Today, an American girl is more likely to be named Gianna than Johanna. The very foreignness of a name can be part of its appeal: Nadia is exotic, Nancy too "ordinary."
The same phenomemon is well known to makers of consumer products. American companies adopt foreign-sounding names to build their brand images. The specific faux-nationality depends on the image they want to convey. (Check out the French accent of any U.S. cosmetics or hair-care aisle.) And that image can be more important than any authentic foreign connection.
Take Häagen-Dazs. The ice-cream maker, founded in Brooklyn, NY, was a pioneer in pure distilled foreignness, unencumbered by meaning. Vaguely Scandinavian in form, Häagen-Dazs is actually just artful gibberish. Few parents would go that far, coining a whole new name with fake foreign roots. But parents do take liberties with spellings and variants of common names to link them to other cultures. A case in point: Megan.
Several popular variants of Megan incorporate traditional Irish-style spellings. Meaghan, for instance, echoes Irish Gaelic classics like Eoghan and Fearghal. It's a particular favorite of families of Irish descent in the U.S., Australia and Canada. Yet it's not an Irish name.
Megan is Welsh, a traditional pet form of Margaret. Meaghan (and Meghann, etc.) appear to be modern creations, rare in Ireland and the U.K. In fact, to an Irish speaker, the extra "h" in the middle transforms the name entirely. G is prounced like the familiar hard g in Megan; gh softens to a gutteral cousin of y or w. So Meaghan would be...umm...something along the lines of "Ma-hwyn." (The rules of Gaelic pronunciation frankly overwhelm me, so if I've mangled that, be gentle!)
Yet across the ocean from Ireland, parents are choosing the name Meaghan to reflect their Irish heritage. As a quick demonstration, I ran Google searches for Meaghan paired with five of America's most common distinctively Irish surnames (Sullivan, Murphy, Kelly, Kennedy and Ryan) and totaled the results. Then I ran the same search using the English surnames closest in frequency to those names. The result: Irish surnames yield 11 times as many Meaghans. Clearly, this name is chosen to reflect parents' Irish roots -- even though the name itself has none.
Is this irrational, inventing a new name in the name of tradition? Not necessarily. Just as Häagen-Dazs achieves its goal by "signalling" Scandinavian, Meaghan successfully "signals" Irish. Parents are drawn to the name for its Celtic roots, but want to move it into their specific ethnic territory. The result may not be Irish, but it is Irish-American -- clearly and authentically.