The two times that Gwendolyn Schlatter was pregnant, the search for a name for her children took on the monumentous importance afforded to tasks such as preparing the NASA space shuttle for flight.

She and her husband scanned the California birth records. They checked out Fortune magazine's annual ranking of the country's top 500 corporations and the names of their leaders. They purchased baby naming books. They went online to research the meanings of various names.

And the fruits of all that labor? James and John. A pair of names that by most modern Bay Area standards are fairly, well, ordinary.

"We didn't want to do a trendy name," says Schlatter, 36, who lives in Castro Valley with James, 4, and John, 16 months. "And the funny thing is, as traditional as people think James and John are, we hardly know any other kids with those names. There was a John in my older son's school last year. It was a real anomaly. It was like, 'Wow. You named your son John, too?'"

It wasn't intentional, but through her exhaustive meticulous research, Schlatter stumbled onto a concept that modern-day parents are slowly learning: that naming their baby a so-called traditional name in today's cultural climate may be the most unusual naming strategy of all.

Because while today's parents seem dead set against naming their children any regular old Plain Jane names in a quest for their baby to stand out, be an individual and not share a name with the hoi polloi, most of these vain searches for the exotic and quixotic result in whole classrooms of kids with the same names. Such as Hunter. Dylan. Cody. Wyatt. Joshua. Aaliyah. Emma. Madeline. Madeleine. Madalynn. Madelyn.

Each of these names was among the most popular for the year 2006, according to the Social Security Administration.

"There's definitely a convergence on names," says Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. "A parent will get this mentality: 'I want to do something rare and exotic.' But they don't want to make up a name. Or maybe they can't. So they move on to, say, a celebrity name. Say, Beyonce. Well, a lot of people are going to think exactly the same way. Creativity only goes so far. And the next thing you know, there are 1,000 little girls named Beyonce."

Lakoff, author of 2001's "The Language War," obviously knows whereof she speaks. Several of today's most popular baby names have their roots in celebrity: The name Aaliyah ranked 211th in the Social Security records in 2000, but after the R&B singer of the same name died in 2001, the name soared to 96th. The name Emma, while popular in 2001 with a ranking of 13th, zoomed to the second most popular girl's baby name in 2003, just one year after the fictitious birth of Emma, the baby of Jennifer Aniston's character Rachel, on the sitcom "Friends." The name Dylan likely found its seeds of popularity back in 1990, when then-teenagers, and now-parents, were introduced to Dylan McKay, Luke Perry's character on "Beverly Hills, 90210." Dylan ranked 115th in 1989 before the show aired; it ranked an all-time high of 19th in 2003 and 2004.

Lakoff says people tend to arrive at the same baby names in a perverse attempt to avoid what historically seems ordinary. What's perverse is that the ordinary, under those circumstances, all of sudden becomes unusual.

"When a name has been popular for a long time, it does seem ho-hum," says Lakoff. "Parents say, 'I don't want 1,000 other babies named John.' So then they say, 'Maybe it's time for something else.' It's a reaction to the times. Everything is mass-produced, it's hard to find individually made things. People have a need to express individuality, and it's hard to express individuality when there are millions just like you. When you have a kid, you want that kid to be different too. So parents try to put their stamp on it in that way. They don't want to be ordinary."

Of course, ordinary, when it comes to baby names, is all relative. For the sake of some sort of chronological symmetry, and the purposes of this story, ordinary, or traditional, names might be considered to be the top 10 boys and girls names from 70 years ago. For boys that's Robert, James, John, William, Richard, Charles, Donald, David, Thomas and George. For girls, that's Mary, Barbara, Patricia, Shirley, Betty, Carol, Nancy, Dorothy, Joan and Margaret.

"There was never a discussion of trying to be trendy," says Nancy Lane, 48, of Oakland, who named her son Richard 11 years ago when the name had tumbled from fifth most popular in 1937 to 45th. "I think I just have a prejudice against something that's trendy. I think a name should be a plain little briefcase for yourself. It's just what you should carry around."

Leah Flanagan, who has a boy and a girl from each list -- Margaret and William -- said she chose her names because they were family names.

"I read so many baby name books back when my kids were born, and Margaret and William were called grandma and grandpa names," says Flanagan, who works in Berkeley. "And they were. But I thought, 'That's fine.' It didn't bother me. As far as I was concerned, the rest of the names on the list were horrible."

Modern research is also swaying some modern parents to think twice about coming up with those "unusual" names, whether they be names that are unusually spelled, or just plain, well, unusual.

Gwendolyn Schlatter, the Castro Valley woman who researched the Fortune 500 in her ultimate search to name her sons James and John -- and who also reports that the Top 500 contained "no Brooklyns or Jaydens or Holdens" -- said she based much of her naming strategy on what she learned in the best seller "Freakonomics," a book that studies the riddles of everyday life, including the act of baby naming.

"Freakonomics" authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner made a big impression on Schlatter with their chapter titled "Perfect Parenting .... Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?" In it, the authors analyze things such as the relationship between income and names, and parental education and the various spellings of names, like "Jasmine." Their research suggested to Schlatter that the further a name gets away from its original spelling, the less-educated the parents are, and in turn, the worse outlook for the child.

"I have a niece named Whitney, spelled 'Whytni,' and the mother is just like the book said she'd be," says Schlatter. "We decided, why fight statistics? Let's name our kids like our economic and socio background, and hope for the best."

Nikole Wilson-Ripsom of Oakland, an African-American mom whose husband, Troy, is white, employed a similar strategy when naming her now-3-year-old son, Benjamin.

"We wanted, for lack of better words, a neutral name," says Wilson-Ripsom. We didn't want a name we felt that would put him at a disadvantage in life. There are lots of names that are ethnically representative, and we didn't want that. My husband and I have both been in the position where we've reviewed stacks and stacks of resumes, and a person is easily racially identified by name. Just thinking off the top of my head, names like Kwame, names that sound very African in nature. A lot of the names we talked about were, instead, traditional. Thomas and David were runners-up."

Other names have ethnic roots, of course.

"Latino names, like Jesus, probably have a similar bias against them," Wilson-Ripsom, 36, says. "And certainly, after Sept. 11, names like Mohammed and Hussein, and heaven forbid, any child named Osama."

Then again, to Wilson-Ripsom's yin is Lisa Tsering's yang. Tsering, who was born in the United States, married a Tibetan, her husband, Ngawang Tsering. When it came time for the pair to name a child, they wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama's monastery in Dharamsala, India, with a small offering and a request for a baby name from one of the monks. Though she was nervous about what would come back, she and her husband agreed to name their child whatever the monk suggested.

That suggested name came back a few weeks later. On a small card in Tibetan script was the name Tenzin Woeser. "Tenzin" means follower of the dharma, or Buddhist philosophy, and "Woeser" means ray of light. Tenzin Woeser Tsering turned 2 in July.

"The name fits him perfectly," says Tsering. "We are so happy we did it that way."

That might be more than Schlatter can say. While the Castro Valley mom is pleased that by choosing more conventional monikers, her kids are virtually the only ones with their names at the playground, and she's not having to wade through waves of Jakes, Jacks and Emilys at sunset when it's time to head home, she says there is one small problem.

"We named them after saints," says Schlatter, of sons James and John. "And they're not saints."

Reach Candace Murphy at cmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-977-8540.