Does a hard-to-pronounce baby name hurt you?

Feb 16th 2012

Last week I suggested that we don't give the written versions of names their due. We call Chloe and Kloee mere alternate versions of the same name, as if the "real" name is what's spoken aloud. Yet in today's world, our written names do much of the heavy lifting of making first impressions and establishing our reputations.

A timely study tries to shed some light on how much influence the pure written name might have. As reported around the world, researchers found a "name-pronunciation effect": that people respond better to names that are easy to pronounce, and that this response has real-world repercussions in terms of life success. And pronounceability, in their measures, is quality of the written name.

How much store should you put in this finding?

Looking at the actual research paper, it's a series of five experiments, most of which can be thought of as initial probes into the topic. The real meat comes in the fifth and final study, the only one that looks at names at large in the real world. The authors recorded the names and positions of 500 lawyers in large American law firms. Taking some care to account for factors like educational background and "Anglo-American vs. foreign" name identity, they found a measurable effect of name pronounceability on attorneys' rank in their firms’ hierarchies.

This is a careful enough study, and an intuitive enough result, to assume the result is accurate. I do have a major reservation about the research, though. It's not about the actual experiments per se, but the way the authors describe their findings. Here's the start of their abstract:

"Names are rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity, or class; they may connote personality characteristics ranging from warmth and cheerfulness to morality. But names also differ in a much more fundamental way: some are simply easier to pronounce than others. Five studies provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names."

Would you ever guess from that description that their study looked almost exclusively at surnames? Surely the gender, class and cheerfulness information they describe is carried primarily by the given name. (At least that’s true in the U.S., where the law firm study was done.)

Yet throughout the paper the authors adopt a "names-is-names" attitude, making no distinction between hereditary family surnames and fashion-sensitive given names. The past research they cite is about first names, the experiments the run are on last names, and their conclusions are simply about "names." Even in the few cases where the experiments might have included full names, they make no mention of the component parts. It's not clear how they would determine their "Anglo-American vs. foreign" categories for names like, say, James Nwokeji or Giovanni Smith.

It seems to me this is taking advantage of the broadness of the English word "name." In a language where distinct words apply to given names and family names, the entire paper would have been different.

There's a world of difference between American given names and surnames, in the way they're assigned, they way they change over time, and the way we all interpret them. There's also ample reason to suspect that a name-pronunciation effect could work quite differently in given names. When it comes to baby names, spelling is a cultural choice fraught with significance.

For instance, the perception of conformity to tradition -- mostly a non-issue in surnames -- is a powerful dimension in given names . Do you think that the phonetically simpler Kloee would give a girl a step up in a legal career over Chloe? Or that clarifying the ambiguous Madeline to Maddalinn would yield more positive responses and higher societal status? And that's just one factor. Spelling of given names can also signal ethnic differences and more. 

Because of the freedom of choice parents have, given names carry more dimensions of information than surnames. That means that a dimension like pronunciation fluency could well be significant in surnames but be swamped by other factors – including other written-only factors – in given names. So when it comes to news you can use for choosing a name for your baby, I'd put this particular worry at the bottom of your list.


By Amy3
February 23, 2012 12:01 PM

@PennyX, cOnGrAts!!! I am SO happy for you and your husband! As you know, I'm a huge Ursula fan so I hope you end up with that, should you have a girl. I also love Simon Xavier. The idea of taking a few names into the delivery room with you is a good one, though, and may help alleviate the stress of choosing the "right" name before you even meet your baby. Can't wait to hear what you're having and the names you ultimately select!

@chipper28, another "stunning" for Cecilia Wren and Ariadne Selene. Those are gorgeous names.

@noname!, I really like hyz's suggestion of Scott. That's a 60s, 70s, 80s name I've always liked. It's certainly less common among kids today, although you'd run into dads with the name. I like its simplicity and crisp sound, and it sounds great with Brendan.

@JenMN, I love Margot or Delphine for you. If it were me, I'd want to avoid using the same endings as your two older girls' names, too.

February 23, 2012 12:35 PM

Thanks for the suggestions so far!

