Kayli, meet Wylliem: creative spelling, part 2

Apr 27th 2006

Two posts ago, we were talking about names with multiple spellings. (Don't recall? Go ahead and refresh your memory, I'll wait. Hum-de-dum-de-dum.)

Ok, so I did my best to show that creative spellings have been around for ages. But are they multiplying today? And if so, do they account for the seeming decline in name conformity I've talked about in the past?

This turns out to be a question you can measure in 100 different ways to produce whatever answer you want. But here's my take on what's really going on:

Your average boy today does bear a more spelling-malleable name than in past generations. (The change for girls is in the same direction, but smaller.) This apparent rise in creative spelling, however, is not the cause of the declining "conformity curve." Rather, both changes are effects of the same fashion phenomenon -- and it's not about spelling at all, but about names.

Let's start at the top. By official figures, Jacob has been the clear #1 name in America since 1999. But some lists that combine variants claim that Aidan/Aiden should be the "real" #1. To test the theory that spelling is the story, I plotted all the spellings of Aidan against the last single-spelling #1 name, 1953's Robert:

Yes, that's the Aidans down on the right. No matter how you slice it, a #1 name just isn't what it used to be. And most of the kreatively spelled names don't come close to Aidan's popularity. Six different spellings of Jaylin rank among the top 1000 girls' names, but if you add them all up the name still doesn't approach the top 100. So I don't think the declining conformity curve is merely a spelling phenomenon. But I do think that the spellings point toward something big.

Most American names have always been malleable, and the fresher the name, the more malleable it is. When a new hit sound climbs the charts it typically comes in multiple versions. Over time one or two spellings may become standard...unless the name dies out before it has a chance to settle in.

Meanwhile a small group of classic names, notably English monarchs, are spelled in stone. Ten English monarch names with highly rigid spellings have been popular American baby names. Take a look at their usage over time:

That's a major population-wide shift in just those ten names, down from 20% of babies born to 2%. I think this is the key to the story: we've lopped off the reliable top of the name curve. It's not so much that we're embracing wild spellings as that we're rejecting the kinds of names that you can't respell.

That might seem like splitting hairs, but it's a big difference. If America were just going on a spelling spree you would be seeing a generation named Wylliem, Henreigh, and Jaimz. We're rejecting the style of the names, the common, traditional feeling of them. Once you reject the core English naming stock, you inevitably find yourself in the realm where spellings are varied and evolving. There is no "wrong" spelling of Brayden as there is of William...so the real decision is naming your son Brayden instead of William to begin with.


By KHM (not verified)
April 28, 2006 4:49 AM

Horrible horrible horrible.

What is the point of spelling your son's name "Wylliem"? For one thing it sounds exactly the same and for two the kid will spend their life having to spell their name out because everyone, on hearing "My name is Wylliem" will just spell "W-I-L-L-I-A-M".

No people its not creative, it doesn't make you or your child individual. It makes you look either illiterate or very very unimaginative.

And "Brayden" or "Bradon" or "Bradenn" or however you spell it is just one of those trite, made up names that every unimaginative person uses for a while until it goes out of fashion. And dates badly.

By Christina (not verified)
April 28, 2006 6:23 AM

Good job once again, Laura!

Amid all the Ashleighs, Konnors, Haylees, and Jordyns out there, I hadn't even noticed a relative lack of Ylyzabeths, Writchards, and Marreighs. But I guess you're right about parents not wanting to mess too much with classic names. I guess it just shows that America's namescape isn't as apocalyptic as I thought it was. *whew*

By jane (not verified)
April 28, 2006 1:15 PM

KHM - your first three paragraphs seem to indicate that you missed the entire point of this blog entry.

By Jan (not verified)
April 28, 2006 11:13 PM

I did know a Merry.

Perhaps all the nicknames associated with the classics were enough individuation that people didn't need to spell them differently.

By Leslie (not verified)
April 29, 2006 2:23 AM

To New Yorkers, Mary and Merry are very different names!

By Jennifer (not verified)
April 30, 2006 2:54 AM

I've been curious to observe the reaction to creatively spelled names on the online pregnancy forum I frequent. It seems like many embrace creative spellings, while others (see KHM above) find it downright disturbing. Few are indifferent. I certainly agree that malleable names have been on the rise, but I also wonder if it will be a passing trend.

