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Beyond Jacob and Emily: The World’s Most Popular Names

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Names don’t just help us identify each other; they identify our place in culture and history. Names tell us about the parents’ aspirations and values, and monikers like Agnes, Richard Jr., and Clementine all make strong statements in their own way. Some people use grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives as namesakes, while other parents simply pick names that sound nice. Most parents want something unique and individual, as well as something that gives a good impression, and many American parents find inspiration in film, TV, and pop culture. Plenty of baby Baracks have been born in the past year, and last year, a New Zealand couple named their daughter Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii. Really.

For parents in America and other western countries, the baby name debate boils down to personal preference. According to the Social Security Administration, Jacob and Emma were the most popular baby names in 2008, reflecting the current American trend of giving children classic, timeless names. However, the popular trends here might be considered rude in some parts of the world, since other cultures have their own ideas about how to name a baby.  

A Little Respect
American parents have the freedom to give their kids whatever name they want, but many people still prefer traditional family names as a matter of honor. Boys, especially, are commonly named after fathers and grandfathers, resulting in William II or James Jr. It’s far less common for girls to be a Junior, but many are named after grandparents or godparents. Across cultures, boys are far more likely to have traditional, conservative, or family names, because of the implications for inheritance and succession, while girls are more likely to have original or unique names. Those of the Jewish faith do not use the appellation “Junior,” although they often name children after relatives. It is customary for Ashkenazi Jews to name babies after deceased relatives, while Sephardic Jews usually choose living relatives as namesakes. But although Westerners consider naming a baby after someone an honor, others look upon the practice with horror. In many Asian cultures, it is a serious sign of disrespect to speak a parent’s name, and children call their parents “mother” and “father” throughout adulthood. They would never name their own kids after their parents, for fear of having to use their parents’ names in daily conversation.”

Divine Inspiration
Religion is the most common source for names across the world. Although hard evidence is difficult to come by, many sources unofficially state that the most popular name in the world is Mohammad, reflecting the millions of Muslims who wish to honor their prophet and pay respect to their faith, as well as giving children incentive to live a virtuous life. Men can also take the name, which means “praiseworthy,” as an honorific title. Muslims are encouraged to name baby girls after women in the Koran. In 2007, the Times of London reported that the most popular name for Muslim girls was Aisha, the name of the prophet’s wife.

Many of the most popular Jewish names are based in scripture, such as Aaron, Benjamin, Rachel, Leah, and David. Christians use the Bible as inspiration, too, for names such as Joseph, Michael, Jacob, and Mary, and Catholics make it a practice to name children after patron saints. Hindus also encourage people to give their children the names of deities and holy people. It’s even common to give a child the name of an incarnation of God, since it’s a way to stay connected to the divine in everyday life. For Muslims, on the other hand, naming a child after God himself is considered a grave taboo.

Hispanic cultures don’t share that view about names—Jesus is one of the most common men’s names in Latin America. Whereas Americans see it as taboo, Hispanics see it as a mark of respect, and no different from naming a child Mary or Christopher, and contrary to some urban legends, there’s no Catholic prohibition against naming a child Jesus. Along with naming children after religious figures, Puritans commonly name their daughters after virtues such as Charity, Chastity, Joy, Patience, and Faith, a tradition that has seen a recent revival.

A Bimberly by Any Other Name …
American Mormons are also particularly devoted to spiritual names such as Nephi, Moroni, Bryce, or Nauvoo, all originating from Mormon history and theology. According to Wes and Cari Clark, who run the Utah Baby Namer Web site, many give their children wildly creative first names in order to compensate for plain surnames. (Although most Mormon parents are nowhere near as imaginative as the parents of GlaDell, LaNondus, and Bimberly.)

African-Americans have their own set of popular baby names. In the 1960s, the black pride movement resulted in a trend of giving African-American children distinctive names that reflected their African heritage. Many black parents give their children names such as Javon, Malik, Ebony, and Jada that represent a separate cultural tradition. Some African-American families also create original names for their kids, in order to ensure that their child has the most singular forename possible.

As other countries become increasingly westernized, we might start seeing more emphasis on choice and less emphasis on tradition. Skylar, Shanice, and William IV all give clues about people’s families and their histories, and no matter what parents name a baby, they always think they’re doing the kid a favor. Of all the names out there to choose from, regardless of tradition or heritage, only one thing’s for sure: naming your child Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii is truly terrible.


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