Choosing a baby name can be a long and emotional process involving hours spent poring over lists, debating with family members and fantasizing about the kind of person you may raise. So, it should come as no surprise that people can get quite territorial about their choices of baby names, real and hypothetical.
In fact, many have lamented “baby name theft” ― a phenomenon whereby a friend or relative “steals” a baby name you either had your heart set on or already gave to your child. This topic has been the subject of personal essays, national surveys, Reddit threads, satirical articles and even some iconic TV moments.
In a Season One episode of “Sex and the City,” the four protagonists attend an old friend’s baby shower, where they learn that the mom-to-be has “stolen” Charlotte’s secret made-up baby name, Shayla.
In an episode of Seinfeld, George Constanza shares his aspiration to name his future child Seven after Mickey Mantle’s jersey number ― only to have Susan’s pregnant cousin use that idea for her baby. On “Friends,” Rachel famously picks Monica’s favorite baby girl name, Emma, for her daughter.
In these pop culture examples, the “robbed” characters’ reactions to baby name theft range from total outrage to warm support. Similarly, in real life, people have mixed opinions about the idea of someone choosing a baby name they already used or plan to use.
Moms and dads shared their experiences with this phenomenon in response to a callout on the HuffPost Parents Facebook page, which was inundated with “theft” anecdotes involving friends, family members and coworkers.
“I had two separate first cousins name their children the same (non-family) name/nickname as one of my children within the first couple of years after she was born,” Fawn Sisk wrote. “A girl I went to high school with named her son Bryson after I named mine Bryson and then named her daughter Skylar after I named mine Skylah,” commented Holly Harvey.
“I told my best friend I was strongly considering naming my baby Kaitlyn if it was a girl. My friend was like, ‘Oh, no! That’s a terrible name! Please don’t name her Kaitlyn!’ I did have a girl. I did not name her Kaitlyn,” said Anne-Barrie Hunter. “Ten years later, my friend has a baby girl. What did she name her? Kaitlyn.”
Another commenter, Kat Deeds, wrote that she and her sister were pregnant with baby boys around the same time and openly planned to name their sons Ethan and Austin, respectively. After their mother declared that she hated the name Austin, however, Deeds’ sister instead used Ethan for her son, who was born first. “I cried for two days and then said screw it and still named my son Ethan,” Deeds wrote.
There were also several stories about ex-partners picking specific baby names they had discussed during their relationship when they went on to have children with new partners. Two commenters shared examples of would-be grandparents who gave baby names that were shared with them to their dogs. And one person had a friend who used her baby name idea as stage name while working as a stripper.
Why People Care
Of course, as multiple parents noted, the notion of baby name theft is a “first world problem,” and it’s not really possible to “steal” a name.
“Imagine being so entitled that you think you own a name,” wrote Haley Potter in the most-liked comment on the thread. “Come on folks, even Abcde is taken,” said Lindsay Harp.
Still, there’s a reason people lament these experiences: It feels very personal.
“We have an emotional attachment to the names we select,” etiquette expert Diane Gottsman told HuffPost. “Parents are very attached to names for reasons that range from wanting to honor a family member, like a grandmother or favorite uncle, to idolizing someone like a mentor or important movie star.” Gottsman also pointed to a friend who was named Paris because her parents loved the city and got married there.
“When someone else comes in and uses that name, it feels like a theft,” said Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “However, a name is not intellectual property. Anybody can use a name, and while you have an emotional reaction to it, you can’t really steal a name. But it feels like a stab.”
The Family Name Issue
The desire to honor a loved one is a very meaningful approach to baby names. But in many families, it can cause conflicts.
“I told my sister-in-law we were naming our next child after my husband’s grandmother who had just passed away,” Shanelle Co-He told HuffPost. “Neither one of us were pregnant at the time. She got pregnant first and told me the name she picked. I told her we had claimed it already, and she said ‘Well, I’m pregnant first, so I’m using it.’”
Melissa Beager shared what it’s like to be on the other side of that sort of situation. “I am very close with my grandmother. She is my kindred spirit. When I found out I was having a girl I immediately wanted to name her after my grandmother. My husband agreed. Instant name!” she wrote, adding that her sister then declared she wanted to use it if she had another daughter and demanded that Beager choose something else. “I named my daughter after Grandma anyway. No name saving!”
Gottsman advised those who wish to use a specific family name to let their relatives know in advance and be prepared for some duplicates. If another family member has already picked that person’s name, be sensitive in informing them of your intentions.
“Say, ‘If we have a girl, we’re going to name her Victoria as well, because Grandma was so special to me and it’s important to me,’” Gottsman suggested. “Think about how there can be so many Davids in one family or so many Stephens. Those names may well evolve over time ― one little girl might go as Tori, one might go as Vicky. And what an honor for an aunt or grandparent, who is alive or has passed on, to have multiple children named for her.”
Several HuffPost Parents community members expressed similar sentiments. “I have two cousins. Both have sons named Daniel. Their grandfather was Daniel. You can’t own a name,” Nancy Marie Whipple noted. “After my brother died in an accident, three of us all used his name as our kids’ middle names,” wrote Karyn Rooney Ochiuzzo.
In many cultures, it’s common for family members to use the same baby names.
“In Greek tradition, you name your first boy and girl after the husband’s mother and father,” Elpida Halaris D’Itri explained. “My dad is one of four. Three of them had girls, and we are all called Elpida. So when we were all young and grandma was still alive, there were four Elpida Halarises at every family gathering lol. And that’s just one of the repeating names. Lots more in my family haha!”