I know this next statement will be very controversial, but I think that the educated upper-class is likely to restore the popularity of traditional names and gradually diminish the creative spelling trend. In these circles of people, I see names like Henry, William, and Mary being reclaimed.

Granted, in an increasingly multicultural, pluralistic society... it also makes sense that variations will continue. There will likely be more racially mixed families in the future, and I would assume that's going to affect naming a lot.

I'm torn.

By Christina (not verified)
May 1, 2006 10:51 PM

Well, as far as the class wars go, even in my small, relatively low-income town, I find that the people with college educations ususally give their kids more traditional names (i.e. Tristan, Anna, John, Thaddeus), while the tryndee and kre8tyve names (all the Madycynnes and Bayleighs) abound among the blue-collar workers, teen mothers, etc. In "Beyond Jennifer and Jason," the authors pointed out that the upper class is always working to distinguish itself from the lower class. As soon as the lower class catches up, the upper class moves on to higher ground.

Hopefully, this will cause the demise of kree8tyve names. I really don't like those tryndee monikers. They're rather silly.

By Alicia (not verified)
May 2, 2006 2:21 AM

I have noticed some Williems and Henri's...I think people are willing to play with the spelling a bit, so long as it isn't "drastic."

and I'd take a Robert over a Brayden/braden...anyday.

By tortor (not verified)
May 2, 2006 4:03 PM

willem and henri are not new spellings -- the first is dutch, the second is french.

By sheila (not verified)
May 2, 2006 8:12 PM

My son Braden will turn one in two weeks. I disagree that it is a "trite" made up name. Obviously the person who made the comment is a boring and shallow person. I named my fourth son Braden after reading that it meant my mother's maiden name in gaelic. How boring this world would be if everyone used the same common names!!

By Christina (not verified)
May 3, 2006 2:09 AM

I dunno. The slew of Aidens, Haydens, Jadens, Kadens, and Bradens is starting to bore me a bit.

Remember the Larry/Barry/Gary/Jerry phase of the mid-century? Or, how about the Darlene/Marlene/Charlene/anything ending in "een" craze? That's how the "-aydens" will sound in a few decades.

By Christina (not verified)
May 3, 2006 2:15 AM

On a side note, my friend's sister recently had a son, and gave him the #1 boy's name. Little Jacob will be joining his older brother, Thomas.

No matter how popular names like Jacob and Thomas become, they'll never make me roll my eyes in the same way that names like Braxton and Grayson do, simply because they don't carry that same trendoid, "right-for-the-moment" flavor.

By . (not verified)
May 3, 2006 2:22 PM

Sheila, you did pick the same common name. Braden and all its variations and all the names that rhyme with it are rampantly trendy in recent years. What's done is done, and I'm glad you didn't opt for a spelling that emphasized the "bray" part, since it's a donkey sound, but don't get too convinced that your choice was original or cutting edge.

By Cathie (not verified)
May 3, 2006 2:44 PM

Why are people being so mean about name choices? To each his own! Whatever your taste is doesn't make you the style god for everyone.

I think Christina hit it on the head. Right now the "old classics" are trendy with the college educated/blue state set so it's easy to be snide and snooty about "newer" names. But I bet that all those "Jacobs" and "Julias" will also be easy to date. They'll fall out of fashion just like everything else.

Sheila's right, it would be boring otherwise! Our kids will look at our names and roll their eyes and find new ones, no matter how "unique" and "fashionable" we find ourselves.

By Emily (not verified)
May 3, 2006 4:15 PM

Ditto Cathie! People have different tastes and styles, and there's no way to predict whether our kids will love/hate their name in 35 years. My daughter is named Brynn, and my son is Aidan. I was not trying to be "trendy"--I picked a fine Gaelic name I had liked since I was a teenager. Here in Oklahoma, we have never even met/heard of another Aidan, and I rarely see it in birth announcements. Let's all remember that these names, even the "tryndee" ones are attached to real live children, with precious little souls. I enjoy names, but I know they truly say very little about the person who wears them. No need to be so rude and snobby, people.

