You Have Two Names
Every one of us has two given names. I don't mean first name and surname, or first and middle. I mean two entire names, each one of which represents our complete identity. These two are a sound and an image, or a spoken name and a written name.
We think of these names as being one. My name is Laura, whether I type it to you in this blog or speak it to you on the phone. But in fact they are two, linked but distinct.
Let's say your name, spoken, is "IZ-ə-behl." That's a familiar and fashionable classic. It's usually represented by the letter string Isabel or Isabelle, but in the past decade thousands of girls have also been given the written names Isabell, Isobel, Izabel, Izabelle, Izzabelle and more.
Or let's say your name, written, is Helena. That's a timeless choice, straight out of Shakespeare. It's traditionally represented by the sound heh-LAY-nə...or HEHL-in-ə, or heh-LEE-nə.
Are those IZ-ə-behls and Helenas all the same names, or are they all different? Surely the answer must be "both." They are the same names in one modality, and different in another.
Now imagine if both modalities were up in the air. That was the challenge in a question posed to The Name Lady last year. A grandmother was frustrated that her son and daughter-in-law were pronouncing her granddaughter's name wrong. They had named the girl Aida and pronounced it as two syllables, EYE-də. Grandma thought it should be eye-EE-də, like the opera. Some Name Lady readers felt that the real issue was that the name was spelled wrong; it should have been written Ida.
Think about that for a moment. If you can't decide whether a name is spelled wrong or pronounced wrong, what is the child's name, exactly? Again, I believe the answer must be dual. In that case, the name was the sound EYE-də and the letters Aida.
In today's naming climate, this distinction is far from academic. As we move from a world of Robert and James to a world of Jaylon and Kael, fewer and fewer babies receive names with clear single spellings and pronunciations. And for a name-seeking parent, that means making two decisions.
The standard impulse, even for creative namers, is to think of the sound as primary. Parents choose a spoken name, then tweak the spelling if desired. (Picture doing it the other way around, selecting a string of letters then cooking up a sound to match. It doesn’t feel right, does it?) It seems to me, though, that this strong privileging of sound is out of step with today’s naming reality.
Think of how many first impressions today are made in writing. A college or job application; a social network introduction; an online dating hookup. Is Khrystyna or Xristina really "just another spelling" of Christina? Don't those written names make wildly different impressions? And if so, isn’t it time that the written name be given its due in the selection process? Each part, sound and image, will fully represent your child for life.
p.s. in case you missed it, you can try the Expert Edition of BabyNameWizard.com -- more tools, no ads -- for 25% off this week!