What’s in a Name?

01 August, 2015

For VOA Learning English, I'm Anna Matteo.

And I'm Mario Ritter.

The English writer William Shakespeare was right when he said, "What's in a name? that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet ..."

But when it comes to naming a baby, choosing the right name can be a really big issue. Parents can think about -- and even argue over -- name choices for months.

Britain's Kate the Duchess of Cambridge carries Princess Charlotte. The little princess guarantees that the name
Britain's Kate the Duchess of Cambridge carries Princess Charlotte. The little princess guarantees that the name "Charlotte" will be even more popular in the U.S. (AP PHOTO / July 2015)

The arguments may sound like this:

"We can't give him your father's name. I really don't like your father's name. My grandfather's name is much nicer."

"No, we can't name our daughter Claire. That's the name of my ex-girlfriend."

"I don't care how much you like math. We're not naming our baby Pi!"

New parents consider many things before deciding on a name. They might use names from family members. They might name their children after cultural and historic characters. Parents also might choose a name that represents something in which they believe strongly.

There are trends in baby names. Names fall or rise in popularity. Every new child born in the United States needs a social security number. So, the best place to find a record of the most popular baby names is the Social Security Administration. It made a list of the 10 most popular names for baby boys in 2014.

They are:

10 - Daniel

9 - James

8 - Alexander

7 - Michael

6 - Ethan

5 - William

4 - Jacob

3 - Mason

2 - Liam

1 - Noah

The department's top 10 names for baby girls in 2014 are:

10 - Charlotte

9 - Madison

8 - Abigail

7 - Emily

6 - Mia

5 - Ava

4 - Isabella

3 - Sophia

2 - Olivia

1 - Emma

Pop culture

Pop culture plays a big part in some parents' choice of names. The film "The Fault in Our Stars" gave us names like Gus and Hazel. Disney's hit movie "Frozen" may give us more girls named Elsa. And the popularity of singers such as Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift might mean we see more children with these names.

Madison is the ninth most popular name for baby girls in the U.S. But it was rarely used for girls until after the movie "Splash" came out in 1984. The main character chose it for her name after seeing it on a Madison Avenue street sign in New York City.

Besides being popularized in a film, Madison is a good example of trends in naming a child for other reasons. Madison is unisex, meaning it can be used for girls or boys. It has been a trend for several years to name a girl a unisex name.

Madison is a place-name, after Madison, Wisconsin. This is another trend in the U.S. Parents may name their child Asia or Paris or after a city or state, such as Brooklyn or Alabama.

The name Madison is also a surname, as in James Madison, the fourth president of the U.S. Using a last name as a first name is yet another trend in the U.S. But this trend is not permitted in some other countries.

If parents have trouble picking a name, they can turn to several websites for help. The website Nameberry suggests baby names to new parents and also tracks name trends. The website cites two major cultural influences that are influencing names for 2015.

It did not take long for Harper Lee's new novel "Go Set a Watchman" to influence baby names. Atticus Finch is the iconic character in "To Kill a Mockingbird." For the boys, Nameberry says Atticus made a big jump on their most popular list from 370 to one for the first half of 2015.

And the birth of Princess Charlotte to Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, may push the girl's name Charlotte up to one in 2015, according to Nameberry.

Wild words

A few countries ban a number of names for different reasons. Some bans are designed to protect children.

According to reports in The Guardian and Huffington Post, the Mexican state of Sonora banned many names.

For example, you cannot name your child Harry Potter, Hermione, Hitler or Batman. This was done in an effort to prevent children from being bullied or mistreated.

Some countries have naming rules based on cultural or religious reasons. In Germany, you are not permitted to give your child a surname such as Anderson or Johnson. Germany also bars the naming of a child after an object or product.

In Malaysia, parents are not permitted to name children after animals, fruits or vegetables. So, for example, you will not find a child named Bear running around with his sister Apple and their friend Rose. You could, however, in the U.S.

In the United States, there are few rules governing the names of children. Rules differ from state to state. Some states limit the number of letters you can use in a name. Others ban the use of numbers or symbols. A few states have no naming laws at all.

What does your name mean?

Since many English names do not have an exact meaning, people sometimes choose words that mean something they like. New parents may identify a quality they would like their child to have and use it as a first or middle name. Words like King, Maverick, Rebel, and Hope can easily be used to make a name.

Some celebrities have pushed this trend to an extreme. They are taking more traditional names like Deacon and Faith, and creating names like Reign and Saint. That is why names like Legend, Mercy and Serenity are expected to become more popular in the future.

When economic conditions are good, some new parents name babies after brand name products.

Names like Mercedes, Lexus and Rolex come to mind.

But when the economy is bad, new parents may want a more grounded name with a nature-theme. For girls, that could mean a rising popularity for names like Lily, Skye, Summer, Rain or Jasmine. And for boys, names like River, Sage and Ash could become all the rage.

Whatever name parents decide, it is most important that they like the sound of it. They will be saying the name a lot.

I'm Mario Ritter.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Currently, what names are popular, or all the rage, in your country? What does your name mean? How did you parents pick it? And if you have a child, how did you pick the name? Let us know in the comment section.


Words in This Story

trend(s) n. a current style or preference

unisex adj. designed for or used by both men and women : Example: Some hairstyles are unisex. They look good on men and women.

popular adj. liked or enjoyed by many people

character(s) – n. people in a theatrical production, book or movie

iconic adj. widely recognized and well-established : Example: Levis are an iconic brand of jeans in the U.S.

bully – v. threaten, pressure or abuse someone else

symbol(s) – n. words or signs that represent an idea, belief or action

celebrity n. a person who is famous

grounded adj. used to describe a person who is sensible and has a good understanding of what is really important in life : Example: Even though she is very famous, she is also quite grounded and down-to-earth.

become all the rage idiomatic expression to be very popular for a particular time : Example: Bhangra, a type of Indian dance music, was all the rage in New York City in the 90s.