By Christina (not verified)
May 3, 2006 4:16 PM

I'm just curious to see what the kids of this current generation being born will name their kids. What if they revive all the names that we think of as unbearably old-sounding, such as Mildred, Thelma, Harold, and Norbert? (:

By Valerie (not verified)
May 3, 2006 4:17 PM

Having just met a woman this week with kids named Taylor and Hunter (yes, I know they're popular here in the US but still more rare in the UK I think, so they still strike me as unusual), I wondered what medieval people would think if they knew we were using their "occupation surnames" as first names. I guess it doesn't strike people as funny now, as the occupations of tailor and hunter are not common these days... but just imagine children called Salesman, Director or Mechanic...or even just Carpenter or Farmer! Or will those be next? Over to you, Laura...

By Heather (not verified)
May 3, 2006 4:43 PM

I get frustrated with these comments:

"You people are so mean! I named my child XXXX, which I think is a wonderful, unique name and I've never heard another child called it! Why do you care what other people name their kids! Get a life!"

This is a site for analysis and examination of names. Therefore, there will be discussion here of name trends (some of which will be critical - "critical" does not equal "mean"), name typing (Braden/Cayden/etcetc being part of a group) and other discussions around the topic of names as a sociological topic, if you will. So to come here and complain about these topics is not only rude but ignorant.

There are many sites out there that discuss cool baby names and the coolest way to spell Nevaeh. I would not go there and complain that no one wanted to discuss the bottom 10 names for 1973, since that isn't the focus of the site.

We should all strive to be polite and sensitive in comments. However, we should also not to take a comment on a name as an attack on a person.

By Abby (not verified)
May 4, 2006 12:27 AM

I don't think Farmer and Carpenter are that much of a stretch since they're often last names!

By Marcos (not verified)
May 4, 2006 1:35 PM

People names and internet domains are overlaping... If I can speak like that.
I baby's name in the information age has powerfull meaning, like never before. Namewizard helped me a lot. Herchcovitch, Rosacha {http://www.rosacha.eu} or even Neocriativa {http://www.neocriativa.eu}.

By Christina (not verified)
May 4, 2006 5:14 PM

...but just imagine children called Salesman, Director or Mechanic...or even just Carpenter or Farmer! Or will those be next? Over to you, Laura...

Hmmm...maybe I'll name my next kid CEO.

Or CEOlyn, if it's a girl.

By Celestia (not verified)
May 4, 2006 5:29 PM

Well, Christina, I'm 18, and I love Thelma and Harold both, along with other names like Doris, Barbara, and Lois. The grandparents of the Maxes and Sams likely think/thought of those names as old and fusty, too. It's how the world works--the next generation picks out what the previous generation doesn't want and all that. :D

Which I'm sure you know, but I thought I'd mention that there are Harold fans out there. Maybe I'm just ahead of the times.

By Laura Wattenberg (not verified)
May 4, 2006 5:32 PM

"just imagine children called Salesman, Director or Mechanic...or even just Carpenter or Farmer! Or will those be next? Over to you, Laura..."

Why thank you! I'll point you over to a blog I wrote last year...

By Christina (not verified)
May 5, 2006 12:11 AM


Ha ha...maybe you are ahead of your time. I myself am a big fan of Murray, even though every baby name book out there nixes it as hopelessly old and dweeby.

By Elizabeth (not verified)
May 5, 2006 12:16 PM

Heather, I agree with you. The thing I find most refreshing and fascinating about this site is the intelligent sociological take on American life as seen through its first names. Laura isn't casting aspersions by analyzing trends; nor is she heaping praise. The comments in this week's entry seem to highlight what a competitive people we are. We seem to feel that our choice of our children's names reflects on our character. What do you all think? Does it? Is it equivalent to having a Lexus or a Volvo in the driveway?

By Claire (not verified)
May 6, 2006 10:33 PM

It seems to me that where the previous generations showed creativity was not in the spelling of the naming, but in the varients of the nicknames. In other words, you might have been officially named "Elizabeth", but could have been a dozen different nicknames, from "Lizzie" to "Beth" at home.

By Patricia (not verified)
May 7, 2006 1:38 PM

I agree with the comments from Heather and Elizabeth that this site is special and unique in "the intelligent sociological take on American life as seen through its first names."

