people like hearing these stories.

No one should ever just randomly pick a name for their child. This means that every name has a reason behind it. It was your grandfather’s name; the meaning was beautiful; it was your favorite literary character or writer or saint or historical figure. Names are personal. They have stories behind them, and people like hearing these stories. You should totally feel free and comfortable explaining where you got the name and why you chose it.

However, you shouldn’t have to defend yourself regarding the name you chose. Some people might not like it. Big deal. They are free to have their own dang kids so they can pick their own dang names. Love your name, love your reasons—if people aren’t cool with that, then they can get lost.

3. One Umlaut Is Too Many

My wife and I gave our daughter a very Irish middle name: Áine (pronounced ON-yah). Yup. With the accent and everything. Why did we do this? Obviously because we wanted her to struggle with every official form and online credit card payment ever for the rest of her life.

While I think it’s a beautiful name, we weren’t really thinking things all the way through. It’s not really that big of a deal, and I don’t think we would pick something different if we could go back in time, but it is important to think beyond what sounds nice. Extra-long names, excessive special characters, nonsensical spellings—these are things you should try to avoid unless you have a really great reason for them.

4. Unique vs. Weird

I am a huge fan of unique names. I do not like weird names. It is a fine line (and oftentimes subjective).

My personal definition of unique-but-not-weird fits the following criteria:

  • It can be found in a baby book (i.e., it’s not made up).
  • It’s not already associated with a thing (e.g., iPad might be a lovely name, but upon hearing it, the first thing you think of is the tablet, not the name. Other less crazy examples are: Winter, Rainbow, Rain, Apple, etc.).
  • It does not create some sort of “clever” wordplay in conjunction with your middle and last names (I knew a kid named Jimmy Sprinkles . . . come on, parents!).

One great way to land on a unique-but-not-weird name is to go old school. Find a name that has fallen way out of favor and bring it back! Some classic names are really beautiful and sophisticated.

Names matter. So when it comes to naming your baby, take your time.

5. Avoid Trends

Baby name trends have always fascinated me. With my personality, I would never name my kid something that was popular or trending. I just wouldn’t do it. And I would guess a lot of other people are the same. So how do these trends appear?

My guess is that people don’t realize the name is trending until it’s much too late. They probably heard a name—noticed it pop up a few times here and there—and then decided they loved it and never looked back. Little did they know, this name was popping up here and there and everywhere.

The internet is probably the most to blame for these trends, but it is also the best tool you can use to avoid naming trends. In the past, you wouldn’t know a trend even existed until your little Jessica came back from kindergarten talking about her six other Jessica classmates.

Now, you can see what names are getting the most hits on name websites, and you can follow trends as they happen. When you settle on a name, check out how popular it is on your favorite baby name site, and then keep an eye on it.

At the end of the day, however, it’s not a big deal if you accidentally fall into a trend. Your kiddo will still be unique and loved!

6. Meaning Doesn’t Matter

My brother-in-law’s name is Brendan. It’s a wonderful Irish name. Unique, not weird, and even fun to say (try it: Brendan . . . Brendan . . . Brendan . . .).

Know what it means? “Stinking Hair” . . .

I’ve noticed many newer sites have changed the meaning to “Prince,” but older sources all seem to agree that it means “Stinking Hair.” Lovely, right? Well, it’s still a nice strong name. And nobody cares about its meaning. My brother-in-law is a successful, pleasant human being—and as far as I know, his hair smells perfectly fine.

If you fall in love with a name because of its meaning, that’s great. But I would advise against vetoing a name just because it has an unsavory meaning. The meaning doesn’t matter. Only the name matters.

Naming your child is a big responsibility. She—not you—is the one who has to live with it for the rest of her life (or until she’s old enough to have it changed).

If you’re stumped and just can’t decide, let me throw Peter into the mix. It’s a strong, classic name that never goes out of style. And I’m pretty sure it means “Handsome Writer Dude.”

Good luck with your search . . . just please don’t name your kid Darth.

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