A quick note for a short week

Aug 19th 2007

My apologies for tardiness this week -- I've been serving on a jury. Even baby naming can't slow the wheels of justice! So for now, let me leave you with a small thought I've been mulling over.

I know a six-year-old boy; let's call him Ambrose. Ambrose has a baby brother who is now six months old. I heard about the baby's name when he was first born, and the parents introduced me to him a few weeks later. The next time I saw that family, I had to quietly ask another friend to remind me of the baby's name. And the next time, too. I just cannot remember this kid's name. For me, this is a strange and unfamiliar feeling. (Over-attending to baby names is a hazard of my profession.) The baby's name? Let's call him Brad.

I'm convinced that my mental block comes from the wildly different styles of the two kids' names. "This is Ambrose's little brother Leopold," no problem. And if the older boy were a Greg or Scott, Brad would come right to mind. But the style shift seems to throw a wrench into my mental filing system. I can't stick Brad into the same folder as Ambrose.

Have any of you encountered similar pairs of names you can't remember? Could this be one more wrinkle in the ongoing debate, to match or not to match?

Which comes first, the origin or the name?

Aug 10th 2007

I field questions about baby names every day. They run the gamut from the profound to the silly, the deeply personal to the can-you-settle-this-bet. The variety is boundless, but one familiar question comes up again and again:

I made up this name for my child, can you tell me what it means?

On its face, this might seem like one of the silly questions. If you created the name yourself then surely you know where it came from. It's a new twist on a popular name, or a combination of your grandparents' names, or the catchiest arrangement you could make out of your Scrabble rack. That's its origin and thus its meaning, right? But the fact that this question is asked so often suggests there's more to it. Think of it as a call for connection in an era of extreme individuality in baby naming. We all want to go out on a limb, but with the comfort of knowing the tree's roots are still down there somewhere keeping us grounded. So parents choose a name first, then hit the books to reassure themselves that the name is "real."

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of this post-hoc search for meaning is Jaden. Jaden is a biblical name. Don't take my word for it, look it up in an online name dictionary. You'll learn that Jaden is a Hebrew name meaning "God has heard," from Nehemiah 3:7. Granted, the Biblical version is Jadon and it isn't pronounced to rhyme with Aidan, but close enough:

Next to them repairs were made by Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite--the men of Gibeon and of Mizpah--who were under the jurisdiction of the governor of the province Beyond the River. (Ne 3:7)

Nehemiah 3, if you're curious, chronicles the vast construction project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. You read of the many men (and a few unnamed women) who replaced bolts, rehung doors and repaired roofs. In fact, it may be illuminating to see the full range of names mentioned in this chapter. Due to space concerns, I'll limit myself to the first half, verses 1 to 16:


A fashion goldmine this is not. As recently as 15 years ago, when the revival of Old Testament names like Ethan and Hannah was already in full swing, not one of the dozens of names in Nehemiah 3 cracked the top 1000. Even the best known of the names, Uriah (familiar through a different character in the book of Samuel), was a relic. But Aidan and rhyming names like Hayden and Braden were rising fast. A few Jaydens and Jadens -- not Jadons -- crept in around 1994. Then in 1998 Will and Jada Pinkett Smith named their baby boy Jaden. Open the floodgates! Overnight, Jaden was red-hot in every imaginable spelling, just like Aidan, Hayden and Braden. And parents of Jadens, Jaydons and Jaidens were explaining to friends that they chose it because it's a biblical name.

Are those parents wrong? Delusional? Not really. If they cite the biblical connection, I assume it's legitimately important to them. It may not be the real reason behind the choice, but it's a lasting justification. Knowing a biblical Jadon is out there gives parents a reassuring glimpse of the roots of a tree of fashion that we're climbing dizzyingly higher every day. Thousands of years after his first job, Jadon the Meronothite is performing another round of maintenance work: helping parents stay happy with the name they chose.

Congratulations! It's a...uh oh.

Aug 6th 2007

You're well into the second trimester of your pregnancy. You're feeling fine, the baby has starting kicking and you're heading in to the doctor's office for a much-anticipated ultrasound. As the squirming image of the baby brings tears to your eyes, the ultrasound technician announces: "it looks like a boy!" You head home in a happy daze, marred only by this thought:

Uh-oh. Now I'll never be able to choose a name.

My husband and I loved debating girls' names but couldn't get too excited about any of the boys' options. (Our ultrasounds always said "girl," conveniently sparing us the decision.) Judging by mail from my readers the boy's-name block is a common experience, much more common than the reverse.

Why do so many of us find boys' names harder? Perhaps we're narrower in our notions of what's acceptably "masculine" vs. "feminine." Perhaps we're more conservative, less willing to go out on a creative limb. But perhaps -- for some of us -- the sense that "there just aren't any good boys' names" isn't mere perception.

Quick, which of these sets of girls' names appeals to you more:

A. Teagan, Ryleigh, Makayla
B. Isabel, Sophie, Evelyn

If you chose B, you're at much greater risk of boy-block.

For parents who embrace new or invented names, the choices are wide open. Kyler and Braeden, Colton and Jace are just a handful of the hundreds of new masculine names. The trouble awaits the fashionable traditionalists, the baby namers who have brought names like Isabel, Sophie and Evelyn back into style. For these parents, the sense that there aren't any suitable boys' names is flat statistical reality.

At some point around 200 years ago English boys' and girls' names diverged. Both entered a period of change, but girls far more so. Girls' names were tossed fully into the realm of fashion, so that a name like Evelyn could rise to the heights of popularity then fall out of style all in the space of just a few decades. Evelyn reached its peak in 1915, sharing the top 10 with other trendy names of the moment like Mildred, Dorothy, Helen, Ruth and Frances. But look at the top 10 boys of the same year:


As a group those names were popular for centuries before 1915, and all but George and Frank still rank among the top 100 boys' names today. Hmph. What's the fun in that? The most fashionable traditional names are those that were common in the past but dipped out of use 80+ years ago. They're familiar from history and literature but not tainted with the ordinariness of our own circle of acquaintance. That leaves them with the charming patina of antiques. Names like Thomas and James may be strong, timeless classics, but where's the spark that comes with "rediscovering" a forgotten classic? You can't rediscover something that never went away. In other words, the old-fashioned boys' names aren't old-fashioned enough.

I ran into this problem constantly when I was choosing the sibling name suggestions for the Baby Name Wizard book. Girl after girl seemed to match the same handful of boys. You can only suggest Emmett, Henry, Jasper, Julian, Leo, Max, Oliver, Owen and Theo so many times as matches for dozens of different girls' names.

So if you're looking for a little brother for Sophie and Isabel, it's not your imagination: boys' names really are harder. You aren't just restricted by your own tastes, you're at the mercy of the tastes of parents a century ago.