This was my list I had before posting:
~ Cecelia, husband thinks it is too long, too much of a name
~ Celia, reminds husband of celiac
~ Ingrid, I love this (for some reason!) but don't have any nickname possibilities and we live in a very Scandinavian area but aren't Scandinavian, and husband doesn't think it fits and isn't pretty enough
~ Malena/Melina/Milena, for one thing, husband can't seem to remember how to pronounce these and doesn't think they fit
~ Mila, becoming too popular?
~ Mira, too slavic/whatever for our heritage and doesn't go with the other girls' names?
~ Sabrina, husband doesn't think it fits, doesn't like the association with the TV show
~ Sylvia, husband thinks it is too old lady
~ Sylvie, I'd say this is our current favorite overall. But it is too much of a nickname name? Will we have people constantly thinking her name is Sylvia?

Of those suggested so far:
~ Madeline, love but has already been used in the family and not a fan of Maddie nickname
~ Lydia, really popular in my area
~ Lucia, my husband's favorite, but I veto due to the Lucy nickname that I love but is too popular (and we have a close friend with a little Lucy) and I can't get beyond the multiple pronunciations possible with this name.
~ Natalie, like this I think, not loving the Nat nickname possibilities
~ Evangeline, love this for a middle name
~ Celeste, love this for a middle name
~ Collette, love this name (maybe Colette?) for a first or middle, but wouldn't do first due to the ending sounding too much like Juliet
~ Adele, I love this name, but think the singer is is too popular right now,
~ Margot, again, not sure about nickname potentials, Margie, Mags (ugh!)?
~ Clara, Have a close friend with a Clara
~ Marguerite, too much of a name and not sure about nickname potential?
~ Sylvie, Love!
~ Delphine, interesting one I hadn't considered, wonder if my husband will think this is "pretty enough" in his words
~ Vera, I love 'v' names, I think my husband will veto due to his old lady thing.
~ Amelie, really like this, but again worry about nicknames, Amy is not my style
~ Camille, like this as well, husband thought it wasn't pretty enough of a name when I suggested it before

Not my style:
Leonie or Leonore, Helene, Claudine, Susanna, Aimee, Noelle, Nadine, Amelia

February 23, 2012 12:33 PM

chipper28: I am smiling for you :)

PennyX- Since your last name is so flowing, I would agree that Althea, Clara, and Nora don't work well. I like the "th" sound of Thalia and Thea but agree they aren't as striking. Something is missing with them.
Do Matilda, Imogen and maybe even Ursula sound too dowdy to others? Is it just the image they carry? You're right that they aren't Bertha or Gladys but in a world of Emily and Lily's are those the polar opposite as far as names?
Sylvie, Anya, Ursula, and Claudia all have more lilt to them so seem very usable to me. I am neutral on Jane. I don't dislike it but I think I would rather see it in the mn spot.

February 23, 2012 12:59 PM

chipper28, you express your feelings about all three of your daughters' names in such a lovely way! I'm glad "we" could help (I take credit collectively even though I had nothing to do with it!).

February 23, 2012 1:18 PM

JenMN-Could I trouble you to list 3 or so names your hubby does like regardless of whether or not you prefer them? I just don't have a handle on his style in order to make other suggestions. I did however think of Valerie since you said you like V names.

Re Natalie nn's: This is my dd's name. We didn't want the Nat nn either. We were originally going to use Allie/Ali but that didn't happen. She really doesn't have a nn though some do use Nat on occasion.

February 23, 2012 1:47 PM

Zoerhenne, hmm, yes, that would help, wouldn't it? I have no idea what his style is. He has suggested: Lucia (loo-sha), Seraphina, Larissa/Clarissa/Marissa, Alanna, Selena, Sophia.

Oh and he also likes Saoirse (sair-sha, I think?).

February 23, 2012 2:15 PM

I thought of Sadie, Ivy, Rachel, Arianna, Simone, Danielle, Angelina/Angelia, Fiona, Marceline.

I particularly like the combo of Ivy Celeste-didn't I suggest this for someone once before?

ETA: Saoirse-this is the name of a baby of one of our posters. It does sound much like Sheer-sah.
PPP-if you are out there how are you?

By hyz nli (not verified)
February 23, 2012 2:57 PM

chipper28, I do understand what you mean, and it doesn't sound too dark to me, just coming from a place of experience and reality, and a very healthy approach at that. It definitely sounds like you have two little fighters on your hands, and it's great to have lovely, strong names ready for them.

JenMN, here are my thoughts on your last note--
~ Cecelia -- the way I say it, it's no longer than Juliet, and it is pretty, and has the cute nn of Cici, since it sounds like you might be nn lovers?
~ Celia, reminds husband of celiac -- I agree with him
~ Ingrid -- a wonderful, strong name, but if your husband is looking for soft and pretty, this would be a stretch
~ Mila -- certainly not popular in my circles, but it does sound very slavic to me (like Malena, etc.)
~ Mira, this sounds more latin than slavic to me, if that helps any
~ Sylvia -- this is one of my very favorites, but I can see where your husband is coming from--I don't think kids today will share that impression, but some adults will
~ Sylvie -- Love this, too, and it's not a nn in the French context, so I think it fits very well with your others and isn't too much of a nn. I think some people will assume Sylvie is a nn, but I don't imagine it will cause too much real hassle. Of course, you could always name her Sylvia and call her Sylvie if you want, and so have the benefit of the more familiar English name along with the stylish and more jaunty French name/nn, unless your husband is dead set against Sylvia.

Of those suggested so far:
~ Natalie -- I like this too, and I don't think she would have to go by Nat unless you started it--the Natalies I've known have always gone by the full name with no trouble. What about Natalia, Natasha, Nadia?
~ Adele -- I hear you. Darn that Adele.
~ Margot -- I wouldn't use a nn for this, personally, but you could do any of the Margaret ones, I think, if you wanted--Meg? Maisie? Or even Mara?
~ Delphine -- Delphine is the French version, but if it helps him any, Delphina and Delphinia are also accepted versions. I think of the flower, so it seems pretty to me. It also makes me think of Iris--not sure if that is one that appeals at all, and maybe the -s ending is not good for you guys. Any interest in Dahlia or Zinnia?
~ Vera--there are a lot of stylish Veras out there now that might be able to change your husband's mind, but if not, hmm... what about Verena? Or Geneva? I love V names too.
~ Amelie -- I've only known one Amelie (and one Amelia), and they both used the full name. Amy wouldn't occur to me since the A has a different sound--I think Amelie is pretty nn-proof, but if I had to think of some I'd say Mel (meh) or Lee or Lia (not bad -- and this would also work for Natalie). I know a young Virginia who goes exclusively by Nia, so it can be done--that's just how she is introduced to everyone (although I adore the full name and wish I could call her that instead).

By EVie
February 23, 2012 6:00 PM

chipper28 - I have to say, I don't think I would use Caecilia either—mostly because it would just be too much of a pain to have to constantly correct people, but also because that spelling makes me want to pronounce it the classical Latin way, with hard Cs. I also wouldn't have the guts to do Aemilia, though I think that spelling is striking.

JenMN - I put Juliet, Elise and Vivienne into Name Matchmaker Expert and guess what the #1 result was? Genevieve!

Other suggestions (sorry if there is repetition):

Coraline or Coralie

I really want to suggest Elodie for you, but it's an E; also Phoebe, Arielle, Adelaide, Anneliese. Maybe for middles, if you decide against Josephine.

What kind of name do you think would fit with your heritage, if Scandinavian and Slavic don't? Sometimes that's a good way to tailor suggestions. Also, I agree with hyz that Mira reads more Latin to me (though I know it has Slavic roots as well).

February 23, 2012 10:38 PM

@PennyX - I love most of your girl options. I think Ursula and Sylvie would be my picks for you but I love Anya too. I can totally get behind Clara, Nora, Matilda, Claudia and Imogen for you too. I'm not keen on Thalia, Althea, Thea or Jane with your surname.

I have no problem with the 'ur' sound in Ursula. I think just because many people don't hear it that often it may not have the most current vibe. I used mostly associate it with the character from Friends. Given that show is old now and she wasn't a main character I don't think that matters. A young Ursula would be fantastic.

February 23, 2012 10:49 PM

@Jenmn3 - I remember you from previous posting! I adore your daughter's names. Totally up my alley and you already have many names on my list.

I think you can totally get away with Marguerite, Margot, Amelie without nicknames. I know Amelies and Margots known by their full names. Also an Anneliese that only goes by her full name.

Based on the comments above I like the following combos for you (if you didn't want to use Josephine):

Sylvie Delphine
Sylvie Camille
Ingrid Celeste
Ingrid Evangeline
Amelie Colette
Amelie Margot
Amelie Camille
Delphine Celeste
Delphine Margot

Other suggestions: Ondine, Sabine, Mireille, Zinnia, Cordelie

February 24, 2012 1:34 AM

Here's a couple links that might be helpful in name pronunciation...or at least be interesting to my fellow name-ophiles. :)

By chipper2 (not verified)
February 24, 2012 10:46 AM

Another pronounciation site that I've used is I like it because you can find pronounciations on different geographic regions/languages for some names.

February 24, 2012 10:53 AM

I think that Anya pairs pretty well with Josephine!

I was just digging around the site and I saw in my profile it has favorite names -- these hadn't been touched or updated since my last pregnancy, and Ariadne was there, so I think I must be on board with my husband's pick for left-side girl!

By dee
February 24, 2012 2:06 PM

A friend has a lovely third daughter named Natalie who goes by "Nata." It's such a sweet soft nickname, which doesn't sound much like Nat to me at all (strange how that one extra "a" changes everything...)!

Also, you mentioned "V" names. Have you considered Veronica? It's got lots of lovely nicknames and is sweetly feminine, while still strong and easy to spell and pronounce.

February 24, 2012 4:23 PM

Thank so much for all the suggestions! We went through all of them last night and found that we really do like Sylvie.

What are your thoughts on siblings named Elise, Juliet and Sylvie? Are they too matchy (all too French) or is Sylvie not a good fit? We are still trying to get over that people may hassle us about Sylvie being more of a nickname, but we really prefer it over Sylvia. Even looking at the name clouds on here, I really like the ones for Sylvie but not so much for Sylvia. Will we regret not giving the baby a non-nicknamey name?

We really want a pretty name, but I also want it to be a strong name. I love Ingrid, but fear (as some have pointed out) that it goes too far in the strong direction and not enough of the pretty direction.

We actually don't really use nicknames much, but don't want to have to be fighting a natural nickname that we don't like on a name that we do like. If that makes any sense.

For those that asked about heritage, we are mutts :) Mainly French, German, Scottish, Welsh and English.

And I love, love Mireille, but the fact that no one will be able to pronounce it gets it crossed off the list. What a beautiful name!

I, too, am surprised at how the Expert Name Matchmaker and I agree on name choices. :) Seems like we have been pretty consistent so far. I just want to make sure that we aren't too predictable with this third baby's name, but also that it fits at the same time.

February 24, 2012 6:22 PM

JenMN-Sylvie is a nice pick but with some last names I think the flow of SylviA just goes better. From what you stated your surname is close to, it would be one of them. Don't let that stop you though if you love Sylvie better than SylviA.

February 24, 2012 6:33 PM

To me, Sylvia is the mother on The Nanny, while Sylvie is a cute French name (even though all the Sylvies I know are middle aged). In my mind, they are different names with different vibes and one is in no way a nickname for the other. Of course how the name will be perceived by those around you will depend on their experiences with the names. Personally, I speak French and know lots of old Jewish ladies :)

By hyz nli (not verified)
February 24, 2012 7:14 PM

JenMN, I think Sylvie is a great fit, because then all the names are classic with French leanings, but not too obviously so -- Sylvie is the only noticeably French name there to me, since I think the others have broader usage, but most people probably would think of it more as a nn for Sylvia than a French full name, bumping it back over to the broader usage category. I don't think you will regret giving her the name you and your husband both strongly prefer. If you don't care for Sylvia, that's a great reason not to use it, and Sylvie not just a nn, like if you were naming her Susie or Maggie or something. I think you will have people wanting to call her Sylvia from time to time, but you/she can just correct them by saying, "no, it's just Sylvie, which is the French version of Sylvia"--a simple explanation that should hopefully set people straight pretty quickly. I think Sylvie is pretty and avoids the "old lady" concerns you/DH may have--I say go for it!

February 25, 2012 10:36 AM

@JenMN, I definitely prefer Sylvie over Sylvia for you. I also see them as totally different names. While naming her Sylvia and using Sylvie as a nickname might work, it sounds like it doesn't really fit for your family so I'd just go straight for Sylvie.

I definitely see Ingrid as both strong and pretty. I can see how some people don't get the prettiness from it but it's definitely all individual perception.

By Amy3
February 25, 2012 7:10 PM

@jenmn3, I think Elise, Juliet, and Sylvie sound beautiful together - complementary without being overly matchy. I also agree that choosing Sylvie rather Sylvia sounds like a better choice for your family. Sylvie is fine as a stand-alone name, and I liked hyz's gentle correction for people who call her Sylvia.

