You Have Two Names

Feb 10th 2012

Every one of us has two given names. I don't mean first name and surname, or first and middle. I mean two entire names, each one of which represents our complete identity. These two are a sound and an image, or a spoken name and a written name.

We think of these names as being one. My name is Laura, whether I type it to you in this blog or speak it to you on the phone. But in fact they are two, linked but distinct.

Let's say your name, spoken, is "IZ-ə-behl." That's a familiar and fashionable classic. It's usually represented by the letter string Isabel or Isabelle, but in the past decade thousands of girls have also been given the written names Isabell, Isobel, Izabel, Izabelle, Izzabelle and more.

Or let's say your name, written, is Helena. That's a timeless choice, straight out of Shakespeare. It's traditionally represented by the sound heh-LAY-nə...or HEHL-in-ə, or heh-LEE-nə.

Are those IZ-ə-behls and Helenas all the same names, or are they all different? Surely the answer must be "both." They are the same names in one modality, and different in another.

Now imagine if both modalities were up in the air. That was the challenge in a question posed to The Name Lady last year. A grandmother was frustrated that her son and daughter-in-law were pronouncing her granddaughter's name wrong. They had named the girl Aida and pronounced it as two syllables, EYE-də. Grandma thought it should be eye-EE-də, like the opera. Some Name Lady readers felt that the real issue was that the name was spelled wrong; it should have been written Ida.

Think about that for a moment. If you can't decide whether a name is spelled wrong or pronounced wrong, what is the child's name, exactly? Again, I believe the answer must be dual. In that case, the name was the sound EYE-də and the letters Aida.

In today's naming climate, this distinction is far from academic. As we move from a world of Robert and James to a world of Jaylon and Kael, fewer and fewer babies receive names with clear single spellings and pronunciations. And for a name-seeking parent, that means making two decisions.

The standard impulse, even for creative namers, is to think of the sound as primary. Parents choose a spoken name, then tweak the spelling if desired. (Picture doing it the other way around, selecting a string of letters then cooking up a sound to match. It doesn’t feel right, does it?) It seems to me, though, that this strong privileging of sound is out of step with today’s naming reality.

Think of how many first impressions today are made in writing. A college or job application; a social network introduction; an online dating hookup. Is Khrystyna or Xristina really "just another spelling" of Christina? Don't those written names make wildly different impressions? And if so, isn’t it time that the written name be given its due in the selection process? Each part, sound and image, will fully represent your child for life.


p.s. in case you missed it, you can try the Expert Edition of -- more tools, no ads -- for 25% off this week!


Celebrate the ad-free BNW Expert experience -- at a discount!

Feb 7th 2012

Are you an Expert subscriber? If so, notice anything different? And if not, now is a great time to join! Expert is our set of baby-naming power tools -- personalized search tools that can read your mind, or let you pinpoint the qualities you're looking for in a name. We put a lot of effort into creating the best name site possible, and we appreciate the subscribers who support us.

To show that appreciation, we committed to making the Expert version of the site ad-free. We've been stamping them out one by one (this site has a lot of complicated moving parts). I'm happy to say that Expert subscribers finally have a 100% ad-free experience for smooth searching.

To celebrate, we're throwing a little Expert party. For the next week, use the coupon code NOADSYAY! at checkout to take 25% off any subscription. That includes gift certificates for all the expectant parents and name-loving people in your life. What could be better than the gift of names?


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New: International Baby Name Popularity Lists

Feb 2nd 2012

Ever wonder what the most popular names are in Lithuania, or Israel? At, we wonder about those things all the time. That's why we keep tabs on baby name statistics from around the world.

Now you can too. Our new international name popularity page shows the latest rankings from 36 different countries and regions.

If you just can't wait to know about Lithuania, the top names are Matas for boys and Emilija for girls. (In other words, Matthew and Emily.) And in Israel...well, I'll let you see for yourself, but it's reminiscent of Oliver and Olivia being #1 in England.

Go check out the international name lists!