That's what I've enjoyed about Laura's Baby Name Wizard: the study of naming trends throughout the 20th C until the present time, along with some history of name useage for each name. I've acquired many baby name books in the past 40 years--including some form England, Australia and France--and looked at many others. My favorites, besides Laura's book, give a well-researched history of each name. I too enjoy this blog and discussion because of the emphasis on naming history and sociology.

As for giving one's child a "creative" (actually non-standard, incorrect) spelling of a name is, in my opinion, a potential burden for the child--always having to say, 'no, my name is spelled____'and it does not set him/her apart from others with the same name.
C(K)ait(ate)li(y)n(n)is the same pretty name Caitlin, no matter the spelling.

By Patricia (not verified)
May 7, 2006 8:49 PM

I would like to add that choosing a name for one's baby/child/someday adult son or daughter is a responsibility that many parents do take very seriously. Too, naming is subjective--a name that seems very 'good', strong, special to one set of parents may be totally unappreciated by others.

Sheila shared that she named her fourth son Braden because the name has a special association for her. I think it was unkind to criticize her personally for her choice.

I first heard the name Braden in the early 1980s when a friend named her son Braden. The name has been in the Social Security Administration top 500 names since 1990, the same year Hayden made the top 500, and ahead of Aidan (1994), Jaden (1997) and Caden (1998). Like so many currently popular names, Braden is from an Irish surname and appears to be the standard spelling of the name.

Having a grandson named Aidan (born 2001), it's my own favorite of these names. Other than rhyming with the others, I find Aidan a totally different name historically.

By Emily (not verified)
May 9, 2006 4:18 PM

I fail to see how this is an "intelligent sociological take on American life through first names" when almost all of Laura's well-thought-out entries devolve into Aidan/Jaden/Hayden/Caden bashing in the comments! Stick to commenting about Laura's topics, not "Nice entry, Laura. I hate Madison and Braden! I despise all people who don't name their kids Henry and Margaret!" Calling a woman's son's name "a donkey sound" is mean-spirited and not the least bit intelligent. In fact this is quite "rude and ignorant," Heather.

By AMH (not verified)
May 9, 2006 9:16 PM

Ditto Emily's comments. Simply parroting what everyone else is saying (Brayden/Aiden/whatever) is "trendee" or "incorrect" is not an "intelligent sociological take" on anything. It's parroting what others here have said, only directed at one person, with the aim being to make her feel badly. It's pretty easy to see through the comments to the underlying intent.

That said...I can understand why people want variation. The classic names start to sound boring when classics become the trendy names.

I don't think there is anything wrong, morally or otherwise, about giving a child a trendy name, or a name with a new spelling variation. I think variations will become more common given that many families are made up of people with multiple ethnic/linguistic backgrounds. Sounds are spelled differently in different languages, so variation makes sense.

There are certainly lots of reasons for choosing a "trendy"/"made up" name...doesn't seem like it's a debate that needs to end w/ a right or wrong.

By Justine (not verified)
May 10, 2006 7:36 PM

I find it quite funny how everyone trumpets about multiple ethnic backgrounds and diversity in baby naming, yet all of the said "ethnic" names they defend are Irish. You'd think that Ireland was the only country in Europe.

By Maria (not verified)
May 12, 2006 3:13 PM

The new SSA list is out!

By Emma (not verified)
May 13, 2006 2:37 PM

I was born in 1988 Emma-Jayne, yes with a Y randomly thrown in there. Normally I hate names with a 'kreyative' spelling but I actually like the Y in my name, also it is actually a variaton of Jane in another culture (it's maybe hindu or something, i found it once) but my mother didn't realise that. I love my Y in Jayne as I think Jane is to plain and boring by itself. but I hate some names that have gone stupid with straneg spellings, such as 'Khristal' in the year below me at school and the many variations of Mackenzie I seem to be seeing.

By Tansey (not verified)
May 17, 2006 3:17 AM

I thought Claire had a great idea. If you name your child a classic name you can nickname them anything you like, comfortable in the knowledge that when they become adults they can pick their own variant. In the end though, a name is a name is a name.
I loathe the name Brayden but if a mum loves it that's good enough - she's the one that has to live with him/change his diapers/cope with colic, and baby Brayden is just as cute as baby Max/Sam/Henry.

