That name is SO five minutes ago

Mar 9th 2007

My, how styles are changing! More than 600 name-loving people entered this year's Baby Name Pool, guessing the fastest rising and falling names of 2006. The results won't be in until the Social Security Administration sings, but the votes themselves say a lot about name fashion.

The top prediction for a name falling out of favor: by a landslide, Madison.

The top prediction for a name soaring into style: by a landslide, Addison.

Some change, eh?

In fact, they're both canny choices. Last year the girl's name Madison began to decline in popularity after a 2-decade dizzying climb. Names that rise that fast often drop fast too, and as a top-5 name Madison still has a long way to fall. Addison, meanwhile, was a finalist for the 2006 Name of the Year award right here. It's a freshened up take on a favorite, bolstered by television (a character on "Grey's Anatomy").

Yet you could hardly blame anyone who looked at the two names and said, "what's the difference"? It's like the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where the fashion neophyte snickers that two similar belts are called so different. The style is in the details. But when it comes to names, we're all the fashion mavens. We respond to the subtleties. Hundreds of web users tabbed Addison as hot, Madison not. Count it as one more reminder why I don't combine variants of names in my popularity listings. (For those of you who tried to sneak in entries like "Isabel/Isabella" in the Pool, I just counted the first name listed!")

But in the end, beauty is still in the eye of the beholder. Madison ranked #6 in the rising name predictions, too.

For a further look into the fashion crystal ball, here are the rest of the top vote getters from this year's Pool:

1. Addison
2. Ava
3. Emma
4. Aiden
5. Ella
6. Madison
7. Isabella
8. Violet
9. Olivia
10. Aidan

1. Madison
2. Emily
3. Emma
4. Ashley
5. Jacob
6. Jennifer
7. Michael
8. Britney
9. Jessica
10. Hannah

Names without borders

Mar 1st 2007

Many globe-trotting readers have asked for advice on choosing names that "travel well." Foreign relatives, international work assigments, or simply a sense of the small world around us can make a global-ready name an attractive target.

You may have specific cultural targets. Indian-Americans, for instance, know the standard pool of "crossover names" -- Maya, Sarita, Neil -- that sound natural in both of the cultures they straddle. But suppose your goal isn't a specific cultural match but a broad accessibility? What can make an English-based name attractive and pronounceable for the rest of the world?

In one respect, current styles are already leading in that direction. As I've discussed in the past, American fashion has turned against names with multiple pronounced consonants in a row. English has plenty of these consonant clusters, in words (prompt, strange) as well as names (George, Martha.) Yet many languages simply don't permit clusters, or severely restrict them. Japanese and Hawaiian are familar examples. Think of typical names from those cultures, like Kalani Kealoha or Takahiro Suzuki.

Even languages that load up on consonant clusters may not permit the same ones as English. In Spanish, for instance, S* clusters don't start words: special is especial, Steven is Esteban. And unfamiliar clusters are notoriously frustrating tongue-twisters for ESL students. English speakers are similiarly tripped up by some Slavic name openings; think Ksenia and Sviatoslav. So rule #1 for smooth traveling: keep the consonants apart.

For single sounds, the vowel sounds ah, ee and oo are near-universal and vowels in general are pretty forgiving. In speech, a slightly-off vowel tends to be less disruptive than a slightly-off consonant. From the annals of ESL classes, the classic insanity-inducing English sound is TH, both voiced ("thy") and unvoiced ("thigh"). W is the least favored letter.

Finally, there's the question of endings. In many languages, names ending in vowels are more comfortable than consonant endings. Hawaiian and Japanese apply once again, along with Italian, Kiswahili, etc.

So where does this leave us? Frankly, with a lot of girls' names. You can use these rules to generate plenty of names, familiar and unfamiliar, with a simple, timeless feminine sound. Try Adina, Amira, Anna, Ayana, Leila, Lena, Malaika, Malia, Mari, Melina, Mika, Mira, Nina, Saniya, Shani, Sofia, Talia, Tamara, get the idea. But boys are tougher. Not that options don't exist (Nico and Dario, for example). But by and large the closer you get to a globalized boy's name the farther you get from an American one. You may never have met an American girl named Adina or Shani, but would you blink an eye if you did? For an American-sounding boy, though, you typically have to slap a consonant on the end. Try Lucas, a hit name from New Zealand to Belgium, Sweden to Brazil.

One more week to enter the Baby Name Pool!

Feb 23rd 2007

If you're reading this blog, you should enter the Baby Name Pool. Here's why.

The Pool, now in its second year, asks you to guess names that rose and fell in popularity in 2006. In a sense, it's about fashion -- what's hot and what's not. But names are so rich in cultural connections that it's really about the broad zeitgeist. Last year you would have beat all comers by keeping an eye on MTV ("Laguna Beach" spawned the hot name Talan) and auto racing (Danica, thanks to driver Danica Patrick). But names reflect our serious sides, too. The reverent name Johnpaul and its feminine counterpart Karol also soared in 2005. And true style mavens might have predicted the cross-breeding of hot styles: the androgynous surname trend + the rise of Emily and Emma = hot new Emery and Emerson.

You live in the world and you bring your own unique perspective. Maybe you happen to know three baby Mathildas; maybe you wish you could name a baby Akon. Maybe you just remember what you've seen on TV -- last year not one of the 500 entrants thought of Talan or Johnpaul.

So take a stab! Give your impression of the year in names by entering the contest at