The Meaning Construction Zone

Apr 18th 2012

When people talk about a name's "meaning," they typically mean its linguistic origin or derivation. In some cases the origin is essential to the name's current cultural meaning, as in contemporary word and place names like Destiny and Paris or literary/mythological names like Romeo and Athena. More often, though, the original root has been utterly transformed, or is simply unknown. Even word-based names can quickly take on lives of their own, unmoored from their source words.

In most cases, then, what we call a "meaning" doesn't actually help us understand what the name means to a person who hears it today. Parents may occasionally go hunting for a name with a particular linguistic root. But usually, the "meaning" serves a different purpose. It lets us construct a story -- often after the fact -- to imbue the name with richer connotations.

Here's a lovely example from a recent celebrity baby name report:

NCIS star Michael Weatherly and Bojana Jankovic welcomed their daughter Olivia on Tuesday, but it wasn’t until after they chose her name (Mom picked it out!) that they realized its deeper significance.

“My wife Bojana is Serbian and her name means war or warrior,” Weatherly, 43, tells PEOPLE.

“And when you give someone an olive branch, that’s an offering of peace so Olivia is peace. I think we have a Tolstoy novel going on now: Mother and daughter, war and peace!”

There's the meaning of "meanings" in a nutshell. First, the parents picked an attractive name they liked, based on style. Then after the choice was made, they researched the name's origin and constructed a "deeper significance" that made them love it even more. When their daughter is old enough, they can share with her this charming story of how her name and her mother's are connected.

OK, if you want to get etymologically finicky, Olivia might not actually come from "olive." The name was created by Shakespeare, and while he might have taken it from the Latin for olive, it's also quite likely to be a feminine form of Oliver. And Oliver's ultimate source is unknown, but it's most likely something Germanic like Olaf ("ancestor's descendent") or Alfher ("elf warrior").

But what does it matter? The Weatherly-Jankovic family has settled on what the name means to them. Just like parents who invent creative names then go hunting for meaningful origins, they recognized that the names they give their children are more profound than just strings of letters. They're using etymology as a scaffolding on which to build a meaning that lives up to the name.

New Baby Name Forums: Come Join in the Name Talk!

Apr 11th 2012

You asked for it! Okay, to be honest, you've been asking for it for a long time, and I've finally seen the light. is proud to introduce its first messageboards, a home for the amazing BNW community to talk names, seek and give naming advice, agonize over Baby Name Pool ballots, and generally revel in baby names and everything they represent.

You'll see an orange button labeled Forums at the right of the top nav bar. Or if you don't feel like moving your mouse that far, just click on this link. I'm looking forward to chatting with you all!

(And by the way, if you're a long-time, active participant in the name talk here on this blog, please drop me a line about becoming an informal Moderator for the Forums and Namipedia!)

Many thanks,



Obsessed with names? You're not alone.

Apr 5th 2012

I've been practicing Baby Name Wizardry for a decade now, and I've seen plenty of changes in name trends. One of the biggest trends isn't about the names themselves, but about the way we talk about them -- or rather, how much we talk about them. Name talk is everywhere. My peculiar obsession with names doesn't seem so peculiar any more.

That's the sense I've had, at least. But perhaps it's just my name's eye view talking? Let's take a look.

First stop: the New York Times archives. How many Times articles have used the phrase "baby names" in the past five years? Answer: 70. Looking ten years earlier (April 1997-April 2002), that number was just twelve.  "Baby naming" shows similar growth, while other baby phrases like "baby clothes" and "baby strollers" have held steady.

Next stop: Google's Ngram viewer, which allows historical searches of a massive collection of books. Check out the Ngram graph of the rate of occurrence of "baby names" and "baby naming" in English-language books in the 20th Century. A surge in both phrases started around 1980 and kept on growing. And their data only goes up to the year 2000. Anybody think that curve has gone anywhere but up since?

It makes sense that names are a hotter topic than ever before. After all, they're more diverse and more meaningful than ever before. But isn't it nice to know, for sure, that you're in good company? Welcome to the obsession, everyone.