By Christiana (not verified)
May 19, 2006 2:41 PM

As one of many Chris- children in the graduating class of 1998 (3 Christy's of var. spellings, a Christina, Christine, Christen, Christian and Christiana - in a class of 50) I love unusual spellings for "classic" names. (My best friend and I are refered to as "Christy's" corporately since she is Kristy and I Christi on occassion.) That being said, I told my husband that I refuse to name our kids out of the top 25 names of the last 2 years and that includes the variant spellings of those same names. While I think "Emmalee" is cute, the obvious association with #1 "Emily" is too much FOR MY PERSONAL TASTE. Each child is named with care be each mother and/or father and no name is a "badname" (minus of course the "legendary" Shithead, etc.) I recently heard of Caden for the first time when a family friend named her son that - never associated it with Aidan at all (always reminds me of a popular soap opera name) They chose it for it's meaning alone, not it's popularity. Whatever happened to chosing a name on meaning?

By dondiaz (not verified)
May 19, 2006 10:25 PM

God, names, where to begin. As a parent, you agonize, to get it just right. Some names are just so freighted with baggage, nobody names their son "Adolf" anymore (even though I know a few "Adolphos"). For girls, it's the bedroom-boardroom dilemma (so if she is an executive one day you don't want her burdened with a stripper name). Gender-neutral names worked great for that in the past ("The new department head is a woman?! I thought his name is Sam? - "Well, yes, it's short for Samantha").
Like celebrities using one name for autographs and another for legal signatures, names that stand for something other than their usual shortened versions work great for a measure of privacy and protection (Sherlock's brother's name was Mycroft, you can call him Mike).
A story about parents refusing to name their two-year old inspire a lenghty, heated thread on Netscape.
If you name something, you claim ownership to it. That's why I introduce myself by my official government name, the last four digits of my soc. security number

By Andy (not verified)
May 21, 2006 11:19 PM

Creativity is great. However, to saddle your child with a name that is bound to get them beat up in the schoolyard is just plain cruel. We are currently looking at names. If a girl, she will be called: Fiona Indigo. If a boy, Alexander ......looking for a good middle name there. Last name is Taylor.

By Christiana (not verified)
May 23, 2006 7:56 PM

A co-worker's siblings were named Melva Jean (father picked it, mother hated it) nicknamed "Becky". Brother was something else and nicknamed "Mike" though there was no Michael, etc. in his name. Even as adults now they still go by there seemingly random nicknames. I suppose a nickname will stick as long as the person allows it (my husband, Chuck despises the nickname his parents game him of Chuckie - and he was an 80's child. Can you imagine calling your little boy after a demonic doll?)

By Simon (not verified)
May 24, 2006 3:52 AM

I'm curious about a couple now out of fashion midcentury names that predated some contemporary trends:

1) Al(l)ison was way ahead of the last-names-as-girls-names curve. I knew quite a few growing up and it didn't sound that strange. Where did it come from, and was it ever much used as a male name? I knew of one male Allison who was black. Madison for a girl strikes me as very odd, but I suppose it won't to those who grow up amidst the name.

2) Karen/Karin/Karyn and their C-variants. Karin is a Norwegian spelling but the others seem made up. The name, btw, is a Scandinavian variant of Katherine, which of course has had a number of legitimate spellings seemingly forever.

I once heard of an Ilizabeth. Yuck!

By Venessa Conley (not verified)
May 24, 2006 11:53 AM

I would like to add a baby name if I may... Jaliana.... I loved reading about all the diffrent names... and whats hot and not...

By Arie (not verified)
May 24, 2006 4:36 PM

Has aanybody used thehappystork.com thay pedict your baby's gender, they can even help you to choose the gender of your choice, if you have not conceived yet. Thay are 95% accurate and have worked for all 3 of my pregnancies! Acorrsing to them if I conceive this month it will be a girl. I am so excited. What does everyone think of the name Katherine Marie or Alina Marie?

By May (not verified)
May 29, 2006 12:47 AM

Alison is a Medieval Norman form of Alice, occasionly used as a male name. It has nothing to do with the meaning "son", unlike Madison, Addison, Emerson.

Madison got popular after the marmaid in "Splash". She took her name from a street sign, and obviously lots of American parents thought this was a good idea.

Karen is the Danish form of the name, and Karin and Carin are both used in Sweden. Karyn looks American.

