By Tiffany Markman – Writing Trainer and Copywriter

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and his partner, musician Grimes, recently named their firstborn child X Æ A-12. You can imagine the backlash. Maybe they’ll replace it with something a little more conventional, we wondered…

And they did.

In a subsequent Instagram post, Grimes confirmed that the baby formerly known as X Æ A-12 would be known as X Æ A-Xii.

Subscribe to our Free Daily All4Women Newsletter to enter

What the hell?

Dr Jean M Twenge says that this trend is part of the “barreling freight train of individualism” (2016).

I mean, Sage Moonblood, Pilot Inspektor and Moon Unit are the names of the children of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Lee, and Frank Zappa, respectively.

Then, there’s Uma Thurman’s child, the unfortunate Rosalind Arusha Arkadina Altalune Florence Thurman-Busson. And more recently, there’s Denim, Future, Sparrow, Kyd, Bronx Mowgli, River Rocket, Reignbeau, Blue Ivy, and twins Sir and Rumi and Monroe and Moroccan. All this, and I haven’t even reached the army of mini Kardashian-Jenners.

Celebrities are saying, with their baby naming, that ordinary rules need not apply. And as it turns out, there’s psychology behind it.

The psychology of baby naming

One of the defining moments in a person’s life – alongside conception, childbirth, and death – is the one when that person is named. Names are more than arbitrary labels that prove useful for telling one’s children apart, or warning someone on the pavement to watch out for an oncoming taxi.

Names, say Christenfeld and Larsen (2008), serve to “capture and shape the individual”. And there are various ways in which this could happen; the most straightforward being through the meaning of the names themselves. That is, people called Melody could be drawn to making music and people called Gold to the jewellery trade. I once knew an artist whose surname was Painter.

This sort of influence is called ‘nominative determinism’, of which the world and the Internet are packed with examples. But the easiest way a name can influence its bearer is by affecting where he/she stands in the ‘line’ of life.

Research (Konnikova, 2013) suggests that names can influence the marks we earn at school, where we live, who we marry, our profession, the equities we invest in, the charities we support, whether we’re hired for a particular job or accepted into a society, and the quality of our work in a group setting.

So, back to baby naming – which is, in many cases “a proxy for the parents’ philosophy on life in general. The parent who says ‘I want my kid to stand out’ will probably have a parenting style that emphasises uniqueness and standing out. So it ends up building on itself,” explains Twenge (2016).

Could this explain why, in online forums for expectant mothers (of which I’ve participated in my fair share), so many women say things like, “I want him to be different”, and “She mustn’t be one of three Emmas in her class…”

Some parents are determined to have a one-of-a-kind name for their kids – ranging from the misspelled to the, literally, inside-out. Take Trebor, which is Robert in reverse, and Legna, which is Angel backwards, says Molloy (2017).

The eccentricity of the high-profile

Normal, human, non-celeb parents may try to choose a name that will help their child get ahead in the world by emulating a famous person or conjuring up a powerful image. A global icon may inspire parents to hope their children will have the same qualities, and so they’ll use that name (Whitbourne, 2016).

This explains why you’d call your kid Theresa (as in Mother, not May), Nelson (as in Mandela, not Admiral) or Barack (no explanation needed, I hope).

But it doesn’t, at least for me, explain wacky celeb choices like Blanket (Michael Jackson’s child), Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow’s), Kal-El (Nicholas Cage’s), Scout Larue (Bruce Willis & Demi Moore’s) or Zuma Nesta Rock (Gwen Stefani’s). That is, til you go down the psychological rabbit-hole…

…into parenthood. One of humankind’s deepest traditions and something our society presents as the primary focus of life. If you’re a rockstar, having a kid is deeply uncool, so you have to call it Fifi Trixiebelle, like Bob Geldof did.

Donaldson (2018) explains this wonderfully when she says: “As much as we mock the storybook names or the rockstar homages or the general reclaiming of random nouns, we also crave it on some level. It reassures us that those people are indeed totally different from the rest of us. The divide between celebrities and us so-called normal people is a strange, liminal space… There are things we expect from the famous: higher levels of cash-flow, increased scrutiny on their daily lives, and a tendency to do things that are a bit strange to everyone else.”

Take Penn Jillette (who has a weird name all on its own). He’s the American magician, actor and TV personality who’s best known for his work with fellow magician Teller. And his daughter’s name is Moxie Crimefighter.

“You’re likely to be the only one in any normal-size group with that name,” he says (in Williams, 2006). Moxie [means] ‘chutzpah’. Everyone I know with an unusual name loves it. It’s only the losers named Dave that think having an unusual name is bad, and who cares what they think. They’re named Dave.”

Elon Musk & Grimes change their son’s name to comply with birth certificate law

Ultimately, the bonfire of the vanities

Okay, so here’s my sense:

A lot of this baby-naming lunacy is sheer ego. If you’re rich enough, famous enough and ‘special’ enough, it seems to follow that your child deserves to be able to go by only one name in life, like Cher and Elvis and Madonna did.

Think Apple or Psalm or X Æ A-Xii, who’ll probably be called ‘Jack’ at home.

There’s a sense of “I’m different, and therefore my child is different,” says Jenn Berman, a clinical psychologist operating out of Beverly Hills.

Stuart Fischoff, a Hollywood psychologist, agrees, “To settle for a tedious name for a [celebrity] child would be a form of spiritual surrender. It would be very embarrassing for people to think of them as normal” (in Williams, 2016.)

In fact, I can’t sum this up better than Pamela Redmond Satran, author of multiple baby-name books, who explains (in Bologna, 2018) that, for famous people, baby naming is a kind of competitive impulse, “…like anorexia. Anyone can be thin. The famous just have to be thinner…”

About the author

Having written copy for over 400 top global brands in the last 15 years, Tiffany Markman is also proud to have delivered training to 10 000+ students at diverse companies and institutions in more than 12 countries. She specialises in web copy, company profiles, digital and social content, marketing material, radio commercials and corporate videos, and is a regular contributor to MarkLivesBizCommunity, and Medium on the topics of communication, branding, training and media.