Does a Celebrity "Own" Your Baby Name?

Jul 23rd 2015

Imagine that you loved the name Miley long before Miley Cyrus ever hit the scene. You still want to choose the name for your daughter, but you don't want it to remind people of the singer and her tabloid-frenzy life. Can it be done? Can you say "Miley" withough anyone thinking "Cyrus"? My guess is that most people would answer no. The name Miley has become inextricably linked with the star.

But what about the name Angelina? Actress Angelina Jolie is just as famous, yet her first name has held on to some stylistic independence. The celebrity association is there, but she doesn't own the name.

Photo: Image Press/Splash News

Celebrity name "ownership" depends partially on the star's image and fame, and even more on the name itself. To get a sense of how thoroughly your name has been claimed by a celebrity, score it on the questions below. I'll call this the "Kim vs. Kanye Test" in honor of a Hollywood couple who together max out the fame meter...but only one maxes out the name meter.

1. Does Pop Media Even Bother With Last Names? The more a star is referred to by first name only in the celebrity press, the more they become linked to that name. Assuming no accompanying photo, do editors feel safe in dropping the surname?

(Score 0 points if the celebrity always requires a surname in absence of a photo, like Ryan Gosling. Score 1 if they sometimes do, like Mila Kunis. Score 2 if never, like Oprah Winfrey. Extra bonus point if the star actually goes by one name, like Adele.)

2. Was the Name Familiar Before the Celebrity Came Along? Jennifer Lawrence has been called the most powerful actress in Hollywood, but her power doesn't extend to the name Jennifer. The name was already too familiar without her. This effect can also cover variant spellings of a name, like Ginnifer Goodwin.

(Score 0 points for a popular or classic first name, like Will Smith. Score 1 for a previously uncommon name, like Channing Tatum. Score 2 for a name that owes its whole existence to a celebrity, like Charlize Theron.)

3. Can You Think of Other Famous Examples of the Name? The more prominent bearers a name has, the harder it is for any one image to dominate. The famous examples can be past or present, real or fictional. Even a cartoon mouse like "Angelina Ballerina" can help loosen the name hold of a star like Angelina Jolie.

(Score 0 for a name scattered across Hollywood and history, like Adam Levine. Score 1 for a name with a few strong associations, like Leonardo DiCaprio. Score 2 if you're wracking your brain for another example, like Keanu Reeve.)

4. Does the Star Score a Clean Sweep of Google Image Results? This is a good illustration of the difference between the names Kim and Kanye (but be warned, it only works with safe search OFF, so some questionable images may result). Go to Google Image Search and type in Kim. You'll get an eyeful of Kim Kardashian, but focus on the top bar showing other associations from rapper Lil' Kim to North Korean potentate Kim Jong-Un. Now try typing Kanye. The result is 100% Kanye West, even in the top bar.

(Score 0 for a diverse image search result, like Daniel Radcliffe. Score 1 if a celebrity dominates the main images but not the top bar, like Trey Songz. Score 2 for a clean sweep, like Björk.)


0-2 points: "Emma Watson." You're in the clear. This name is independent and likely to stay that way.

3-5 points: "Scarlett Johansson." The name is certainly linked to a star, but not owned.

6-9 points: "Beyoncé." The celebrity is in command. That doesn't rule out the name as a choice for your baby, if you like the image the star conveys. But be sure it's a celebrity you trust for the long term.

15 Smooth, Light Names for Boys

Jul 21st 2015

 baby name roundups by theme

Boys' names may stay more classic over the years, but that doesn't mean there aren't always a group of standout choices that have just the right sound and feel for the times. Over the last two decades, America has proven its love affair with uncomplicated boys' names that strike us as smooth and light. They are easygoing, simple, and they will never weigh your little guy down.

  1. Ari: Lighter than air, and smooth as silk, Ari is a crowd pleaser that soars high but has deep roots. It can be short for Aristotle, is Hebrew for "lion," and Old Norse for "eagle".

  2. Eamon: (AY-mon) This delightful international name has distinctive Irish flavor, and it's seen lots more use in the UK and Australia than it ever has in the US. Yet it's a perfectly on-trend, uncomplicated name that should find its way into more American homes.

  3. Eli: Simpler than the biblical favorites Elias, Elijah or Elisha, Eli is a clean and breezy name free of any potential heavy overtones.

  4. Ethan: This reliable top-10 hit was brought from biblical obscurity to contemporary favorite over the last 30 years or so, remaining in US memory thanks to the Revolutionary war hero Ethan Allen. The name is simple and ethereal, just as its sound would suggest.

  5. Evan: Evan is an unassuming hit that's perfectly effortless. As a form of John with Welsh and Scottish roots, it has a classic feel that seems to transcend the trends, even though it fits right in with today's favorites.

  6. Joah: Sweet and simple, Joah can be found in the Old Testament but it's remained mostly undiscovered. It has all the appeal of Noah, and boasts a simplicity that favorites like Joseph or Josiah lack.

  7. Leo: A lion isn't the first thing that comes to mind when discussing "smooth and light," but the sleek way this name rolls off the tongue makes it a definite fit for the category. Leo is an independent Latin name that also makes the list of nicknames for elegant-but-more-complex choices like Leopold and Leonardo.

  8. Liam: A perfectly simple Celtic charmer, Liam is a hitting all the right style notes for light and smooth sounds. Unfettered from the traditional English William, Liam is a Celtic standout with an irresistible flow.

