From Classic to Cringe-Worthy: Baby Names and What Makes Them Popular

Celebrity DNA is spreading and the resulting unusual baby names are giving us the kind of water-cooler fodder we crave. This last year has brought us prized favorites such as Sparrow, Mars, Atlas, Dreavyn, Ikhyd (shown here with his mom, rapper M.I.A.), and the unforgettable Petal Blossom Rainbow, among others. (Want to see the celebrity names that make us cringe? Check out our list of the 10 most unusual baby names of 2009.)

Of course, we've also seen our share of more classic girl names coming from the stars like Sarah (Kiss' Paul Stanley and wife Erin Sutton) and Sophia (Jude Law and Samantha Burke), and All-American boy names like Bob (Charlie Sheen and wife Brooke Mueller) and John (Boston Legal's Julie Bowen and husband Scott Phillips). But somehow it's those unusual ones that seem to dominate Hollywood. Must be something about their love of attention.

Not so with the rest of us. A new study conducted by researchers from New York University and Indiana University, Bloomington took to task 127 years of naming trends from the Social Security Administration and found that once a name starts growing in popularity, we Americans take that momentum and run with it. Which helps explain why Michaels, Jacobs, Emmas, and Isabellas are starting to fill nurseries everywhere and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

That's because the study also discovered that name popularity trends have changed over the years. In the last century baby names that were popular one year generally waned the next. Everything changed starting in 1981, when popular names continued growing in popularity from year one to year two and on. In other words, popular names remain popular for longer now, which make parents more likely to choose them for their child, which carries out a self-perpetuating cycle of continued popularity.

"Parents in the United States are increasingly sensitive to the change in frequency of a name in recent time, such that names that are gaining in popularity are seen as more desirable than those that have fallen in popularity in the recent past," the authors wrote in the study, which appears online in Topics in Cognitive Science. "This bias then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: names that are falling continue to fall while names on the rise reach new heights of popularity, in turn influencing a new generation of parents."

That information should be comforting for new parents who are determined to choose an already popular name for their child, as well as those who want to find something more unique. While our fore-parents simply had just a year's window to keep up with the Joneses (or not) we have a bit more of a cushion in naming our children. Then again, you could ignore all the trends and tips and just do like some celebrities: make something up.

Share your views on baby naming trends with other parents and parents-to-be.