The XX Factor

Baby Names Can’t Be Stolen—but It’s Not Surprising That Some Parents Think They Can

Having the same name will not scar these children for life.

tatyana_tomsickova via ThinkStock

In a recently published essay on Cosmopolitan.com, writer Megan Woolsey plaintively recounts the undoing of one of her longest friendships. Woolsey and “Jessica” were childhood friends who “spent the first 30 years of [their] lives in happy compatibility.” They were in each other’s wedding parties, threw baby showers for each other, and were there to greet each other’s newborns at the hospital. All was well until Jessica had her second child, a girl, and named her Elsie—the name of one of Woolsey’s daughters. Woolsey writes:

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My daughter’s name was very special to me. I had chosen the name for my daughter a long time before I had even conceived her because I had seen it in a special book, and I loved it instantly. I chose this name because it was a very unusual Jewish name (at the time), and I knew no one else would have it (later it became very popular).

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My heart sank. Why would she do this? There are so many names to choose from, so why would she choose my special name? And if she wanted my name, why wouldn’t she at least ask me if it was OK—out of respect?

Woolsey waited a month and then wrote an email to Jessica in which she explained her feelings of disappointment. Jessica responded “hatefully.” It’s been three years, and they haven’t spoken since.

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While the fallout from this case of a shared baby name was particularly intense, Woolsey is not alone in her belief that name-stealing is both an actual thing someone can do and an ethical violation. Last month the Today show ran a poll on baby naming, and more than half of the 12,000 respondents said “that baby-name stealing is a real phenomenon, and that if parents-to-be know another couple has plans for a name, they shouldn’t use it.”

This belief is ridiculous—after all, liking a name doesn’t give you ownership over it, and sharing a name with a friend or relative is, at worst, a mild nuisance. But the idea that names shouldn’t be stolen is not surprising. Over the past hundred years, naming has increasingly become an act of self-expression for parents, a way to assert their individuality rather than a sense of belonging in their community. With our names and selves so thoroughly intertwined, it stands to reason that parents would become increasingly protective of their children’s names.

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According to sociologist Tristan Bridges, in 1950 25 percent of all girls and 35 percent of all boys had one of the top 10 names at the time. In 2010, that number is around 8 percent for both genders. Bridges credits this shift to the “modernization theory” of name trends; basically, as the importance of religious institutions and extended family units faded over the past century, so did any pressure to give children a traditional name. (Burges also points out that until very recently, popular boy names have always been more popular than popular girl names—meaning more boys had the most popular boy names than girls had the most popular girl names. He credits this shift to gender equality and, quoting Alice Rossi, the fact that men today are less likely to be considered “the symbolic carriers of the temporal continuity of the family.”)

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But the desire for a unique baby name might not just be about finding a way to stand out, now that standing out is the thing to do. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the Freakonomics team, say that baby-naming is an aspirational process motivated by financial and professional hopes for one’s child. Data shows that high-income, highly educated families are the name trend setters, and they seek out names that distinguish their children from the hoi polloi. Then the name “starts working its way down the socioeconomic ladder,” until, eventually, it goes out of fashion. With this in mind, parents may, consciously or not, feel that when other people use their child’s name, they are also in some way compromising the likelihood of that child’s future success. Nevertheless, nobody’s yet provided evidence that having a popular name might actually compromise a child’s future.

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As with so much of contemporary parenting, the drama surrounding name-stealing is ultimately more about the threat it poses to parent’s identities than their children’s. In practical terms, no child will be harmed by having the same name as a classmate or cousin. I grew up in classrooms filled with Jennifers and Jessicas and, I promise, they all managed the name-sharing just fine. Far more punishing than having the same name as another child is growing up in an environment where names are considered personal property and friendships end when someone “steals” one.

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