I usually have a rule of thumb about baby names of the rich and famous. Celebrity names have a big impact on national baby name trends. What celebrities name their own kids matters not a whit. If the likes of, say, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner name their daughter Violet, that name may indeed become popular. But that doesn't necessarily mean the celebrities are responsible for the trend. Most often, it just means that they're part of a demographic that was already starting to turn to the name. Violet, for instance, hits the sought-after style sweet spot: familiar but uncommon, surprising but widely liked, and just a small step out from current favorites (Lily, Ivy, etc.) It's also the name of the daughter in The Incredibles. In the years to come you'll doubtless hear the Afflecks cited as the reason for the trend, but they're just a blip on the name horizon.
So that's the rule of thumb. And then there's Angelina Jolie.
Ms. Jolie is an unprecedented force in the world of baby names: a genuine style maker. Part of it is the extraordinary fame she and her partner Mr. Pitt share. A bigger part is her genuine style savvy, which I discussed in the 2006 Name of the Year post. But equally important is the speed with which the Jolie-Pitt family has expanded. Three children have joined them in the past two years, allowing Jolie-Pitt namespotting to become a reliable pastime.
This week, the world was introduced to Pax Thien Jolie, age 3, a native of Vietnam. Pax is the Latin word for peace. In the U.S. it may be best known for the Pax TV network (now known as ION) which featured gentle, family-oriented programming. It has been used as a given name only occasionally, with a flurry around the end of WWI. It's also a nickname for the rising name Paxton. Stylistically, Pax fits the rise of subtle meaning-based names (e.g. Nevaeh) as well as the national obsession with the letter X:
Pax's middle name Thien is Vietnamese (though not the boy's birth name). It is a name and word of deep spiritual resonance, with a meaning akin to "heavens." Similarly, Jolie's oldest son Maddox bears a middle name from his country of origin, Cambodia. The middle name Chivan is often translated as "life" and is born by a member of the Cambodian royal family, Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak. In a few recent news stories Chivan has been described rather unfortunately as a made-up name with no origin...a misreading of both the name and the family. All the Jolie-Pitt clan's names come from somewhere, loudly and proudly.
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:
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, Tova...you 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.