The last shall be first: the tale of K

Apr 26th 2007

Today we're taking style down to its barest elements. This is a portrait of a single letter, the popular, powerful K. If any letter defines modern American name style, K is it. With a handful of traditional exceptions -- Katherine, Kenneth -- K names share an aggressively contemporary spirit.

It's a letter that can establish a name's style all by itself, and parents know it. For instance, I've found K to be the #1 choice for sibling alliteration. You're more likely to meet a family of Kyle, Kaitlyn and Kayla than Mason, Mackenzie and Morgan. The letter also lures parents who like to modernize traditional names. Compare Christina and Kristina; Caleb and Kaleb; Casey and Kasey.

The K names naturally hang together. When I type Kayla and Kaitlyn into my NameMatchmaker half of the results start with that same letter. Love it or hate it, K is a marker of modernity. (And I bet you do love it or hate it, don't you? Quick gut check: Caleb or Kaleb? That one choice will tell you a lot about your name style.)

K's modern touch leaps out in the popularity numbers:

In fact, the change in K names is even bigger than it looks. That graph shows names with a K anywhere inside them. In the early years of the graph, two thirds of the names end in K; in the later years, two thirds start with the letter. What's more, until the 1950s the K-starts consisted of nothing but Kenneth and various forms of Katherine. The K names as we know know them didn't exist.

K's movement from ending to initial is a total cultural transformation of the letter. As an ending, K isn't kontemporary or kreative -- it's gruffly masculine. Take a look at all -K names over time:

Beyond the stats, K endings are staples of my "macho swagger" name list: Rock, Dirk, Buck, Hawk. And they're at an all-time low.

Today's K-namers like to start names with a bang then taper off gently. Not surprisingly, quite a few of the names are used for boys and girls alike: Kristian, Kayden, Kamren. It's a glossy style Rock and Buck would have nothing to do with. But Rock and Buck haven't been heard from in decades. Today's parents are named Kevin and Krista themselves.

Let's start a trend!

Apr 13th 2007

It started with presidents. Names like Tyler, Carter, Jackson and Madison struck a balance between fresh and familiar that felt right to thousands of parents. The -er and -son styles proved enduring and flexible, from the elegant (Chandler) to the vigorous (Ranger), the old-time (Jefferson) to the new-fangled (Dawson).

Suppose you're the type who is drawn to these names, but you feel they've become a little too ubiquitous. (If you're actually the type drawn to names like Ezekiel, Fernando, or Bob, just play along for kicks.) Is there a successor to the -ers and -sons in sight? Here's one candidate: -man.

The -man names are just as familiar but nobody's using them for baby names. More than 80 -er and -son surnames make the top-1000 baby name charts; the only -man names are Coleman and Norman. Most of the 'mans come from old English and German surnames based on personal descriptions or, like Tyler and Carter, occupations. (Not all of those occupations were romantically rugged, by the way. A "Spencer" was a pantry servant, while a "Harriman" was a servant to someone named Harry.)

Up until now, the -man names have been represented mostly by "soft" examples like Norman and Sherman. Use some crunchier consonants and you discover a font of contemporary machismo. The nicknames have particular promise. Some choices, like Jackman, are creative formal versions for popular nicknames. Others like Tillman and Beckman offer up whole new nicknames with a masculine punch.

In fact, the masculinity of the entire genre may appeal to parents wary of the androgyny of names like Addison and Taylor. (If you want to avoid an androgynous future, just steer clear of names that shorten to feminine-sounding nicknames: Holliman, Merriman.) Names like Spearman and Bowman rival the machismo of Ranger and Gunnar...and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Rodman has no future as a girl's name.

So whadya say, surname lovers? Want to start a trend? Here's a starter list to spark some ideas:

Beckman
Bowman
Bozeman
Brenneman
Brigman
Brockman
Cashman
Coleman
Corman
Eastman
Hardiman
Harriman
Jackman
Rodman
Parkman
Spearman
Spellman
Stillman
Stockman
Tillman
Tolman
Truman
Whitman

Romance! Adventure! Baby names!

Apr 6th 2007

Back in December, I invited you all to submit nominations for the Baby Name Wizard 2006 Name of the Year. I just chanced on the list of nominations again and something about them struck me funny. It was an image, a feeling...could it be the separate nominations of these three names?

Steele
Addison
Remington

You are growing sleepy...
It is the mid 1980s. The hottest genre on tv is "boy-girl" detective shows where the stars wallow in sexual tension as they capture criminals, defuse bombs, and fire off witty repartee....

If you too were an adolescent girl at that time, I dare you to suppress a nostalgic grin at titles like "Moonlighting," "Remington Steele" and even "Scarecrow and Mrs. King." Any chance that nostalgia is creeping into your baby name ideas? It was the suggestions of both Remington and Steele that really leapt out at me, but Bruce Willis' character on "Moonlighting" was most often called by his surname, Addison. As for Cybill Shepard's character, her impact on names was more immediate. The name Madeline, in all its spellings, had been languishing for decades until Madolyn "Maddie" Hayes hit the screen:

But not everybody back then was a "Moonlighting" fan. If your taste ran to a little less talk and a lot more action, you probably watched Fred Dreyer and Stepfanie Kramer in "Hunter." That graph looks much the same. The name Devon got a big boost from an '80s crime show too, and Colt was raised from obscurity overnight.

Do we have the makings of a micro-genre? It's a stretch, but oh-so tempting. Here's my top-10 list of less common baby names inspired by 1980s detective series. I've thrown in buddy shows and lone eagles as well as the boy-girl pairs. How many do you recognize?

Fletcher
Hart
Hayes
Holt
Houston
Knight
Hawk
Matlock (from two different series!)
McCall
Sheridan