He could have been an Ethelwulf, Ocumwhowurst, Hildebrand, or Xiuhcoatl. Or maybe we should call him Powder, Ruff, Mystery, or Money. The book of 100,001 "best baby names" that we had spent so much time working through over the past few months certainly could not be blamed for a lack of ideas.
But as our newborn son lay in his hospital cot, my husband needed only one look at his face to tell what his name should be. We had already drawn up a shortlist and decided to wait until he made his entrance into the world before determining which best suited him.
"He's an Alfie," my husband declared confidently after perusing our squirming pink offspring, and I concurred wholeheartedly. Neither of us could explain why, but he just looked like an Alfie. Besides, it sounded cute.
It was admittedly not the most scientific of methods, but considering the book contained lists of names under headings such as Muppets characters, pirate names, literary villains, mob names, rednecks, couch potatoes, and dorks, we believe we took a reasonably responsible path.
And we were mindful in choosing it that – hard as it is to believe at the moment – there will come a day when Alfie will no longer pass as "cute." So as he strides down Wall Street in his pinstriped suit, peers down from the Supreme Court bench, or takes his first steps on Mars, he can abbreviate his name to Alf, should he feel it lends a little more gravitas.
It is the kind of consideration that increasing numbers of parents are making, with weeks now spent trawling lists of suggested names and mulling over how each sounds, how it looks on paper, how it is perceived, and, most important, whether it will be setting up its recipient for success, failure, or ridicule in later life. And the process of selection is something they are no longer necessarily doing alone and for free.
Jennifer Moss, of Los Angeles, receives dozens of requests each week for her advice in naming children that have not yet been born and receives 1.5 million hits a month on her website, BabyNames.com. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong web addess.]
For $95, prospective parents can buy a half-hour telephone consultation in which they describe what they are looking for in a name, and Moss and her colleagues research some options, brainstorm ideas, and produce a list of suggestions.
"Parents are branching out now, wanting to choose more unique names. They want names with solid meaning and some background," she says. "The one thing we hear here over and over is, 'I don't want my child to be one of 10 of the same name in their class.' "
While many are making a return to traditional 20th century girls' names such as Hannah, Olivia, and Isabella, and veering sharply away from the Chelseys, Ashleys – and, in particular, Britneys – of recent years, one of the latest trend in boys names is for those with Celtic and Irish origins, like Aidan and Logan.
But the 21st century has also spawned new creativity as parents groom their little cherubs for professional success.
"They are using family surnames as first names [Kennedy, Mackenna, Cooper] and girls are getting more unisex names that will put them on a more level playing field with the boys – Jordan's becoming more popular. We rarely see any more Tiffanies, which aren't really a CEO kind of name," says Moss, who admits that she had doubts when she first launched her personal naming service. "I thought, 'Who's going to want to pay us to help name their baby?' But a lot of people really need an outside, third-party, independent input. I was surprised at the demand."
Users also post questions on her site's message board, such as "I am thinking about the name Crow for a boy. I truly like it, but many people have told me that they hate it ... should I not use it?" And: "What do you think of the girls' names Athens and Italy? Are place names overrated or underrated?"
It's not just children's names that people are taking a deeper interest in. It's also their own. Former teacher Mary Ann Korwitts, of Chicago, was 30 before deciding that she just wasn't a Mary Ann, which conferred to her a prim and retiring image. She tweaked her name to Maryanna, feels that her life has been enhanced considerably as a result, and now works as a nameologist helping others to do the same.
"There's a real awakening to what names do. People understand there's a secret quality to names – they play a role in shaping our personalities," she explains. "As people go through different stages of life, they reconsider, like I did. People would shorten my name to Mary, which never felt right – I was dramatically shy when I was younger and couldn't say two words to anybody. After I changed my name, my life changed dramatically."
Her three children all adjusted their names, too, either for the way they looked or how they sounded. Oldest daughter Katherine was a Katie until fifth grade when she decided it looked too "harsh" and softened the spelling to Kaytey, then at college to Kayte for a more "responsible" look.
Middle daughter Maria felt that her name came with psychological baggage – "it's a name that brings a lot of emotion and a lot of difficulty in relationships," Ms. Korwitts reasons, so when she reached high school she reinvented herself as Moneca.
Meanwhile, son Jae decided that his name looked unbalanced with just three letters, so he added one more to make Jaeh.
"Just as the way a person dresses and grooms themselves can affect how they are perceived socially, their name has a very similar impact," notes Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of "The Baby Name Report Card." "The reaction your name prompts from other people can help form your personality."
In studies, he asked people to ponder lists of names and award each a score in five set categories: ethical/caring, popular/fun, successful, masculine/feminine, and overall attractiveness. The results helped him to produce a comprehensive profile of the kind of positive or negative impression each name conveys.
For example, Chad scored consistently high in all categories, while Bud ranked low – including a zero in the "successful" category. Chads are more likely to have a secure self-image, be regarded more positively by others, and be treated well at school and work than Buds, Dr. Mehrabian concluded. And names with gravitas, such as Katherine and Alexander, are more likely to be considered corporate high-fliers than Fifi, Brandy, or Dixie.
"Maybe parents are taking naming more seriously, but then there are those who mistakenly have this idea that they have to assign a unique name to their child and are spending a lot of time and effort hunting down or creating one, when research shows that less common names have less impact," says the professor.
The worst names he has encountered include Fayle, Farm, and Latrina for girls, and Cobra, Jane, and Swindle for boys – "equivalent in intensity to the effects of dressing a boy in girls' clothing, or dying a child's hair blue or pink," he states in his findings.
As Alfie ventures into the world, his name may raise eyebrows in America. It does not feature anywhere in the top 1,000 names compiled by the US Social Security Administration, and few appear to have heard of it since the 1966 film of the same name, in which Michael Caine plays a roguish ladies' man.
But in Britain, where we are from, it was the 16th most popular boys name last year and has more innocent connotations. Alfie, a derivation of Alfred, means "one who counsels the elves."