This tradition is apparent in a scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in which the protagonist’s father introduces the whole family to their new in-laws.
How To Respond To ‘Theft’
While many people don’t mind if a loved one copies their baby name choice, it’s clear others have stronger feelings. The question is ― how should one deal with those emotions?
“If you feel hurt or angry, you can just diplomatically express your feelings to the other person. You certainly don’t want to do it with any intent to upset the person, but honesty is the best policy,” international etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore said. “It’s not going to make them change the baby name or anything, but it might alleviate some of the tension that you have between each other.”
Gottsman noted that there isn’t much you can do after the baby is born, but if you know the name in advance, you can certainly talk to the parents about your feelings.
“If you know that somebody is going to name their baby the same name you’ve chosen, you can say ‘Gosh I have to tell you I’m kind of taken aback because that was a special name to me. How can we compromise on this? What can we do?’” she said. ”But realize there may be nothing because that conversation can go the other way around.”
Ultimately, it’s important to consider if this was done intentionally and maliciously, and if it’s worth ruining your relationship with the other person. “If it was malicious, then there are probably bigger issues beyond just the name,” said Gottsman.
It’s also helpful to realize that many people in your life will probably have a version of a name you like, but you can differentiate your choice with a special middle name or nickname.
Gottsman and Whitmore both advised people who have strong feelings about baby name theft to keep their name ideas to themselves until after they give birth.
“If you have a name that’s really special to you, hedge your bets and don’t share it ― because someone is going to hear it and even subconsciously save it,” Gottsman explained. “We oftentimes don’t even remember where we heard something or got an idea, and then it becomes part of our everyday thinking. You’re not keeping it from someone because you don’t trust them. But you’re protecting something near and dear to you.”
The Right Way To ‘Steal’
There are diplomatic ways to face someone who sees you as a “baby name thief,” especially if you want to preserve your relationship.
“If you were planning on choosing the same name or something similar to your best friend, I don’t know if you’d have to ask permission because there is no copyright on baby names,” Whitmore explained. “But maybe out of courtesy, let that person know that you adore that name as well and that you would like to name your baby the same thing or something similar. Ask how they feel about that to cover your bases.”
Multiple parents who responded to HuffPost’s Facebook callout expressed their appreciation for friends who asked if it would be OK to copy their baby name choices for their children. While they welcomed the considerate gesture, many noted that it wasn’t a necessity. “You don’t own a name ... [But] I thought it was nice that she asked,” wrote Stephanie Alp.
Of course, all parents can name their children whatever they want. In the end, it’s about doing what feels best for their families and choosing something special to them. “You can only hope you’re doing it out of true love for that name and not a competition,” said Gottsman.
If a friend or relative is unhappy with your similar baby name choice, it’s best to address the conflict.
“You can say something like, ‘I know you’re upset with me, and I understand your feelings. But this name means something to me. It’s special to me,‘” she advised. “You don’t have to justify too terribly much, but you can say ‘I don’t want this to harm our friendship. I hope our relationship can get past this.’”
That said, unless your friend’s baby name also happens to be incredibly special to you, it may be better to simply think about alternative options.
“There is a level of respect,” Gottsman said. “It’s kind of like ‘I got there first.’ It’s all about consideration and compromise.” And if you are adamant about your baby name choice, having a conversation with your friend or family member shows that consideration. Plus, when you look at the big picture, it’s not the end of the world to have two Jacks in a family or friend group.
The Upside Of ‘Theft’
There are positive ways to view someone “stealing” your name choice.
“You can approach it with the attitude that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Whitmore. “Therefore it would be flattering to me that someone would want to name their child the same thing I wanted.”
Many parents told HuffPost they would love to hear of friends giving their child’s name to a new baby because they enjoy it so much.
“It’s an honor that someone thinks the name you gave your child is so beautiful they want it too,” Liz Maestas Roybal wrote.
There may also be a fun element of “great minds think alike.” Commenter Paul Firth wrote that he and his wife were expecting around the same time as his brother and his wife. Firth had a daughter, and six months later his brother welcomed a son.
“In a weird crossover moment, we found out ... that we had [our nephew’s] name in mind if we had a boy, and my brother and his wife were considering our daughter’s name if they had a girl,” Firth explained. “We hadn’t discussed names with each other before kids were born!”
Two separate commenters said they have the same names as their first cousins because both siblings loved the name.
“It’s funny to see on social media, especially when we like each others posts. It’s like I’m friends with myself and I like my own posts,” said Georgina Barba.
Another upside to baby name theft? Your child may be grateful for it some day.
“My aunt and uncle named my older cousin the name my parents had said they liked for a girl, and I’m REALLY glad they did because I like my name so much better,” said Chloé Danielle Renou. “My aunt stole my mother’s name for me, and can I just say, I’ve never been happier that happened because I hated the name,” Jeanne Marie commented before revealing the “stolen” name in question: Lynzee Lynn.
While baby name theft can be an emotional topic, it’s important to keep things in perspective. After all, parenthood brings forth a number of issues and challenges that make baby name concerns feel trivial in the long run.
“I”m not discrediting any upset feelings,” said Gottsman. “But there are going to be a lot of things parents are going to have to deal with down the line that are more serious than this.”
Also on HuffPost
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.