An idle challenge

May 4th 2007

What does a Baby Name Wizard dwell on, lying awake in the wee hours before dawn? How about finding the name with the highest total Scrabble value. (Sorry, make that the highest point value in the Scrabble® Brand Crossword Game. There, having gotten that out of the way we can get on with our little fun.)

By my scoring system you only look at the face value of the letters, no double-word or triple-letter scores (let alone a 50-point bonus for 7-letter names!) Only names appearing in the NameVoyager count. A cheat-sheet of letter values is here. My high score is 30, have I missed any higher?

And on that uber-namegeek note, we head into the busiest weeks of the baby naming year. The 2006 U.S. name statistics are due out at the end of next week. As usual I'll be reporting on trends and surprises, updating the NameVoyager, and tabulating scores in the Baby Name Pool. And this year, I expect to have something entirely new to announce as well. Stay tuned...

The last shall be first: the tale of K

Apr 26th 2007

Today we're taking style down to its barest elements. This is a portrait of a single letter, the popular, powerful K. If any letter defines modern American name style, K is it. With a handful of traditional exceptions -- Katherine, Kenneth -- K names share an aggressively contemporary spirit.

It's a letter that can establish a name's style all by itself, and parents know it. For instance, I've found K to be the #1 choice for sibling alliteration. You're more likely to meet a family of Kyle, Kaitlyn and Kayla than Mason, Mackenzie and Morgan. The letter also lures parents who like to modernize traditional names. Compare Christina and Kristina; Caleb and Kaleb; Casey and Kasey.

The K names naturally hang together. When I type Kayla and Kaitlyn into my NameMatchmaker half of the results start with that same letter. Love it or hate it, K is a marker of modernity. (And I bet you do love it or hate it, don't you? Quick gut check: Caleb or Kaleb? That one choice will tell you a lot about your name style.)

K's modern touch leaps out in the popularity numbers:

In fact, the change in K names is even bigger than it looks. That graph shows names with a K anywhere inside them. In the early years of the graph, two thirds of the names end in K; in the later years, two thirds start with the letter. What's more, until the 1950s the K-starts consisted of nothing but Kenneth and various forms of Katherine. The K names as we know know them didn't exist.

K's movement from ending to initial is a total cultural transformation of the letter. As an ending, K isn't kontemporary or kreative -- it's gruffly masculine. Take a look at all -K names over time:

Beyond the stats, K endings are staples of my "macho swagger" name list: Rock, Dirk, Buck, Hawk. And they're at an all-time low.

Today's K-namers like to start names with a bang then taper off gently. Not surprisingly, quite a few of the names are used for boys and girls alike: Kristian, Kayden, Kamren. It's a glossy style Rock and Buck would have nothing to do with. But Rock and Buck haven't been heard from in decades. Today's parents are named Kevin and Krista themselves.

Let's start a trend!

Apr 13th 2007

It started with presidents. Names like Tyler, Carter, Jackson and Madison struck a balance between fresh and familiar that felt right to thousands of parents. The -er and -son styles proved enduring and flexible, from the elegant (Chandler) to the vigorous (Ranger), the old-time (Jefferson) to the new-fangled (Dawson).

Suppose you're the type who is drawn to these names, but you feel they've become a little too ubiquitous. (If you're actually the type drawn to names like Ezekiel, Fernando, or Bob, just play along for kicks.) Is there a successor to the -ers and -sons in sight? Here's one candidate: -man.

The -man names are just as familiar but nobody's using them for baby names. More than 80 -er and -son surnames make the top-1000 baby name charts; the only -man names are Coleman and Norman. Most of the 'mans come from old English and German surnames based on personal descriptions or, like Tyler and Carter, occupations. (Not all of those occupations were romantically rugged, by the way. A "Spencer" was a pantry servant, while a "Harriman" was a servant to someone named Harry.)

Up until now, the -man names have been represented mostly by "soft" examples like Norman and Sherman. Use some crunchier consonants and you discover a font of contemporary machismo. The nicknames have particular promise. Some choices, like Jackman, are creative formal versions for popular nicknames. Others like Tillman and Beckman offer up whole new nicknames with a masculine punch.

In fact, the masculinity of the entire genre may appeal to parents wary of the androgyny of names like Addison and Taylor. (If you want to avoid an androgynous future, just steer clear of names that shorten to feminine-sounding nicknames: Holliman, Merriman.) Names like Spearman and Bowman rival the machismo of Ranger and Gunnar...and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Rodman has no future as a girl's name.

So whadya say, surname lovers? Want to start a trend? Here's a starter list to spark some ideas: