There’s more to being distinctive than just rarity, as these 24 baby names show
Not all popularity is created equal. A rare name doesn’t automatically stand out, and a popular name doesn’t automatically blend in. It all depends on the name itself.
I recently discussed the “blend in” side, looking at the letters and sounds that make up America’s “most typical” baby names. This time I’d like to do the reverse and find names that sound more distinctive than their popularity suggests.
The Hunt for the Standout Sound
Distinctiveness is the most sought-after quality in baby naming today. Parents see an unusual name as a gift to a child, and an advantage: their name will never get lost in the crowd. Yet familiar, popular names still have advantages as well. They’re well-liked, non-divisive, and easier for strangers to spell and pronounce. Is it possible to achieve both objectives, with a popular standout?
To find out, I targeted names composed of unusual elements that set them apart. I took into account how common various components of the name were, including initials, endings and lengths, with bonuses for eye-catching ingredients like the letters Q or Z. Extreme popularity reduced a name’s score.
According to my formula, the overall most distinctive US baby names were Quynh and York for girls and Udochukwu and Yazn for boys. Then I restricted the results to names currently ranked in the top 200 for boys or girls. I also eliminated names with additional spelling variants or formal versions in the top 200, like Ryleigh and Alex.
The result should be names that feel familiar yet fresh. Judge for yourself. For perspective, I’ve paired each name on the list with a name of comparable popularity that scored low on the distinctiveness scale.
The Most Distinctive Popular Names
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(The rest of the top 20 for boys: Brody, Cole, Xavier, August, Lorenzo, Isaac, Graham, Dominic. For girls: Freya, Harmony, Parker, Remi, Genesis, Piper, Valerie, Delilah)
What strikes me most is the stylistic range of the list. It includes timeless classics and modern inventions, surnames and saints, meanings bold and demure, and names from multiple linguistic traditions. I suspect most parents could find a name or two they liked out of this menu.
Of course, the comparison set also includes many appealing choices. The more distinctive names aren’t “better,” just more unusual in look and sound, and perhaps less likely to be confused with one another. The subtle differences are a good reminder to parents not to get so wrapped up in the numbers game that they lose sight of the full essence of names.
The girl names do trend very botanical, with six of the top twelve being flowers or trees.
Also on the “common” lists, 11 out of 12 boys names end in N and 9 out of 12 girls names end in A, while only 1 or 2 on the corresponding distinctive list did.
On the “less likely to be confused with one another” front, I always get Vincent and Victor confused — I can never remember which one applies.
I personally would have excluded Olive for its similarity to Olivia and Oliver – although maybe my view of the name is skewed by the fact that the only Olive I know is as a nickname for Olivia.
Xander is similar, although it does feel more distinct from Alexander, I think partially because it draws so much attention to the X.
@Zita I went back and forth on Olive and Xander! There’s always gray area, including names like Carlos (Charles), King (Kingston), and even cross-gender matches like Victor (Victoria).
True! I think I would have removed Olive and kept all the others (including Xander) – but obviously that’s my own subjective take on it, and it’s hard to give a clear explanation of why that’s where I’d fall.
Surprised to see Willow scored so high! It’s entirely liquid sounds, I thought those were pretty popular.
Interesting analysis! Given how trendy letters like x and z seem to be lately, I might not have given extra credit for those. Maybe if you were to find the least common letters in the top 200 and give credit for those instead?
When I started reading this article, my first thought for a common-yet-distinctive name was Abigail – basically because there aren’t really any names that sound like Abigail! Besides the nickname Abby, there’s nothing you’d really lump into the same category, like you might with Ella/Ellie/Elise/Elisa/Elena/Eleanor/Eliana…
…I suppose it does share some sounds with “Gabriella,” though.