By Passoker (not verified)
February 28, 2012 8:03 AM

The harder the name is to pronounce, the more unique it generally is. I like that :)

By Joerger (not verified)
March 14, 2012 3:55 AM

And I would not be eager to hire someone with such arrogance.
Names frequently change as peoples move to different countries, more so in the past when it was common to adjust the spelling or pronunciation of a foreign name to better assimilate. Just because the pronunciation of a person's family name has changed over the generations, certainly does not imply that the bearer is "too stupid" to know his or her own name.

By ValenzMom (not verified)
March 20, 2012 1:33 PM

I have an easy first name, but have always had difficult to pronounce last names - both Spanish in origin. My maiden name was always confused with the Spanish word for cheese, and my married name is always confused for a South American country. I have come to realize that most people do not actually look at the letters and try to pronounce it (like we learned in 1st grade), but instead just scan over the name and (if it's not a familiar name) they just say the first thing that comes to mind. I always have to spell my name and pronounce it for someone.

By saulissimo (not verified)
March 22, 2012 2:22 PM

My son's name is Zhian, which is a Persian name (his mother is Persian). We didn't anticipate how hard the name would be to pronounce which in retrospect seems obvious. A number of Persian names have the "zh" sound, which is like the sound in pleasure or equation or beige (note that those words use "s", "t" and "g" respectively to indicate the sound). In dictionaries they use the symbol "ʒ" for the sound. Needless to say, people see Zhian (the word not the kid) and balk.

We wanted to keep the name a secret. Perhaps if we'd run it past a few people we would have seen how hard it was to pronounce and we would have reconsidered.

Incidentally the name is pronounced Zhee-yaan (or ʒiːjɑːn if you use phonetics).

March 28, 2012 4:53 AM

It definately hurts you. My friend's name is Gráinne (of Irish origin) and everybody first pronounces it as Granny.

By Star (not verified)
June 19, 2012 2:19 PM

I think savannah rose and lily rose have a good ring to it, and charolotte grace sounds good too. 

If her name was Madiline Mackenzie or Mollie Mackenzie you could call her Maddie Mac or Mollie Mac for short 

The cool thing about the name Sarah is that it means "princess" so if her name is Sarah Bella (I've seen a lot of little girls with this name lately because everyone loves Bella but not Isabella so much because of the Twilight connection)  it would roughly mean beautiful princess.

By SD-C (not verified)
June 29, 2012 2:00 PM




/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;

Are you so small minded or just a complete idiot? How someone choses to pronounce their own family name carries as much history about that name as how it is spelled. (Did the name travel through a Caribbean island or Elis Island?) Stop putting on airs and grow up. So you took French in your life and learned how to pronounce things. Big Whoop!

Sasha Deveaux-Comissiong

By jy97 (not verified)
June 30, 2012 5:20 PM

One poster said: "I have come to realize that most people do not actually look at the letters and try to pronounce it (like we learned in 1st grade), but instead just scan over the name and (if it's not a familiar name) they just say the first thing that comes to mind."

Very true.  My name is Lydia, which is not ridiculously uncommon or hard to pronounce.  It is very rarely pronounced correctly.  About 2 out of 3 times I get "Linda" and the rest of the time something not very close to my name.

By Jayrah (not verified)
July 9, 2012 3:03 PM

I can't say whether my name has hurt me. I love the fact that no one I know has my name. I will never run into another Jayrah. (JAY-RUH) [JAYson & deboRAH] As for job interviews and such like someone else mentioned, it is possible that I hadn't been called back because of my name. But not all jobs are that way. And if an employer wouldn't call just because of a name, I doubt that that is an employer I would want to work with. The world is changing, people should be open to all things different. I think it hurts your children much more if there and two or three other kids in their class with the same name. How do you find individuality?

August 20, 2012 8:16 AM

Hi Amanda.


Pronounciation is difficult - especially with words 'borrowed' from a foreign language.  As a surname, I would agree that the French pronounciation (bomb-bar-dee-yay) is to be preferred.  However, as a rank in the British RAF or the name of a British ale, bom-ba-dear, or even bom-a-dear, is the more accepted norm.

Of course, as a person's surname, pronounciation is really down to their personal preference, and I would bow to that!

Sahha (Good health in Maltese)