Of Sams and Leslies

Jul 5th 2007

Born, June 18, 2007, to golfer Tiger Woods and wife Elin Nordegren Woods: a daughter, Sam Alexis.

Nope, that's not short for Samantha. Tiger's late father Earl reportedly used "Sam" as a private nickname for his son, making the baby's name a gentle tribute to grandpa. It's a personal name choice, not a showy one. But Tiger being Tiger, the public naturally took notice. One small segment of the baby-name public in particular.

"Help!" wrote one mother of a young Samuel. "I am particularly peeved at the feminization of the name Sam... I was quite adamant about selecting a masculine name for my dear son."

American parents are notoriously skittish about androgyny for boys. We prepare to jump ship when any name starts to take on a feminine aura. It may not be a noble impulse, but any male Lesie or Courtney can tell you it's reality. Is a high-profile female Sam likely to tip that name to the girls' side too? Baby Samanthas have been running neck-and-neck with Samuels for years, so the name is technically androgynous. Yet a boy named Sam still sounds completely masculine and I don't expect that to change. Sam is not a Leslie or Courtney, because Sam is a nickname.

If we ignore spellings for the moment, many of the popular nicknames of the '60s and '70s were gender benders. If someone mentions a Terry/Terri, Randy/Randi or Chris/Kris, do you have the slightest idea whether it's a man or woman? Go back another generation and the crossover is even stronger. The 1930s were the heyday of the "regular Joe" names -- nicknames like Eddie, Frankie, Billie, Bobbie, Johnnie, Freddie, Tommie, Mickey, Charlie and Bennie -- all used as given names for boys and girls alike. Oh, and did I mention Sammie?

The regular Joe nicknames continued in use for boys and all sound masculine today, if a little outdated. (Billie and Mickey would be Will and Mike in the 21st century.)

Granted, I'm cheating a bit on spelling. A lot more men are named Sammy than Sammie, Billy than Billie. But even when the dominant spellings for boys and girls are identical, as with Charlie and Freddie, the masculinity sticks. I'm betting that names like Sam and Alex follow the same path, regardless of how many Samanthas and Alexandras share the space. When it comes to nicknames, at least, Americans are are willing to share.

An update and a mystery

Jun 28th 2007

Two items for a summer afternoon...

A smarter Nymbler. If you visit the name-finder Nymbler today it will look the same as yesterday. But don't be deceived; there are changes under the hood. We've tweaked the way Nymbler thinks about names, which should make its recommendations smarter and more discerning. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you!

A challenge for all you namerologists. When I find an odd name phenomenon in old baby-name data, it often leads down a trail to a fragment of history or culture. But sometimes it leads to a dead end. Here's one name that has me stumped:

The girl's name Willodean cracked the United States top-1000 name list six times from 1926 to 1932. It was most popular in a vertical strip of the country, focused on Tennessee and extending North to Indiana and South to Mississippi. That's what I do know. What I don't know: where it came from, what sparked its use, and even how it's pronounced.

I'm not inclined to accept the explanation from one web name dictionary: "Its source is an English expression meaning 'A tree with long, drooping branches covered with narrow leaves.'" That would be Willow, no? (Some dictionaries are strangely allergic to the word "word," apparently believing that "expression" sounds more scholarly. So we're treated to derivations like this one for the name Windy: "Its source is an English expression meaning 'Windy.'")

Willodean is decidedly not just Willow, nor does it seem to be a form of Wilhelmina, Wilda, etc. Are there any Willodeans or descendants of Willodeans who can shed some light on this baby-name of mystery?

Names without borders: Professional edition

Jun 19th 2007

In March I wrote about ingredients that make a name "travel well" -- name sounds and styles that play well to speakers of many languages. While some parents do look for global-ready names, they (and I) are rank amateurs in that game compared to another group of namers: branding consultants.

Consider the cross-linguistic approach of Brand Institute, Inc.:

With the global complexities of international marketing and the growing importance of cultural submarkets within the domestic market, rigorous linguistic screening is required for every name that clears trademark screening.

During Brand Lingustic™ Screening, native linguists review all name candidates for appropriateness.

This screening is conducted for a minimum of 32 languages in 39 countries and includes evaluations for connotations and pronunciation.

Brand Institute (BI) and its competitors create company and product names from scratch, often with the charge of creating a single brand and logo to be used in dozens of countries. BI is particularly active in the healthcare industry, creating pharmaceutical names like...


Some of the names are linked closely to the purpose of the drugs. Sustiva, for example, is an anti-HIV medication. The name builds off of sustain/sustinere, a Latin root that's a natural for a treatment designed to prolong overall health. Others like Geodon or Invega are more opaque in etymology and could have been applied to a wide variety of products or services. (Both are anti-psychotic drugs.) But all on the list fare well on our tests of global-ready baby names.

For a comparison, here is a brand the same company worked with for a purely domestic market...

Global Priority Mail

And how about Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme, or HP Storageworks? Not nearly so euphonious, and they certainly wouldn't travel well. ("Crunchwrap" alone is enough to drive an ESL teacher to tears.) But they're effective and memorable names for their English-speaking audience. Each is clear and meaningful because it's based on the core units of meaning in our language: words.

Like words, familiar names have built-in meanings and relevance. As the naming culture turns more and more toward attractive neologisms (Jayla Jaylen Jayden Kayden Brayden), it's worth considering some unique virtues of standard English names. "Global Priority Mail" requires no explanation and no spelling help. Nobody's going to confuse it with a Crunchwrap or an antipsychotic medication. And nobody's going to think William is a girl, misspell Margaret...or mistake Joseph for an antipsychotic medication.

Does that mean drug makers should be aiming for word-based names like Get'EmUp instead of Viagra -- or that parents should be choosing a recognizable English-based name like Mary over a neologism like Bryleigh? Not necessarily. There are plenty of other factors that play into a name choice (I challenge you to sell a single pack of "Get'Em'Up"). But novelty in names comes with costs as well as rewards.