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!
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.
French girls' names have always felt romantic to American ears, with their soft and flowing sounds and especially feminine endings. While French names have gone through a few phases in America over the decades, lately we're enamored with names that don't blend in and declare our love of France. We're infatuated with this stylish group of names that express our l'amour perfectly.
Amelie: When the French film Amélie debuted in America, its romantic, playful spirit captured our imaginations, while the name of the title character inspired our own baby names. Once the pronunciation of this darling French name was established in English, it started to take off. With the popular choice Amelia making the way, Amelie offers a surprising French twist.
Antoinette: Most strongly associated with Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and wife of King Louis XVI, Antoinette is a desperately romantic, feminine name as lavish as the queen who wore it. It has an aristocratic air, but it's not exotic. In fact, most English speakers have no problem with this famous French name.
Belle: The French fairytale Beauty and the Beast was first published in 1756, but it's Disney's Belle that has kept this romantic French name, meaning "beautiful", fresh in our minds today. It's a lovely choice fit for a princess whose external beauty is mirrored by the beauty of her heart.
Camille: A tear-jerking classic romance and The Woman in The Green Dress are more than enough reasons for Camille to be regarded as très romantique. While the film Camille, starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, sparked some interest in the name in the 1930s, for the most part our love affair with Camille is relatively new.
Eloise: A fashion-forward French name that hit a high point in the roaring 20s, Eloise is charming parents once again in America. The darling children's series Eloise makes this name seem youthful and vibrant, and tout à fait français, of course.
Giselle: You can look no further if your goal was to find a glamorous, romantic French name. Part ghost story, part love story, the classic ballet is a title role that every prima ballerina covets. If the ballet isn't enough, Giselle also became an official Disney princess with the release of the movie Enchanted.
Josephine: This classic name is full of French romance. Looking to Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, reveals a deeply passionate but painful relationship. The couple's romance was forever preserved by Napoleon's letters to his wife, containing love-sick ramblings suited for poetry. The very last word Napeoleon ever spoke was "Joséphine".
Juliette: Shakespeare's timeless tragedy puts this name at the top of the list when it comes to romance. The original French form of Julie, often anglicized to Juliet, adds a certain je ne sais quoi. At the moment, Juliette is slightly more popular than Juliet.
Mirabelle: A darling name with French roots that feels like a twist on Isabelle or Annabelle, Mirabelle means both wondrous and lovely. This name is seldom used in France, but in the US its sound and meaning are fit for a fairytale. The connection to the mirabelle plum makes it that much sweeter.
Rosalie: Both a French name and a vintage choice, Rosalie is a trend-worthy floral that's starting to be rediscovered. The beautiful character in the Twilight series hit the bookshelves right on time, giving this lovely name the attention it deserves.
Sophie: A perfectly charming French name, Sophie boasts a glamorous, romantic, and royal charm. While some may consider it a nickname, Sophie is simply the French form of Sophia. She even comes with her own French teething toy. Sophie has been in the top 100s for eight years in a row.
Vivienne: The Jolie-Pitts gave this chic French name new life, and it's only seen more popularity since they gave it to their daughter in 2008. Vivienne is softer than Vivian, and more grounded than Viviana. The Galerie Vivienne in Paris, a glamorous shopping destination, is a great example of this name's opulent French style.
When we talk about baby name style choices, we often present it as a philosophical divide: traditional vs. creative. That split may be selling traditional names short. Choosing a name with deep roots doesn't necessarily mean abandoning creativity. In fact, the many cultural threads of our past offer all kinds of surprises, with built-in texture and nuance that newly invented names can't match.
Perhaps it's time for a little rebranding effort. Just look at the produce aisle, where the quirky variety of the past is now celebrated. Next to the identical red spheres of modern tomatoes you'll increasingly find bulbous, multicolored specimens labeled heirlooms. We prize these once-forgotten old varieties for their highly individual flavors.
In that spirit, I present 63 "heirloom names." These names are all impeccably traditional, but far from conventional. For better or worse, they won't look like any other name on the shelf…or rather, in the classroom. Some may even have a little shock value. Their individual, classic-creative flavors are one of a kind.