X and Z: Spicing Up Baby Names
How much can one ingredient change a dish? If that ingredient is a habanero pepper, it can utterly transform it—in ways that some will find irresistible and others won't touch. In baby names, the closest things to chili peppers are the high-impact letters X and Z. The single letter switch from Jason to Jaxon or from Kayden to Zayden transforms the name and transfixes our attention.
Grabbing attention is what current baby name fashion is all about, so it's not surprising that the rate of X's and Z's in names has surged in the past generation. The details of that surge turn out to say a lot about the direction that names are taking.
The graph below shows the rate of American boys receiving a name with an X or Z from 1900 to the present. (I chose to focus on boys because the furtive Z in the classic Elizabeth dominates the girls' trend.) The X-Z explosion is hard to miss:
Looking at the graph, you'll see a huge rise in the 1980s, a brief leveling off, then another sharp rise in the past decade. Those two jumps in "power letters" turn out to be quite different.
More than three-quarters of the 1980-1990 rise comes from four names: Alexander, Zachary, Alex and Maxwell. All four are familiar, traditional, broadly popular choices with just a little boost of X-Z power. To account for three-quarters of the more recent surge, you need 15 names:
That list is a mix of modern styles: creatively X-powered spellings (Jaxson, Jaxon), surnames newly converted to first names (Hendrix, Paxton), traditional names that used to be considered obscure or unlikely (Maximus, Ezekiel), and brand-new inventions (Zaiden, Jaxton). The total effect is worlds apart from Alex and Zach.
In the earlier name wave, the power letters were a selling point that presumably tipped the balance in a choice between, say, Alexander and Nicholas. In the new wave, those letters are the driving force. The names are built for sound and impact around their high-Scrabble-value centerpieces. Consider that the names Alexander, Zachary and Maxwell sound little like one another, or like any other common names. Then consider the sound-driven pattern of Braxton-Jaxton-Paxton.
The two waves reflect a deep change in the way parents think about names. More and more, instead of choosing from a menu we're cooking from scratch. And when you lay out an array of raw ingredients, the most colorful and spicy prove hard to resist.
Read More: Are There Any More Z Names?