What’s in a name? More than you can imagine. You have to consider connotations, denotations, playground stone-throwing potential and other weighty issues.

Basically, the baby-naming game is pretty much what you suspected when you first heard you were going to be a parent— a gigantic responsibility. The name you choose can give that kid 20 years to life (in jail) or pump him up to amazing heights.

It’s important. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

So, should you go with something safe (Jane or Michael), something cutesy (Scout or Spike) or something super-sophisticated (Caroline or Blake)? Or should you bend to the peer pressure of trendy?

Just FYI, the top names for boys in 2002, according to the Social Security Administration, were: 1. Jacob, 2. Michael, 3. Joshua, 4. Matthew, 5. Ethan, 6. Joseph, 7. Andrew, 8. Christopher, 9. Daniel, 10. Nicholas.

For girls: 1. Emily, 2. Madison, 3. Hannah, 4. Emma, 5. Alexis, 6. Ashley, 7. Abigail, 8. Sarah, 9. Samantha, 10. Olivia.

What it takes to snag a top-ten placement nationally is that many, many parents have to choose that particular name. For example, in 2002, there were 30,122 boy babies named Jacob; and there were 24,262 girl babies named Emily.

Perhaps, on the other hand, you hate the notion of ‘playing it safe’ when it comes to naming your baby. You prefer an off-the-wall moniker— one that will make your friends and family say “Wow, where did you get that name?” or “Hey, that’s original” or “Yikes, that’s weird!”

However, before you start racking up kudos for creativity, take a minute to factor in the bullying potential of a wacky name. The boy you name “Eagle” or “Rambo” will have more trouble in school than your average Eddie, Dylan or Caleb.

That’s not to say that everyone who has a magically “different” name is destined for trouble. Madonna did fine, and so did Cher. I once met an everyday guy named King Solomon who pulled off major success without letting his name hold him back.

But there are times when an overpowering, hard-to-pronounce name can definitely work against someone. At a homeless center recently, I met a Maffrietta, whose unusual name hadn’t helped her one bit.

Many people argue that the person makes the name, while others who grew up Hortense, Pity or Pembroke will tell you that the name makes the life, and not always in a good way. If you hate your name, it can be like carting around the entire Amtrak baggage compartment, and most of us find life challenging enough.

The problem with a rough name is that it can cause a number of problems. Teachers can’t pronounce difficult names so they rarely say them, which isn’t good for a child’s self-esteem (everyone likes to hear his name). Kids avoid saying the name or ridicule it and can’t spell it, either. The upshot is that the child may feel less important than other kids because the name doesn’t “fit,” and he may become rather introverted or insecure. He wishes you’d named him Jake instead of Declan; she’d kill to be Samantha rather than Aleithea.

On the flip side of that coin, people say names that they like. The result is that the child named Taylor or Amanda winds up feeling good about herself; she equates hearing her name with endorsement and acceptance.

So, if you happen to be in the baby-naming frame of mind, here are some things to weigh into your decision-making process.

  • Consider the shortened version of the name because that may be what other kids call your child. In other words, Nathaniel will be “Nate.” Matilda will be “Matty.”
  • Ask yourself if the name sets up your child for bullying. One mom tells of naming her daughter “Hurricane” because she was born during a storm, but kids at school will probably rename her Rainy, Windy, Noisy and Tornado.
  • Understand the repercussions of an unusual name. The mother of a boy named Steele says her son likes his tough name but when he’s introduced, people always say, “What?” That’s going to be the response if you give your child a name that isn’t commonly perceived as “A First Name.” The same goes for fun names like Season (for a girl), Rock (for a boy) and so on.
  • Ask yourself if being viewed as a Clever Baby Namer is worth sticking your baby daughter with something really weird, such as a combo name made of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise, as in Dijonnaise. Maybe not.
  • Think of how the first name sounds with the last name. If your surname is Nail, is Rusty the best choice for your boy? If you’re from the Hogg family, do you really want to name your daughter Ima?
  • Try to project the notion of your child going through life with that name at ages 5, 10, 20, 49 and 70. It’s one thing to be a Mike, another to be Mingo. A girl may seem cute at 4 with the name Honey or Schmoopie but will that name work as well when she’s 68?
  • If you want something different but don’t want to go too far out on a limb, consider one of the “safe trends,” such as using names from other countries. New to America (from Scandinavia) are Anique for a girl, Anders for a boy. A trend that’s going strong and pleases many families is using a family name as a first name. Girls are being named Mackenzie, Parker, Halen; and boys, Cooper, Miner, Wylie, Fowler.
  • Tough names are cool for boys— Stone, Vin, Rocco, Jett, Spike, Tolf. One-syllable male names are also big— Max, Kai and Sam.
  • Formerly ugly names that are back in today for girls are: Abby, Alma, Belle, Betsy, Juniper, Kay, Polly, Kyla, Laverne, Loretta and Trudy. For boys, the ugly names being “reborn” and anointed cool are: Hughie, Homer, Simon, Charlie, Dexter, Chester, Clem, Duke, Wyatt, Oscar and Atticus.
  • Watch out for names that are on the way out or too “heavy” to be assets. Some pretty names that are now “out” are: Debbie, Suzy, Cheryl, Kathy, Darlene; and for boys, Todd, Mark, Bill, Terry and Tim. Over-the-top boy names to avoid are: Achilles, Adonis, Aristotle, Eagle, Jock, Lancelot, Rip, Stormy and Titan. Over-the-top girl names to avoid include: Aphrodite, Glaze, Blossom, Desire, Fashion, Jezebel, Honesty, Chastity, Purity, Tempest.
  • Rethink the idea of making your baby a namesake. A kid named after a parent may not like being “Junior” or “Little Sam.” Also, you can ask anyone who has been in that position about the confusion in regard to credit cards and other I.D. information. Psychiatrists say that giving a child his very own name is a better jumpstart than making your child a mini-me.
  • Scrutinize the initials. Don’t think schoolmates will fail to pick up on the initials S.C.U.M. or B.U.M.
  • Audition the names you’re considering. Try out “Paris, don’t forget your blanket!” or “Hannibal, eat your fava beans!”
  • Keep the name a secret! You may want to go underground with the name after you make your selection. Well-meaning friends and relatives can’t stop themselves from mercilessly bombarding you with ideas, but this is (luckily) a couple call. You get to go with the one you like.

Basically, you can have at your fingertips all the names in the world, but it always comes down to what feels right. You’re going to be saying, chanting, singing, cooing, whispering, calling, that name. Make it one you really, truly like.

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