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How to Pick a Unique Version of a Popular Name

by Bruce Lansky

Many parents like the security and familiarity of popular names. However, popularity cuts two ways: Psychologists say a child with a popular name seems to have better odds of success than an uncommon one, but a child whose name is at the top of the popularity poll may not feel as unique and special as a child whose name is less common.

A good compromise is to select a unique version of a popular name. This involves taking a popular name and customizing it with a touch of individuality.

Here are some tips to help:

1. Choose a Variation.

One option is to look for variations of a name you like. For example, Jake and Kobi are variations you might want to consider for Jacob. If you’re worried that William is too popular, consider Will and Liam. For girls, Emilia and Emmaline are forms of Emily.

2. Choose a “Name-Book Neighbor.”

Find a popular name in any baby name book, then scan the names around it to find the “name-book neighbors.” These names contain some of the same letters and sounds as the popular name, but are often more unique. For Olivia, you’ll find Olinda and Olympia. For fellas, a name-book neighbor of Matthew is Mathias, and a name-book neighbor of Michael is Micah.

3. Change the Spelling.

If you like the sound of a popular name, an easy trick is to change the spelling. You can make the change as subtle (Hannah to Hanna) or dramatic (Michael to Mikkel) as you wish. The main concern is that changing the spelling of a traditional name may lead people to misspell or mispronounce it—which could be a daily inconvenience for your child.

4. Combine Names.

An additional way to put a twist on a popular name is to combine it with another name. You can make a double name separated by a space or a hyphen, such as John Paul or Mary-Kate, or you can make a single name, such as Michaelangelo or Emmalee. The possibilities are endless—but sometimes the results can be quite silly.

5. Add a Prefix or Suffix.

Adding a prefix or suffix to popular names is especially prevalent with names of American origin used by African American families. Common prefixes are Da-, De-, Le-, La-, Sha-, Ja-, and Ta-. Common suffixes are -a, -ia, -ina, -ita, -la, -en, -o, -ta, -te, -us, and -y. Add these to popular names, and you’ll get unique versions such as Lakayla, Deanthony, Sarita, and Josephus. Throughout history, the suffix -son has been used to link a father’s name to his son’s, as in the case of Jackson and Jameson. These names are commonly used as first names for boys and girls. Borrowing from this custom, you can add a twist to a popular name (or perhaps your own name) by adding -son.

6. Use an Ethnic Variation.

If you like the name John but find it too popular, consider giving it an ethnic spin: Sean (Irish), Zane (English), Juan (Spanish), or even Keoni (Hawaiian).

For girls, Katherine has many variations, including Kasia (Polish), Ekaterina (Russian), and Kathleen (Irish). You may choose an ethnic variation to reflect your heritage, or perhaps on its own merits. (Just be careful when you pair the first name with your last name; you might get strange results like Juan Kowalski.)

With these techniques, you can stray a little or a lot from a popular name, depending on your comfort level and imagination. In the end, you may come up with a name that’s the best of both worlds.

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