...it's how you finish

Nov 17th 2006

Quick, what do these five girls' names have in common?

Kaya
Kayden
Kayli
Kaylah
Kaylynn

Not exactly subtle, is it? That opening Kay- makes them all peas in a pod. But the five Kays share another distinction too: they're all names from the 2004 top 1000 that didn't make the charts 15 years before. It's that kind of sound-based trend that makes the NameVoyager compelling. Type in KAY- and you're looking at last month; type in ED- and you're looking at a time gone by .

There's more to sound style than just openings, though. For a counterpart to the KAY- names, take a look at the -LEEs and -LEIGHs:

Name endings like these play a powerful role in defining the sound of the times. To demonstrate that power, here are three girls' names I just made up. I'll bet you can assign one of them to a birth year in the 1920s, one to the 1960s and one to the current decade.

Cardene
Cardi
Cardyn

So here's a challenge: can you think of different ending sounds to peg the style of each decade from the 1880s to today? (Hint: girls' names change the quickest, so they're usually the best place to look.) There are many possible answers...I'll give you one set next time.

Who do you trust?

Nov 10th 2006

Back in June I discussed "likeable" names -- the names that are perceived as friendly, approachable and trustworthy. The surest route to likeability turned out to be adopting a short form of a familar classic name. For further proof, let's turn to some experts in perceptions of honesty and likeability: politicians.

In 1976, United States voters reeling from Watergate-era dishonesty elected a man who took his inaugural oath under the name Jimmy. In 1990 Michael Dukakis, known to friends as Michael, campaigned as likeable Mike. And this week's senatorial candidates, based on the names used in their campaign materials, included:

Ben
Bernie
Bill
Bob (3)
Debbie
Dick (2)
Herb
Jack
Jeff
Jim (3)
Joe
Jon (2)
Ken
Mike (3)
Ned
Pete (2)
Rich
Rick
Tom (2)

Allmost every candidate with a traditional, multisyllabic name campaigns under a nickname. To find a nickname-free race you have to turn to candidates with no naming alternatives, like the Kent vs. Dwight race in North Dakota. (Though even those aren't givens...think of Dwight "I Like Ike" Eisenhower.)

Would Senator Jeff Bingaman, who pulled in over 70% of the New Mexico vote, really have faced an uphill battle had he dared to campaign under his given name? Hard to believe. But many politicians cling to their nicknames so doggedly that even official Senate websites don't reveal the names on their birth certificates. (It's Jesse Francis Bingaman, Jr. by the way.) Clearly, a nickname is seen as a crucial part of a candidate's all-important public image. Just a point to ponder for the many, many parents who insist on keeping nicknames away from their children. A name can serve many functions, and sometimes options come in handy.

Born free

Nov 4th 2006

When a common word is adopted as a baby name, the word's meaning suffuses the name. Lily speaks of gentle sweetness, Raven is bold, Hope eternally sunny. But occasionally, the name can also help us understand the word.

Take this graph of the usage of one word name in the United States over the past century. From the dates, can you guess what the name might be?



That name, sparked by world events in three different decades, is Liberty. It's just one name but with several shades of meaning. 1918 marked the end of World War I. That year's little Liberties were triumphant celebrations as the world emerged from a dark and dangerous time. 1976 was the American bicentennial, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Those Liberties were dedicated to the ideals of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In 2001, for the first time Liberties were inspired by tragedy rather than triumph. In the wake of the September 11 attacks the name was proud and resiliant.

The 2001 crop of little Liberties also differed from its predecessors in another way: it stuck around. A lot has changed in America in the past five years, yet the name Liberty is still holding strong. In large part, I suspect that's a function of style. Names like Destiny, Trinity, Journey, Harmony and Serenity also make the top 1000 today. Yet naming a daughter Liberty remains a statement--of one kind or another. Whether it's the Liberty of "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" or of "American Civil Liberties Union" varies from family to family. And someday, each Liberty will have to look in the mirror and decide for herself.