On planes, staring into clouds. On the subway, scrolling through Instagram. On the couch, watching alien movies with my partner. These are all places where I’ve caught myself drifting off into baby-naming land in my head. I’m not pregnant or trying to be yet, but I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the names of my theoretical future children. Weird? Sure. Embarrassing? A little. Unusual? Nope.
I’ve talked to people who didn’t just cop to name fantasies — many had lists of well-considered ideas in saved email drafts and on the tips of their tongues, just waiting to be shared with someone who asked. But even knowing that others do this too didn’t stop my wondering why I find myself conjuring up names, for hypothetical people. “Names filter into the air we breathe, so even when we’re not naming a child, we’re aware of it as a style-conscious choice,” said Abby Sandel, founder of the baby name website Appellation Mountain. “We don’t just think about the name, we often picture a whole other lifestyle, a scenario that can be as much about the future as the past and reimagining our own experiences.” I sometimes wonder if my life would be subtly different if my parents had called me Taylor, their backup choice — a unisex name that can be handily mysterious — and wonder if I should pick gender-neutral or -nonconforming names for my own kids.
Names fascinate us because of what they say about us as individuals and as a culture, according to experts. “When people choose a name, it’s a form of self-expression, a way to establish a legacy and make a statement about your tastes and priorities by conforming to or bucking trends,” said Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University. “Names are pop-culture indicators of prevailing social norms. We enjoy weighing in on them because it helps us work through some of our own affiliations and preferences.” The origins of some of 2018’s popular names, for instance, can be traced to trends that hit a fever pitch, including the video game Fortnite, which helped boost names such as Ramirez, Rogue, and Leviathan, according to a BabyCenter.com analysis.
Cohen believes that our interest in names has always been there, but that the Internet has likely fueled and magnified it. By flooding our feeds with birth announcements and trend reports, social media diversifies our mental name rolodexes and can prompt the otherwise ambivalent to become name-obsessed: “I don’t want kids, but I’ll always click on a headline about the top 50 British baby names,” admitted my 23-year-old colleague.
For some, the preoccupation goes way back. Jenny, 38, is on the fence about kids, but told me that her interest in names started as a child naming dolls and pets. “For lots of little girls in the ’80s, it was assumed you’d grow up to be a wife and mother, so it was normal to think about baby names,” she said. Elliott was an early favorite, inspired by a school crush; Sarah was soon blacklisted for its association with a boyfriend’s ex. (Most name-fantasizers follow a loose set of rules, “no ex names” among them.)
Considerations like these trickle into discussions about names, even for those of us who are careful to keep the tone oh-so-light or emphasize that this is all hypothetical. “My husband and I have joked about names,” said Krista, 30, who is not immediately planning to get pregnant. “Our last name is Officer, so we at least know we can’t name our kid Jack.”
Even when couples are cracking jokes, the “isn’t this a cute name” — conversation can open a side-door into the serious discussion about having kids. “It’s a less threatening way to dip your toes into talking about parenthood,” said Adam Alter, social psychologist and associate professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, who has researched name psychology. “Discussing name preferences is a safer way of discussing our views about the world. Names carry so much information — we associate them with age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, nationality and personality traits. If two people disagree about name preferences, that might reflect bigger disagreements.”
Anecdotally, more women than men seem drawn to this subject, though I did get some men to acknowledge having their fair share of baby-name ruminations, even if parenthood isn’t a sure thing. “My wife and I like Otto and Charlie, and jokingly refer to our possibly never-to-be-born future child as Theophilus,” said Dennis, 31. “I guess I think about names more than I realized. Since we aren’t sure whether we want them, it’s a non-committal thought process, kind of like what I’d name my band if I played an instrument.”
Opening up about names to a significant other is one thing, but I rarely hear people casually raising the topic at happy hour. “Names occupy this awkward spot, socially,” said Sandel. “We all have opinions, but talking about Kardashian or royal baby names is different from talking about our own preferences. When you do, it’s as if you’re telling everyone you’re expecting, or considering it.” Plus, there’s the don’t-steal-my-name factor: “You may have a dozen you’re keeping a secret, hoping no one uses Avalon or Ophelia before you get the chance.”
But like juice cleanses and shower sex, it turns out that naming a human might be more fun in theory than reality. Some people even get more into it after taking the pressure of parenthood out of the equation altogether. Seven years into her marriage, Amanda, 31, said she and her husband are “one hundred percent” sure they won’t have kids, but still chat about their top names. “It’s like online window shopping and then closing out all your tabs before you buy,” she quips.
Sandel, who has two kids, agrees that the prospect of parenthood can cast a shadow of seriousness over the naming process. “Browsing infinite name lists is an appealing distraction until you have to choose, and then it can feel exhausting. For me, picking a name for an actual human wasn’t quite as much fun.”
If that’s true, I guess I should enjoy my hobby of name-daydreaming about Sienna, Rowan, and Jax while they’re still just pretty words for people confined to the low-stakes realm of my imagination.