Is Riley the same name as Ryleigh? What about Emily, Emmalee and Emilia? Ask any mom of a Riley or Emilia, and they'll tell you absolutely not. Small variations in a name can carry big cultural distinctions.
Those variations, by the thousands, are a defining feature of today's name landscape. They're hardly a new phenomenon, though. For a case study of fine -- but important -- name distinctions, let's turn to the most influential naming text around: the Bible.
Allow me to present two classic biblical names. Matityahu is Hebrew meaning "gift of God," with the Greek form Matthaios. Yehuda is Hebrew meaning "praised," with the Greek form Ioudas. Each of the names is borne by multiple biblical men, with three pairs of linked examples.
In the Books of the Maccabees (Bible in some traditions, apocrypha in others), the Jewish priest Matityahu rejects the assimilation demands of the Seleucid Greeks, sparking a war of revolt. One of Matityahu's sons, Yehuda, becomes the leader of the revolt and is one of the Bible's legendary warriors. You may recognize the father-son pair better as Mattathias and Judah Maccabee.
In the Gospels we find multiple accounts of how Jesus selects and trains 12 apostles to spread the good news and establish the church. Among the 12 are Matityahu, Yehuda and Yehuda. You probably know them as Matthew the Evangelist, Jude the Apostle, and Judas Iscariot.
Later, after Judas betrays Jesus, another apostle named Matityahu is chosen to take his place. You probably know him as Matthias the Apostle.
Names can vary among different versions of the Bible, and even from book to book within a single version. (Jude is referred to at times as Thaddeus, Matthew as Levi, etc.) I'll leave it to more qualified biblical scholars to explain how and when Mattathias/Matthew/Matthias and Judah/Jude/Judas diverged. But here's the kicker. It's widely accepted that the distinctions were deliberate choices on the part of translators, with the purpose of clarifying the text.
The translators took advantage of linguistic variations to carve out little arenas of name individuality. As a result, those variants have very different cultural connotations today. Naming a son Judah creates cultural and stylistic links to Judah Maccabee, the Lion of Judah, and the same kind of antique style that separates Jeremiah from Jeremy. Naming a son Jude suggests Jude the Apostle, St. Jude, Jude Law and "Hey Jude." Judas, meanwhile, has become a word meaning "traitor."
The same process happens, albeit on a less dramatic level, with most modern name variations. Ryleigh doesn't summon the same Irish androgyny as Riley. Only Emily connects to the likes of Dickinson, Bronte and Post. If you accept that a name's "meaning" goes beyond its derivation, then the meaning shifts with every variation.
An economics professor recently estimated that Tiger Woods' marital problems have had a whopping $12 billion stock market impact. This bizarre intersection of personal woes and global finance is all about branding. Woods had been the public face of a wide range of products and services. His image of focus, grace under pressure, and peerless performance resonated far beyond sports. It didn't hurt, too, that golf is the pastime of choice of the corporate set. So Woods added value, all of which drained away -- with interest -- over the past weeks.
The biggest corporate victim was consulting giant Accenture, which had made Woods the entire face of its organization. Woods' image equaled Accenture's image, so the company was forced to perform an emergency image-ectomy. And that's where baby names come in.
I've written before that naming a child after a living celebrity is risky business. The problem is that the name's cultural meaning isn't yet settled. Just as Tiger Woods "means" something different in our society than he did a year ago, the meaning of celebrity's name can shift unpredictably over time.
We already know that much about politician's names. Until Watergate, you could count on a new president being honored with a spate of little namesakes. Today, parents wait until the president is safely part of history to commit to the homage. (Don't believe the breathless media accounts of a flood of baby Baracks. Alf Landon inspired far more namesakes losing the election in 1936 than Obama did winning in 2008.) When it comes to athletes, actors and musicians, though, parents are still willing to pull the trigger. That can lead to regret when a sports star changes teams, or worse when scandal hits.
Not every name is at equal risk. As we saw with Woods and Accenture, the stakes are highest when the celebrity defines the name's image. Take a name like Beyoncé (#700 in America in 2001). It exists because of Beyoncé Knowles, and its impact rides entirely on her shoulders. In contrast, performers like Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera hold little power over the names Alicia and Christina.
It may seem a cold calculation, weighing the the chances of disgrace for a favorite star as part of the joyous process of choosing a baby name. And certainly, some celebrities grant a lasting luster to their names -- Audrey Hepburn, for example. But just like a corporation with a sponsor, parents choosing a celebrity-infused name are putting a little bit of their future in a stranger's hands.
Some quick thoughts to usher in 2010:
The Battle for #1: Emma? Emily? Or...
2008 marked the end of Emily's 12-year reign as America's top name for girls. Both Emma and Isabella narrowly beat out the old champion.
But "beat out" may be a misleading term here. If Emily had simply stayed still at its 2007 popularity, it would have kept the title handily. What really happened is that the number of Emilys dropped by thousands, while the other names held steadier. That makes the 2009 picture murky, but my money's on a new champ: Isabella.
The Mysterious Listmaker
A new Namipedia user recently went on a spree, submitting dozens of new name pages during a three-hour name-a-thon. She was mostly completing political lists: Namipedia is now the proud repository of every name of past Prime Ministers of Italy (e.g. Ivanoe, Ferruccio) and Presidents of Mexico (Plutarco, Venustiano). But one series left me scratching my head. Can anybody spot a pattern in this list of actor/actress names?