Choices these days seem guided as much by individual desires as by family and cultural traditions.
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Shirley Griffith. This week on our program, we talk about baby names in America.
Every year, more than 4 million babies are born in the United States.
Some parents name their children based on family, cultural or religious traditions. Girls are often named after a family member but rarely their mothers. Sons, though, are often named after their fathers.
George Foreman, the former heavyweight boxing champ, has 5 sons and 5 daughters. All of his sons are named George: George Junior, George the third, George the fourth, George the fifth and George the sixth. Even two of his daughters have George in their name: Freeda George Foreman and Georgetta Foreman. OK, so this is an extreme example.
So what are the most popular baby names in America? Every year the Social Security Administration releases a list. For boys, names from the Bible were again the leading choices last year.
Jacob was the most popular boy name for the 10th year. Michael spent a 10th year at number two. Michael had been the number one name for 38 years, from 1961 to 1998.
Ethan, Joshua and Daniel were also in the top 5. Next came Alexander, Anthony, William, Christopher and Matthew.
Last year Emma was the number one name for girls. Isabella was number two.
For 12 years the most popular name was Emily. But last year Emily fell to third, followed by Madison and Ava. The other names in the top ten were Olivia, Sophia, Abigail, Elizabeth and Chloe.
These days, the choice of a baby name seems to be guided as much by individual desires as by tradition. This is shown in the fact that the most popular baby names are not as popular as they used to be.
Researchers at San Diego State University in California did a study. They found that 32% of boys received one of the ten most popular names in 1955. The same was true for 22% of girls.
By 2007, however, the numbers were down to less than 10% of boys and only 8% of girls.
Cleveland Evans is an associate professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Nebraska. He is also an expert in onomastics -- the study of names and naming practices.
CLEVELAND EVANS: "People are more and more into finding unusual names. And now since we have the information on the Internet -- at least in the United States -- of what the most popular names are, the percentage of kids who get them actually is going down because people are able to avoid them much more successfully than they did before."
To get a better sense of the modern name game, we stopped some families out on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C.
MOTHER: "Hailey is the oldest. With her we wanted one that wasn't too popular. And at the time we were living in New Mexico and we didn't know anybody that was Hailey. And this is my daughter Caitlin and with this one we just liked the name."
MOTHER: "She's Elizabeth, after Elizabeth Taylor. I think my husband was in love with her."
MOTHER: "This is Derek and I have another son, Dillon. I basically looked through baby books and just found names that I thought were a little bit different. We named both of our kids with Ds. My husband starts with a D and I'm a D. And they're both Ds, so ...
MOTHER: "Stephanie Rafaella. She's named after my sister-in-law."
MOTHER: "Well I always liked the name Sebastian, so I wanted to name our older son Sebastian. And Jonathan, to be honest, was kind of random. But his middle name is Miles which is my mother's maiden name."
MOTHER: "Elizabeth is named after my grandmother. Daniel is named after Daniel in the Bible. And Zachary sounded wild and fun so we went with it."
Some parents choose names that really set their children apart.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, named their daughter Apple. They chose it, they said, because the fruit is sweet and wholesome. They chose a less unusual name for their son, Moses.
Singer Ashley Simpson and her husband, singer Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, named their son Bronx Mowgli Wentz. Bronx, after the area in New York City; Mowgli, from a character in "The Jungle Book" by Rudyard Kipling.
Some names can be used for either sex, like Sidney, Shawn, Alex and Taylor. Thirty years ago the name Taylor was much more likely to go to a boy than a girl. Today the opposite is true -- as evidenced by the young singer Taylor Swift.
Naming expert Cleveland Evans explains that many of these names were traditionally female or male at one time or another.
CLEVELAND EVANS: "For a couple hundred years we've had names which have switched gender but they almost always switch from male to female. Leslie and Ashley are examples of that. Now they are overwhelmingly female even though they started out as male. There aren't very many examples of names which are equally popular for both boys and girls for a really long period."
Unisex names can, of course, make it difficult to know if someone is male or female. Alex can be short for Alexander or the female version, Alexandra.
Charlie was last year's 307th most popular name for boys. But it also rose to the 736th most popular name for girls.
We met a woman on the National Mall whose nickname is Charlie. She was named after her father's only brother, who died a few years before she was born. She admits that her name has caused some problems.
WOMAN: "Actually my first name is Charles. When I was in the military they would always assume that somebody had mis-keyed the M versus the F [in personnel records] and would house me with a male roommate or such."
Sometimes a difference in spelling can identify whether the person with the name is male or female. This brings us to a question we received from China. A listener wanted to know if Billie Jean is considered a girl's name, or if it can be used as a boy's name.
You might remember Billie Jean King the women's tennis star. Of course "Billie Jean" is also one of Michael Jackson's best known songs. In fact, the question happened to arrive just a few days before the pop star died on June 25th.
Professor Evans had this advice for our listener.
CLEVELAND EVANS: "Well, that's one of those things that a little bit it depends on how you spell it. I would expect a male Billy Gene to be B-I-L-L-Y G-E-N-E and a female Billie Jean would be B-I-L-L-I-E J-E-A-N."
Traditionally, married women in the United States have taken their husband's last name. But now more and more are keeping their own family name. Some add their husband's last name at the end. Some couples even create a totally new name. But what happens when children arrive?
In some cases the child takes the mother's surname as a middle name and the father's name as the family name. Other times, the child may take on both names as a family name. But, this can create problems in the future.
What happens when Emma Isabella Brown Smith meets Jacob Michael Williams Jones? You see how this might be an issue.
Unlike some countries, the United States has no laws restricting what parents can name their children. And if adults decide they want another name, they can legally have it changed.
Parents can find plenty of advice on the Web and in bookstores about choosing a baby name. A lot has also been written about the possible effects that a name might have on a child's future.
There are studies that suggest children with unusual names are more likely to be teased. Other studies suggest that as adults, they might be less likely to get called for a job interview. Yet other research suggests that giving a child an unusual name might help build character.
What all this adds up to is a big responsibility for parents to consider what's really in a name. I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember. Archives of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com We leave you with more of the names we found on the National Mall. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
WOMAN: "Tre is named after his father David Glenn. But he's a third so that's how his nickname is Tre. Kaylee, we liked that name. We adopted her and in the hospital they gave her a name of Cali which we didn't like but we wanted to keep close to that.
WOMAN: "Caroline was a name that we liked. We found it in a baby book. And then Michael we named after my husband's good friend and my father."
WOMAN: "Carla Marie. This is Ashley Lyn and William David. Carla was from a friend. William was from my husband's uncle and Ashley we just picked."
MAN: "My mother's was Virginia so we named after her and my wife Caty's middle name is Allison. So we took my mother's name and her name.
WOMAN: "He is a third so, and I didn't like Trip or Tre, so Tres had it. I always like the name Reagan and I'm kind of a Ronald Reagan fan, so, voila, here she came along. And this one, I was skiing out in Salt Lake City and the name of a building out there was Reid -- with R-E-I-D -- and it sounded good at the time."