  9. Luca: We're all recently captivated by this Italian form of Luke. Between its rare sound and the crisp, light feeling it evokes, it may just be the perfect choice for your little guy.

  10. Micah: If you're looking for an alternative to Michael, it doesn't get better than Micah, which has a contemporary feel and less chances of turning into Mike. It's also biblical and endearing, with a sheer, light quality, much like its mineral homophone.

  11. Miles: A cheerfully light English name, Miles has a smooth, simple sound that's easy to love. It's less serious than Giles, and not as spunky as Milo.

  12. Noah: It's been the number one name for two years in a row. Noah is biblical and beloved, and we can't get enough of its sound. With a soothing flow and only one consonant sound, hard edges are nowhere to be found when it comes to this favorite name.

  13. Noel: A holiday name that's fit for any season, Noel is a breezy choice with global style. It's gaining favor here in the US slowly but steadily as parents discover its simple charms.

  14. Owen: In the top 40s for boys and rising a bit every year, Owen is a crowd pleaser with an appealing ring to it that's effortless and a little old fashioned.

  15. Rowan: This versatile Celtic name bears Owen's familiar sound without its chart-topping popularity. It has a colorful meaning (little red one or rowan tree) and a flowing, contemporary sound that hits all the right buttons today.

Love these smooth, light names? Take a closer look at the statistics behind this trend with Goodbye J? The Great Smoothing of American Boys' Names and Raindrop Names.

Names from Your Nightmares

Jul 16th 2015

It all starts so innocently. You choose a baby name that plays off the meaning of Dad's name, and everybody loves it. So you choose something in the same vein for babies two and three, and soon you have an unbreakable theme. Then come septuplets.

That's the kind of naming challenge NASA scientists face this week, as the first detailed images of Pluto are seen. The not-quite-planet Pluto was named for the god of the underworld in classical mythology. Its first discovered moon was thematically named Charon, after the ferryman who carried souls into Pluto's realm. More underworld-chic names like Styx and Kerberos followed.

Now, with a space probe revealing more of Pluto, a host of new names are needed. As a scientist on the project explained, "(we) cannot just say 'that dark spot.' 'No I meant that dark spot.'" The problem is, by this time most of the best underworld choices are already taken, if not by the Pluto family then by near relatives. (Elysium, the underworld realm of heroes, and Acheron, a river of Hades, are both tectonic features of Mars.) It's like an astronomical version of the Duggar family naming dilemma.

What do you do when a theme reaches its breaking point? You can cling to it, choosing increasingly unsatisfactory names. You can abandon it and start fresh. Or you can redefine it. NASA has opted to redefine, broadening its theme from the Greco-Roman underworld to other realms of death and darkness.

Like, say, Cthulhu. The Dread Cthulhu was a tentacle-headed deity imagined by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. This malevolent power, dormant deep beneath the sea, sows fear in the minds of men. On Pluto, Cthulu is a dark region with neighbors like Balrog, named for the terrible spirit of fire and shadow in The Lord of the Rings. Nice neighborhood!

(image: NASA)

The names are just informal at this stage, but the attention they've garnered makes them likely to stick. All together, the names linked to Pluto make up a great source of ideas for your next death-metal band, sinister-looking pet, or flaky network server. They're also a nice reminder that no name theme, regardless how powerful, truly has you in its clutches. It's always yours to redefine.

Ala: Ala is the earth goddess of Odinani, the traditional belief system of the Igbo people. She presides over both birth and death, and spirits return to the land of her womb.

Balrog: The malign creature that battles Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is described in many different terms in Tolkein's writings. It is monster and spirit, shadow and fire, and all-around bad news.

Charon: The ferryman of the dead took delivery of souls from Hermes and steered them into Hades. The fare he charged was a single coin, traditionally placed in the mouth of a corpse.

Cthulhu: Picture a huge manifestation of dark power, shaped like a man but with a head like an octopus and claws and wings like a dragon. Better yet, don't picture it.

Hydra: This Greek serpent-monster had a great mass of heads, and if you managed to cut one off two more grew in its place. The Hydra was so dreadful that even its smell could kill you.

Kerberos: The Greek underworld's guard dog, Kerberos (or Cerberus) kept the dead in and the living out. In the complicated family life of Greek monsters, Kerberos was a sibling of the Hydra who took after their part-human, part-serpent parents.

Krun: The Great Flesh-Mountain Krun rules the lowest level of the underworld in the creation story of Mandaeism, a gnostic faith.

Mordor: In The Lord of the Rings, the volcano-rimmed black wasteland of Mordor formed a natural fortress which the Dark Lord Sauron took for his stronghold. As a name, it's part of the tradition of literary evil built around the "mor" root.

Nix: The goddess of night and darkness, and mother to Charon.

Meng-p’o: The Buddhist "Lady of Forgetfulness" resides in the realm of the dead. She brews the broth of oblivion, which is given to each soul to ensure that that they will forget their past lives before reincarnation.

Styx: A river of Hades, into which young Achilles was plunged to make him nearly invulnerable. It is often portrayed as the border river where Charon ferried souls, though most ancient sources ascribe that role to the Acheron.

Vucub-Came and Hun-Came: The gods of death and disease who ruled the Mayan underworld of Xibalbá.