To match or not to match

Jan 5th 2007

"But do you think it really goes with Mackenzie?"
"What's a good match for Leo and Max?"

Questions about sibling names can start to sound like interior decoration. A few readers here have worried that parents who search for names that go together are treating children as accessories rather than individuals.

Certainly, some parents do focus on making a matching set. In Victorian times that impulse yielded sisters with names like Lily, Iris, Rose and Daisy. Today it's more likely to show up as alliteration -- the Kaylee, Kaylin, Kayden, Kaycey, Kaydence brood. But most often parents are looking for a subtler kind of match, a match based on the feeling and style of the name. And most often I think the impulse is a positive one.

It's no surprise that I'd feel that way. After all, The Baby Name Wizard is built around the idea of finding names that share a common style. The primary reason for this isn't to guarantee a matching set of kids but to match the parents' sense of style: look up a name you like to find others that hit the same notes. Realistically, if you chose Henry and Julia for your first two kids you're not likely to leap on Cheyenne or Maddisyn for baby #3. But would it matter if you did?

In our daily lives as adults, most people don't know or care what our siblings are called. Our names have to stand on their own as symbols of our individual selves. Yet to some extent, siblings are a set. They grow up together, and as children are often treated as a collective whole. They also compete and compare with one another and are exquisitely sensitive to any perceived inequities.

Imagine you meet a family with four daughters. Three of them, from the time they're born, are always dressed in the frilliest, girliest outfits available. The fourth is outfitted from babyhood in jeans and sweats. I think most of us would find that parenting choice unsettling. It signals to all of the girls that one of them is different, separate, and that the parents have different expectations of her. Now suppose instead that the four girls are named Arabella, Artemisia, Araminta...and Carter. What message does that send?

That's an artificial example, but variations on the theme happen all the time in the real world. How about a family with four girls, Kenzie, Jaelyn, Bailee and Kaiya, and then after them a boy, Douglas Richard Jr. Might those parents unintentionally signal to their girls that they had been waiting and waiting for a boy to inherit family traditions...for a boy to matter?

I'm not about to advocate siblings named April, May and June (or girls named Douglas Jr.) Sibling names can be wildly different and work wonderfully. But the cardinal rule among all sets of siblings is fairness. If you know that an eventual son will be a Junior, I'd make sure that your daughters' names also have some family connection that will feel special to them. If you start out with Arabella, Artemisia, and Araminta, an "A" or a lacy name is a nice signal of sibling connection and togetherness. And if your kids are Erasmus, Brayden, Guido and Harold, well feel free to forget about matching altogether. But if your tastes are really that unpredictable, I haven't met you. Parents are people, and they usually choose names that match their own consistent tastes, values and dreams.

The 2006 Name of the Year

Dec 21st 2006

I was dazzled by the outpouring of nominations for the official Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year. Thank you all for some outstanding suggestions, including angles I wouldn't have considered on my own. It was a tough year to make a choice as no single name truly dominated the landscape. (That's not necessarily a bad thing; consider Katrina last year.) I weighed a variety of factors including your votes, public awareness of the name phenomenon, a dramatic change in the name's social meaning or identity, and how the name reflected a broader zeitgest.

First, some runners up -- 3 names shaped by television in 2006:

Emmett. Back in August I identified Emmett as a name on the verge, one that parents were talking about a lot but hadn't quite pulled the trigger on. That was before retired football star Emmett Smith took home the top trophy on tv's "Dancing with the Stars." Zeitgeist bonus points: so who cares that you set the all-time NFL rushing record? You're nobody til you're a reality tv star. Points off for: the name is still a stealthy favorite, not really on everyone's lips (as the paucity of Emmetts in the nomination pool demonstrated).

Miley. A strong candidate for the out-of-nowhere role thanks to "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus (given name Destiny). Miley is a natural extension of Riley, Kiley et al. Points off for: Zeitgeist? What Zeitgeist? Besides, most Hannah Montana fans are still in the pre-procreation demographic.

