Hayaven backwards: on the meaning of meanings

Feb 18th 2009

Not long ago, a reader wrote to me about a name she saw in the newspaper that gave her pause: Nevayah.

For those of you new to the baby naming wars, the name Nevaeh is a one-of a kind phenomenon.  It was dreamed up by one prominent parent in 2001, based on an anagram -- it's "heaven" backwards.  The idea caught on like wildfire, so that today it ranks #31 among all U.S. girls' names, ahead of the likes of Katherine and Jessica.  The anagrammatic origin was the key to its appeal.  As I wrote in my book, many parents see it as "a loving secret message to a child."

But when the 2006 baby name statistics were released, I noticed something surprising.  The name Neveah -- note the spelling -- also cracked the top-1000 list.  In 2007, it moved up 100 points higher.  Haeven backwards?  What's the idea?

Some of those alleged Neveahs are likely to be transcription errors.  The -aeh ending is non-standard in English, and somewhere in the data-entry process someone could have easily transposed it to the more familiar -eah, as in Leah.  But I suspected that a large number of the Neveahs were real, and that the transposition was done by the parents, intentionally.  They saw that the -aeh ending was awkward, so they "corrected" it to something more familiar.

Since then, a rising tide of creative respellings supports that belief.  Not only are little Neveahs on the upswing, but so are Niveahs, Naveyahs and Nevayahs.  There's little chance that Nevayah is a mere transcription error (or that the parents think the world beyond is "hayaven").  Rather, those parents did what so many contemporary parents do: they looked at a popular name and decided to personalize it to make their child's name unique.

But there's a big, big difference between Nevayah and, say, Maddasyn.  Nevaeh's spelling is its meaning.  Respell it, and it means nothing!  Which makes it...just like every other name.

Nevayah and friends are the ultimate demonstration of how names have a life far beyond their literal origins.  This has been true for time immemorial.  You may be able to trace a name back to its Old English meaning, but even back when Old English was New many of the familiar roots (Eg, Ethel, Bert, Dred, etc.) had become standardized as name elements. They were recombined at will, regardless of meaning.  Yep, 12th-century parents were already doing their own version of mashups like Gracelyn and McKayleigh.

As soon as a word becomes a name, it takes on a new meaning.  It is a social construction, shaped by the people who bear it.  Which is why traditional name dictionaries, fascinating as they are, tell us only a small piece of the story.

All the Fins in the Sea

Feb 10th 2009

Here's a stylish name: Finn.  It's swift, simple, and traditional, and its popularity is rising fast.  In the Nordic lands, Finn stems from the Old Norse Finnr (wanderer).  In Ireland, Finn comes from Fionn meaning white or fair.  It's associated with the legendary hero Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill), who in various legends had either pale blond or prematurely white hair.

There's no question that Finn is a "legitimate" full name.  But here in America, one syllable somehow isn't full enough.  American parents often get squeamish about short names, finding them too informal or insubstantial for a legal birth certificate.  Not to worry, though. Both origins of Finn offer multisyllabic solutions.  If you lean toward the Nordic, you could go with the Icelandic form Finnur which, like much of Icelandic naming, hews close to the old Norse roots.  Finn also works as a combining element to produce names like Finnbjørn, Torfinn and Dagfinn.  On the Irish side you'll find more names built off of the Fionn element, including Finbar and Fintan. Problem solved...right?

OK, back to reality. Your local playground isn't hopping with Finbars and Finnbjørns.  Those names are too big a fashion leap for most American parents.  The trick is to extend the name without straying too far from the sweet spot of current style.  The most popular solution: Surnames.

Just as Gray became Grayson and Colt became Colton, Finn is growing suffixes that lend it a new surname style.  Take a look at the boys' names beginning with FIN in the NameVoyager.  Finn first hit the top 1000 in the year 2000; Finley and Finnegan followed a few years' later.

Finlay is actually a classic given name in Scotland, the Anglicized form of Fionnlagh.  It's currently the 13th most popular name for Scottish boys.  In the U.S., though, Finlay/Finley has always been more familiar as a surname.  Looking U.S. census records, surname-Finleys have consistently outnumbered firstname-Finleys by a ratio of 6 to 1.  That surname association is reflected in our spelling preference, too.  We go with the "e" version Finley, which traditionally is much more standard for a last name than a first.

Finnegan, in contrast, is unambiguously a surname.  Many parents find its length and heft appealingly formal.  (Ironically, it actually comes from a diminutive of Finn; think of it as Gaelic for "little Finny.")  To many parents, Finnegan has another big advantage over Finley, too.  If we're squeamish about a boy's name that sounds like a nickname, we positively quail at a boy's name that sounds like a girl.  Take a look now at the NameVoyager graph of girl's names starting with Fin.  Like Bailey, Kelsey, Shelby, and so many other -y surnames, Finley is becoming a baby-girl magnet.  So don't be surprised to see plenty of little boy Finnegans in America's future.  Or if you're pondering options for your own little Finn, just trust the name and take it straight.

Calendar naming: Extreme edition

Feb 4th 2009

A few weeks back I talked about seasonal names that rise and fall based on the calendar -- specifically, the name April.  Around the world, the time of birth is a traditional source of naming inspiration.  Many African names such as Kofi ( from the Akan language, meaning "born on a Friday" ) commemorate the day or season.  Other traditions mark holiday births with special names, such as Esther and Mordecai for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

In some Christian traditions, though, calendar-based naming is a 365-days-a-year custom.  The Roman Catholic and Orthdox churches maintain saints' calendars, remembering and celebrating the lives of the holy on specific days of each year.  In many communities it is an old tradition to name children for a saint whose feast day falls on their their birthdate. And therein lies today's curious tale, of seasonal names as a footnote to history.

France was one of the world's trend-setters in the orderly regulation of names.  The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, a landmark set of reforms in 1539 that helped establish modern France, set down the first formal naming rules.  The ordinance established hereditary surnames and required all baby names to be registered, with priestly approval required. Practically speaking, this meant that babies were to be named for saints, most often the saint dictated by the calendar.

The Villers-Cotterêts rules held until the French Revolution, when the calendar itself was turned upside down. The new Republican government appointed a team of mathematicians who devised an entirely new calendar based on a decimal system.  While the Bible prescribes a day of rest after six days of work, the secular Revolutionary Calendar opted for efficient 10-day weeks.  (The working public failed to appreciate the mathematical elegance of the longer weeks.)

A committee of poets then took on the job of naming all the parts of the new year.  Months were simple enough, based on the features of the season.  Thermidor, for instance, came in the heat of summer.  But each day had to be named too, to replace the familiar roster of saints.  The poets settled on 365 days of plants, farm animals, and a few gardening implements.  So Ste. Agathe's Day, February 5th, became Lichen day in the Pluviôse, or rainy, month.

Yet the age-old tradition of a naming calendar had a deep hold on the populace. Some parents still felt an obligation to follow the calendar for baby names, even as the calendar turned agricultural.  You can see parental struggles recorded in a smattering of birth records from the 1790s. The new-calendar names make furtive appearances, assigned like aliases: Jeanne et Artichaut ("Jeanne and Artichoke.")

If names are a candid reflection of culture, then Jeanne et Artichaut  is a reflection of a cultural experiment gone awry. It didn't stick.  By the early 19th Century the old calendar was restored and its naming significance codified into law.  All baby names had to be found either on the calendar of saints or in classical history.

Perhaps this tale should give strength to parents contemplating calendar heresy -- say, naming a November baby April.  Be grateful you have the choice, and remember that the seasons won't sink a good name, any more than a June 30 birthday saves Artichoke from being a bad one.