The New Belle Epoque

Apr 2nd 2010

What do these names have in common?


OK, the -bell part is a gimme. But there's more. None of them are traditional given names, and all of them have been submitted to Namipedia by readers. They have plenty of of company in the Bell system, too, including 16 names on the girls' top 1000 list. Put it all together and you have the strongest Belle generation this country has ever seen, eclipsing the previous 18th-century peak. (For those of you keeping track at home, I'm only counting names with a full "bell" sound, not names like Campbell and Mabel that swallow the vowel.)

I believe there's still more to come. Bel, Belle and Bella are remarkably flexible combining forms. Most two-syllable girl's name ending in a vowel sound will work, and there's an endless supply of those. Avabella? Sure. Jennabelle? Heck, why not?

Here's how some of the parents who submitted their Belle names to Namipedia described it:

"My husband and I like Elizabeth, but I did not like the possibility my child would be called Liz. Therefore, my husband came up with Elizabella. This allowed us to keep the feel of the name Elizabeth, but have the advantage of calling her Bella for short."

"I have always loved the name 'Bella,' but always felt that something should be added to the name, for example 'Isabella.' I looked for three letter first names with strong meanings. And found 'Adi.' So far, I have been receiving compliments about the name. It's unique, and when you read the name backwards, it's particular meaning says 'Beautiful Diamond or Jewel.'"

That "beautiful" connotation of Belle and Bella is an extra boon to parents who like the idea of names having meanings. It's an interesting example of the difference between "meanings" and "origins". The original -bel names that established the style, like Amabel and Isabel, weren't constructed from the Latin root for beauty. But they coincided happily with it, and centuries of parents have jumped on that coincidence.

That brings us to one other thing that list of Belle names has in common. I let them all stay in Namipedia, based on likely appeal to other parents. The Belles have a powerful style weapon: unlike most contemporary mix-and-match styles, they follow a traditional, old-fashioned form. That leaves even the new inventions with a sweetly antique style that appeals across the fashion spectrum. Admit it, traditionalists -- you kind of like Miabella, don't you? As for Avabella...coming soon to a Namipedia near you.

The Name Not Taken

Mar 25th 2010

Last week power-blogger Jason Kottke published a list of the names he didn't choose for his baby daughter. In his words, "Since we are so so (SO!) done having kids, I thought I'd share our list in case someone else finds any of them useful."

The list is very consistent in style. The girls are conspicuously but charmingly antique (Beatrix, Coralie), while the boys are quirky, pint-sized traditionals (Hugo, Finn). Milton is a notable outlier. All in all, a stylish group with an upscale urban/artsy feel.

What really fascinated me, though, wasn't the names themselves but the baby-naming psychology that the blog post embodied. The title, while jokey, says a lot: "Baby names for sale, never used." I suspect most parents can relate to this. It's as if our rejected names still in some way belong to us.

Have you ever seen an exchange between the mother of a toddler and another mom with a newborn baby, something like this? "Oh, Felix? Felix was on our short list when Jasper was born!!" Jasper's mom beams, feeling a real link with little Felix. Meanwile baby Felix's mom smiles tightly at the interloper who dares to think she owns some piece of the special name which belongs to HER, darn it!

As we mull over our short lists, we become attached to the names. They each develop personalities, linked to images of our potential future with different possible children. Even after the winning name is chosen and the baby born, the attachment to the runners-up lingers.

Like Mr. Kottke, many of us also view our unused names as a mildly tragic waste. I'm hardly immune to this myself. I was thrilled when a new nephew received a favorite boy's name that had "gone to waste" when my youngest daughter was born. When you stop to think about it, though, it's a little nonsensical to think of names as assets in that way. In my case it was a traditional name, not something I invented. It was an infinitely renewable resource, and not something that would go to the landfill if unused. How can something so abstract and hypothetical ever "go to waste"?

Part of the sense of waste may be about the time and effort we put into assembling our name lists. But more important, I think, is the sense of value being wasted. All of our name lists have something in common: they reflect our own personal tastes. That means they're flat-out gorgeous. They're the best possible names! How can we let such a valuable resource sit mouldering? Shouldn't we share that bounty, "in case someone else finds any of them useful"?

Name Teaser: Add-a-Letter

Mar 17th 2010

Lots of names can morph into variants just by adding a letter to the end. Sometimes the extra letter changes the sex: Robert expands to Roberta, Julia to Julian. Sometimes the letter changes the ethnicity, turning Carl into the Italian Carlo, then Carlo into the Spanish Carlos. You can make diminutives with a single letter, too -- just ask Mikey.

But when you add a consonant other than n or s, funny things happen. If you manage to make a new name at all, it's likely to be completely unrelated to the name you started with.

Here's an example from the top of the alphabet. Ada is a name that goes back about 250 years and is believed to come from the Germanic name element adal ("noble"). Add an m, though, and you have the Biblical Hebrew name Adam.

Can you find more?