Addison. I was surprised at first to see a flood of nominations for Addison. But the posters built a strong case: 2006 was a breakthrough year for Addisons as a character on "Grey's Anatomy" propelled the name out of Madison's shadow and into the the spotlight. It's clearly one of the hottest names of the year and an example of some of the strongest trends in naming. Androgynous surnames that contract to girlish nicknames are a soaring sub-genre. Even the baby step from Madison to Addison illustrates the constant but cautious hunt for novelty. Points off for: being more evolutionary than revolutionary in 2006. I had cited Addison as a hot example of the the "retractable surname" trend in the opening sections of The Baby Name Wizard.


Which brings us to the official Name of the Year:


Shiloh.

I don't know if you heard, but some couple named Brad and Angie had a baby girl this year and named her Shiloh. Ring any bells?

Yes, it's a celebrity baby name. But before you start yawning let me say that it's not just any name, and not just any celebrity. If there were a baby naming hall of fame Angelina Jolie would be a charter member. She chooses extremely unusual names: Maddox, Zahara and Shiloh. But while other celebrities earn snickers for their unconventional choices, nobody's laughing at the Jolie kids. Angelina is like that friend who shows up for a party wearing colors you never would have imagined putting together and maybe don't even like, but dang she looks good...and makes the rest of us in our basic black feel kind of timid.

When you think of the typical high-profile baby name, it's an island unto itself. Suri, Apple and Audio Science don't really belong to or influence any broader trends. Shiloh, in contrast, makes cultural connections. It's part of the revival of biblical rarities -- Shiloh is a place name from the Bible, adopted for towns in a number of U.S. states. It's also a nostalgic place name of the Savannah/Cheyenne family. By far the best known Shiloh is in Tennessee, where a horrific 1862 battle gave an early glimpse of the bloody years that were to lie ahead in the Civil War. The Battle of Shiloh claimed over 23,000 casualties and dominated the cultural meaning of Shiloh for generations to come.

Shiloh did have a history as a baby name long before Miss Jolie-Pitt hit the scene. You'll find occasional 19th-century Shilohs both before and after the Civil War, most of them male. The name tailed off after the 1880s and started to come back quietly starting in the late 1960s, this time chosen for girls and boys alike. Yet if you asked most Americans in 2005 their first association with Shiloh was surely still the battle, with second place going to the male beagle who headlined the 1992 Newbery-winning children's novel Shiloh.

You want a "change in the name's social meaning"? When I was writing my book I considered including Shiloh but decided that the battlefield associations were too strong. Now can you imagine leaving it out of the next edition -- or calling the name anything but feminine? And as little Shiloh was endlessly discussed in every known medium, the name sent out ripples into the great name landscape. Just as Maddox took the popular surname style and blew the doors off its preppy Payton-Tyler constraints, so Shiloh will make parents take a fresh look at the seemingly familiar realm of Biblical and Old-South place names. (Think Jericho for boys, Shenandoah for girls.) Massive public awareness, sudden change, portents of names to come...there is your Name of the Year.


And with that, I bid you a happy naming year. See you in 2007...and start thinking about your entries for this year's edition of the baby name pool!

What's hot where it's not

Dec 15th 2006

Before this year draws to a close, I'd like to take a look back at some of last year's hottest baby names. Using the standard Baby Name Wizard Hotness Formula for fast rising and falling names, the #1 hottest baby names of 2005 were....

Linus and Siren!

Linus took the boys' crown with a leap from 28 born in 2004 to a whopping 72 in 2005, while 33 girls were named Siren compared to just 10 in 2004. Yes, that's the story in Norway, while across the border in Sweden the hottest risers were Milo and Amelia.

Ok, chances are that you, dear reader, are not from Scandinavia. You are not considering naming your son Sveinung (2nd hottest in Norway), or Wilgot/Vilgot (16th and 17th in Sweden). So why am I telling you all this?

While some popular Scandinavian names are uniquely local, many others are international. And lately Scandinavia has proven to be a few years ahead of the U.S. in picking up on name ideas like Leo, Theodore and Clara. The Wilgot vs. Vilgot spelling dilemma probably doesn't make your list, but Milo and Amelia just might. So for a possible peek ahead, here are some international-styled names that are on the rise in Sweden and Norway right now:

GIRLS
Alva
Cornelia
Dania
Eleonora/Leonora
Elina
Filippa
Leona
Luna
Malaika
Melina
Nelli/Nelly
Noelle
Simone
Stella
Viola

BOYS
Conrad
Elliot
Enzo
Hector
Leon
Linus
Marco
Mateo
Roger
Theo