What's in a name?
Credit: B Calkins, Shutterstock
If you want to get people riled up, tell them the story of Orangejello and Lemonjello.
These are the names of two brothers (pronounced Or-AN-juh-lo and Le-MON-juh-lo) brought into your sister's pediatric hospital or spotted in your cousin's daughter's second-grade class — it really doesn't matter where. The story is made up, after all. There are no Jell-O twins.
But that hasn't stopped the legend from spreading, even in such places as "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything," (William Morrow, 2005). That bestseller cited Orangejello and Lemonjello as fact. The reason? People, it seems, can't resist mocking what they see as bad baby names.
"People really want to think that everybody but them, and the people they know, is crazy and chooses terrible names," said Laura Wattenberg, a statistician and author of "The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby" (Three Rivers Press, 2005).
The latest example of this gleeful name-mocking comes from big-name blog Gawker, which published a list this week of "unusual baby names" that "will destroy your soul." The list, pulled from names visitors to babycenter.com claimed to have given their children in 2012, contains a few cultural gaffes, such as mocking the names Kaixin, Krittika and Pawk for being made-up and overly fanciful. Kaixin is a traditional Chinese name, Krittika is a Sanskrit name, and Pawk is Burmese.
These ethnic origins show one pitfall of name-mocking — one culture's Kaixin is another culture's Sophie. [The Baby Name Game: Test Your Knowledge]
But name-mocking can also reveal uncomfortable classism and racism in other ways, baby-name experts say. Take Orangejello and Lemonjello. There would have to be about "60 or 70" Jell-O twins living around the country to account for all the people who've personally claimed to know them, said Cleveland Evans, a professor of psychology and name researcher at Bellevue University in Nebraska. The mythical names are a reference to African-American naming trends, Evans told LiveScience.
Some of the mockery "is ethnic in terms of anti-black," Evans said. "But there's also classism."
People in lower socioeconomic classes tend to be more flexible in their naming conventions, choosing newer names and more creative spellings, Evans said. (Westerners are also more creative than East Coasters.) While nearly everyone wants a unique name for their child, college-educated people tend to go hunting in the history books for their inspiration, looking to revive old, obscure names. People with less education and income are more willing to go for new inventions.
"If you're poor, stuff that is old is almost always stuff which is dirty, broken-down and should be thrown out soon," Evans said. "If you're upper class, something which is old can be antique — it stood the test of time — because the past has been good to you and your family."
(Some celebrities break the trend by choosing unusual names, which may make average moms and dads more willing to experiment, said Linda Rosenkrantz, a baby-name book author and creator of the name website nameberry.com.)
Ironically, Evans noted, many of the old names that college-educated people choose to revive for their children would have been seen as horribly trendy and low-class when they first emerged on the scene. The resurging girl's name "Hazel," for example, was likely the "Nevaeh" of the 1890s. (Nevaeh, or "heaven" spelled backwards, is a recent name invention.)
Why baby names inspire anger
But why get so worked up anyway? Many of the people railing against Neveah or other hated baby names don't personally know any tykes with those monikers, after all. [The Most Hated Baby Names in America]
The reason may be the increased diversity of names today, Wattenberg told LiveScience. About 60 years ago, the number-one baby names, John and Mary, accounted for about a quarter of all new babies. Today, the top names, Jacob and Sophie, are given to just 1 percent of all newborns.
"We're taking away common ground and it makes people feel a little bit less secure," Wattenberg said. "There's a very real sense that names now are, I think, a more honest reflection of how different we all are from one another."
Wattenberg noted that names causing anger at Gawker were not in the official record, so there is no way to know their veracity. There are some very strange names low on the popularity list, she said, names given to just five or 10 babies in any given year. However, she said, with everyone looking for the perfect unique name, "there literally is no such thing as a normal name anymore."
The shift toward more unique names began in the 1960s, when people became less conformist, and ethnic minorities became more comfortable expressing their backgrounds through names, Wattenberg said. Another uniqueness boost occurred in the 1990s, with the rise of the Internet and baby-name statistics. Knowing where your favorite name falls on the popularity list changes how likely you are to use it, she said.
"There's a reverse arms race where everyone is trying not to be number-one," Wattenberg said.
Occasionally, people's appreciation of another culture's naming tradition is what causes the problem. That's the case with the name Cohen, Rosenkrantz said. Parents who liked the sound of names like Owen picked up on this Jewish surname and started using it as a first name. Some Jewish parents found this offensive, pointing out that Cohen is a name reserved for the priestly class in Judaism.
Whether people's baby-name rage will cool as weird becomes the new normal remains to be seen. Children today are teased far less about their names than earlier generations, Rosenkrantz told LiveScience.
"From kindergarten on, kids these days really accept that if someone's named Olive or something really out-there, they just take it for granted," she said, adding, "Kids are much more accepting than adults."
Even for adults, some new names, like Britney, get folded into the mainstream, Evans said. Others, like Crystal, never really lose their stigma.
It'd be "nice to think" that people will get more accepting as time goes on, but Wattenberg says baby-name judgment is here to stay, even as the naming rules loosen.
"The less you have a dress code," she said, "the more people pay attention to your clothes."