By Vian (not verified)
May 31, 2006 9:56 AM

The city of Madison, WI is a dismal chapter in my past, so I can't understand why any parent would lumber a child with such a name. Name the kid after someplace warm - Mumbai, perhaps? To compound the sin by spelling it Maddhysyn (or whatever)should be grounds for being flogged with a frozen haddock. Or being force-fed lutefisk.

By Tirzah (not verified)
May 31, 2006 8:29 PM

Is it really correct to define the name "Emerson" as "son of Emery"? I would propose that a more accurate defination would be "descendent of Emery." Most of those "-son" names were originally surnames. Surnames were given to both males and females in the family. If a family's last name is "Anderson", you don't only pass on that surname to the boys in the family; you give it to all of the children. Hence, I would posit that a more accurate definition of a "-son" name would be "descendent of ________." Anyone agree?

(BTW, I have no children with -son containing names, so my analysis is entirely academic.)

By Erica (not verified)
June 1, 2006 7:42 PM

I think people are way to harsh on others sometimes about the names they have picked. What one person likes, may be what another person hates... so that doesn't make the name "bad" or "wrong". To each their own! And as a parent, its really hurtful when you heard someone degrade something you have chosen for your precious child. I know we are all allowed to have our own opinions, and voice them... but I think we should do so with respect. I love my daughters name, Brinlee Addisyn, and it has a huge significant personal meaning on why we chose this name. I know that some people don't like her name and I hear a lot of negative comments about the spelling... but it doesn't bother me because I know a lot of people are so inconsiderate to other's feelings.

By Maggie (not verified)
June 9, 2006 10:58 PM

No one is saying that another person's name choices are "bad," they are simply stating that certain names will most likely become dated in a decade or so (ex. Marlene/Darlene/Charlene/Colleen/Maureen/Kristine/ et al). Braden would fall into that category.

By Lorna (not verified)
June 14, 2006 11:00 AM

My eldest son is Finn and my twin sons (born 18 months later) are Rief and Gill (the 'G' pronounced as in Goat and not as a 'J'). It wasn't until my brother heard the names that we realised we might as well call our next son FISH! Hasn't put us off the names though, we love them! Funny how kids grow to fit their names...?

If we lived in an English speaking country (we're in Germany) we would have had something quite traditional such as Stanley, Gilbert or Arthur.

Having said that, I have traced our family back to 1659 and I can't express how frustrating it is when every second male on every census 'til 1901 (later censuses not yet available) was a William, Thomas or George, ...and almost every female was an Elizabeth!

Imagine the horrors of our decendents in 200 years from now...Braydon, Brayden, Braidan, Braiden, Braidon, Bradonn! The mind boggles, and that's with just ONE name.

A person's middle name's what differentiates him, isn't it?

By Lorna (not verified)
June 14, 2006 11:50 AM

Just for your info:

"Studies have shown repeatedly that people with bizarre first names don't get as far in life as those with more common ones…said Rasmus Larsen, chief adviser at the Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs, which governs the names allowed for Danish children……
There are 3,000 approved names for boys, 4,000 for girls."

A similar 'list' also applies in Germany. Our kids are half English so we were 'allowed' a little more flexibility with our kids names. Finn is the only one on the list.

By Aurora (not verified)
June 18, 2006 1:46 AM

I personally don't mind cre8tiv spellings as long as they aren't too creative. Like, I can deal with Kimberly being spelled Kimberlee but I think Kymbirleigh is a bit much. But I don't see why people change the spelling of common names (like Emily) so the name will be less common. Just pick a less common name if you don't want your kid having a common name! I even know someone named Treasure. If that's not original enough.... But some people accuse parents of using a cre8tiv spelling when they really are just using a spelling that is traditional in another culture--often their own. For example, Marisa is Spanish, not a cre8tiv spelling of Marissa. It's also pronounced different (mah-REE-sa, as opposed to ma-RISS-a). What bothers me the most is when parents name their kids nicknames. We'll have a generation of "Congressman Joey" and "Juge Betsy". How proffesional. Names that would be better suited to a poodle--like Princess--are worse. Calling your daughter 'my little princess' is one thing; the name is too much.

By Aurora (not verified)
June 18, 2006 1:48 AM

That was supposed to be "Judge Betsy," of course.