What do the names Naomi, Rhys, Milo and Kaylee have in common? Stylistically, not much. Yet all four names have risen significantly in the past decade, and they have a shared pattern to thank: all of their vowel sounds are long.
English long vowel sounds are pronounced like the names of the vowels themselves. A as in Kayla, e as in Gene, i as in Lila, o as in Owen, u as in Hubert. In this vowel-centric naming age, they reign supreme. Long vowels have fueled recent hit names from Aidan to Zoe. They're among the reasons why James sounds more current than George, and why Grace has come back stronger than Pearl.
What happens if you concentrate their style power? What if all the vowel sounds in a name are long? I looked at all of the names ranked in the top 500 for boys and girls and found 103 that fit that description: 47 one-syllable names, 52 two-syllable, and 2 three-syllable.* A handful of the names, like Amy and Mary, were hits of past generations. As a group, though, the long-vowel all-stars capture the sound of the times across a wide range of styles:
Can the vowels point us to potential new hit names? Here are some less-common choices with vowel power behind them:
* In identifying long-vowel names I skipped over nicknames, as well as Spanish and Arabic names because they have different sound patterns. I also counted an "oo" sound as a long u.
Each name page in Namipedia collects all sorts of information, including personal experiences. Some of the name stories that visitors have shared are informative and revealing. Others are deeply moving. Some, though, are pure entertainment. You just can't beat a candid glimpse into the naming id.
I've collected some Namipedia commentary that has made me smile. Anybody have other favorites to share?
(Cheyanne) "By changing the second 'e' to an 'a' I was able to partially name her after my mother without my husband catching on."
"My name is Olivia and it's funny because above it says 'intelligent' and I was very intelligent through elementary school."
(Anakin) "I have had a lot of people tell me that it is a pretty sounding name, even if it had not come from Star Wars. I almost always hear children ask their parents why they didnt name them after a character."
(Nadalyne) My friend Holly emailed me one day when I was eight and the email said:
I`m gonna have a BABY SISTER!!!
ZOMG, AWESOME HUH?!
I can`t believe it. It`s gonna be so cool! I haven`t replied because of it, for the past 6 months, sorry! SO SORRY! REALLY!! But it`s REAL cool! A GIRL!"
Tell me, what`s her name?"
I waited a long time, and the reply came.
"ZOMG, IT`S TWINS!
My parent`s named them Nadalou and Nadalyne! AWESOME!!!"
(Kinzie) "This is my name. I don't know why my parents decided to name me this. Maybe it was a sick joke or something? I recently found out there is a famous sex expert guy with the same name, except it is spelled differently. Life has now become quite awkward. Now I can only hang out with stupid people who haven't heard of this famous sex guy in order to avoid awkward moments."
(Sabrina) "I looked up the meaning of the name several years ago, and it meant 'Seenymphe.' I like that meaning way more than what I'm finding it means now. Someone should change it back!!"
I often tell parents not to get too panicky about a name becoming popular, since popular just means "well-liked." But in fact, the rate of usage of a name doesn't tell you everything about how much people like or dislike it. Popular sentiment is a dynamic brew of the positive and negative. For instance, over the past decade about the same number of American boys have been named Ellis, Elmer and Adonis, but I guarantee you that Ellis will generate the fewest negative reactions of the three.
Some uncommon names seem to be lightning rods for criticism and wrinkled noses (e.g. Bertha). Other names can be equally rare, yet nobody has a bad word to say about them (Blythe). At the opposite end of the spectrum, the most popular names are unquestionably well-liked, yet some of them also generate a lot of negative sentiment. Most often that's just a matter of familiarity breeding contempt. They're victims of their own success: "THAT name again?" But other names are divisive because they're stylistically potent, the naming equivalent of a habanero chili. That makes them catnip for people who happen to like the style, anathema for those who don't. (Nevaeh is one example.)
Some months ago I set out to gauge negative name sentiment. I looked at conversations on internet messageboards where people were discussing names that rubbed them the wrong way. These were spontaneous suggestions, names that triggered strong enough negative sentiment to leap to people's minds as annoying or unattractive. Scanning the web, I tallied thousands of these negative "votes." It was definitely not a scientific study, but I took care to include a broad range of online forums, avoiding name-enthusiast dens and aiming for social, ethnic and age diversity.
Similar themes were echoed everywhere, and the results painted a clear picture of lightning-rod names. Androgynous names, virtue names and names that travel in rhyming packs were among the most mentioned. Unfortunately, I didn't think to call them "lightning-rod names" at the time. When I wrote about the top results, I rather fliply referred to them as the "most hated names." That loaded term led the discussion off track. (I even got hate mail, and complaints that I was pushing an "agenda" against certain names. For the record, my only agenda is pro-name.)
I'd like to circle back now to the core idea, because the push and pull of name sentiment can be fascinating and revealing. I hope that fact will shine through in today's list, which is the very opposite of the lightning-rods. Meet America's least divisive names: the names that generate the most positive sentiment, as measured by popularity stats, with little to no negative sentiment, as measured by internet grousing. Think of them as the "sure thing" names that satisfy everyone. In food terms, they're pizza rather than 5-alarm chili.
But then again, I have a daughter who can't stand pizza.
LEAST DIVISIVE BOYS
Since we're looking at highly popular names, the boys' list inevitably skews traditional. Even given that slant, though, some striking patterns emerge. Old Testament biblical names are huge, representing 11 of the 20 choices. The front of the alphabet dominates too. And the more contemporary choices are ALL two syllables ending in -n. One notable name: Evan was also named in an earlier survey on the friendliest/most likeable names (a rare full name in a sea of friendly nicknames). That's one likeable name, all right.
LEAST DIVISIVE GIRLS
I was surprised to see that the most popular girls' names in America were largely shut out of this list. While 6 of the current top 20 boys' names made the grade, Sophia is the only top 20 girl's name listed. In fact, I had to cut the girls' list short, because it was getting to the point where the names were so much less common than the names on the boys' list that it wasn't fair to use the same criteria.
As a group, the girls' names show remarkable stylistic consistency. With a few exceptions (e.g. Michelle, Lillian), I could imagine this being the baby name "short list" of a real expectant couple. Most of the names are neither young nor old, neither cutesy nor stuffy. Uncontroversial turns out to be a style in its own right.