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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As part of our childbirth series, Beginnings, we're going to consider a parental dilemma that predates the big day. We're talking about the brain wracking, anxiety-producing, got-to-get-it-right task for parents-to-be that's settling on a name for a newborn.

The popular TV comedy "Friends" captured the drama in that decision. On a show, Phoebe proposes that Ross and Rachel have the option to veto five baby names, each. Rachel makes the first suggestion.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Friends")

Ms. JENNIFER ANISTON (Actor): (as Rachel) If it's a girl, Rain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID SCHWIMMER (Actor): (as Dr. Ross Geller) Veto.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANISTON: (as Rachel) Why?

Mr. SCHWIMMER: (as Dr. Ross Geller) Rain? Hi. Hi, my name is Rain. I have my own kiln, and my dress is made out of wheat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, from there, things start to get a little out of hand.

Ms. ANISTON: (as Rachel) How about Dayton?

Mr. SCHWIMMER: (as Dr. Ross Geller) Veto. Stewart?

Ms. ANISTON: (as Rachel) Veto. Sawyer?

Mr. SCHWIMMER: (as Dr. Ross Geller) Veto. Helen?

Ms. ANISTON: (as Rachel) Veto.

Ms. LISA KUDROW (Actor): (as Phoebe) Is it me, or is veto starting to sound really good?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, called up Laura Wattenberg. She fancies herself a bit of a baby name wizard. In fact, that's the name of her website. She's got a popular blog, and she's written a book also called "The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby." And she says it's hard for parents to find just the right name because the way children are named has changed.

Ms. LAURA WATTENBERG (Author, "The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby"): For centuries, English speakers chose the same names generation after generation. You had your Johns and Marys and James and Elizabeths. Over the last 50 years, there has been a revolution. Naming is wide-open today, and there is no normal.

We're seeing a lot more creativity with invention, with spellings. And what that's created is a situation where most of us don't like each other's names. There's a lot more baby name hostility out there because our choices are so diverse.

NORRIS: Baby name hostility, define that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATTENBERG: There's name rage in the streets. People write in to us raging against what their neighbors name their babies. Everyone wants to be different. That's the number one thing we all have in common, is we don't want to be anything like one another.

The problem is that our tastes are just as similar as they ever were. So what you're seeing is a lot of tiny variations on a theme. The Aden, Braden, Caden generation. In fact, today, a third of all American boys get a name ending in the letter N.

NORRIS: And it seems like a lot of girls get a name ending in the letter A; Hanna, Sophia, Isabella, on and on and on.

Ms. WATTENBERG: A has always been the top letter for girls' names. But today, there's a feeling that you can put almost anything before it, just put an A at the end and you have an acceptable name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: What about popular culture - movies or sport?

Ms. WATTENBERG: Parents will take names wherever they find them. So you'll even see a destructive hurricane, which you would think would be a terrible association for baby name, actually encourages the use of that name. All it takes is that pregnant woman to say, Katrina, you know, that's actually kind of a pretty name.

NORRIS: Really?

Ms. WATTENBERG: If the name is attractive. If it's a Camille or an Isabel instead of a Floyd, the name will rise.

NORRIS: That's so interesting. You know, it sounds like there's sometimes mysteries. I remember reading a story about a cohort of young people who were all named Gage, and no one could figure out what that was about. And it turned out that it had something to do with a secondary character on a popular American television series.

Ms. WATTENBERG: Today, Gage is part of another mini name phenomenon, which is movies about demonic children. If you have a movie with a really cute tot who was possessed by the devil, that is a recipe for a fashionable name. Gage, Reagan, Adrian, these all were spawned by horror movies.

NORRIS: You're kidding. I thought like maybe like a movie like "Damien," that parents would run on the other direction, never want to name their kids that.

Ms. WATTENBERG: Damien is 100 percent the product of "The Omen." Until then, almost no Americans chose that name.

NORRIS: Are there differences in terms of ethnic names? Is there sort of a blending or a cross blending, or are there sort of separate and parallel universes?

Ms. WATTENBERG: Well, parents are more willing to use ethnic names. There was a time when immigrant parents automatically chose an English name for their children to give them an advantage. Today, we're actually seeing second and third generation immigrants are turning back to their grandparents' homeland and choosing names from other cultures for their children.

NORRIS: And what happened to all other names that used to be popular? Where did all the Bettys and Mildreds, the Shirleys go, or for boys, the Homers, the Seymours? Why is no one named Prudence anymore?

Ms. WATTENBERG: We see about a 100-year cycle. What you're looking at is your great-grandparents' generation. So our own names are too ordinary, our parents are too boring, our grandparents sound old. But when you get back to your great-grandparents, you actually never were surrounded by those names, so they sound fresh again.

NORRIS: Laura Wattenberg, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Ms. WATTENBERG: My pleasure.

NORRIS: That's Laura Wattenberg. She's the author of "The Baby Name Wizard." And you can see last year's most popular names and help one woman and her husband name their baby on NPR's Baby Project blog. That's at npr.org/babyproject.

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