"Please use this name liberally within its ethnic context!"

Apr 17th 2008
I recently stumbled on a website with a large set of baby names classified as either "legitimate" or "illegitimate.""Legitimate" names were verified by the site creators as real names with known origins.  "Illegitimate" names appeared to be random user submissions like Brinderella and Dabrielle -- names, in the site's own words, "most likely either pulled out of someone's behind or respelled with a wreckless (sic) disregard for history."

Illegitimate names came with the warning "Use with caution."  Legitimate names, though, came with this juicy argument-starter of an exhortation:

"Please use this name liberally within its ethnic context!"

Even accounting for the site's unique verbal style (and the challenge of assigning an ethnic context to "legitimate" names like Betelgeuse), the qualifier was striking.  A great many names are linked to a particular cultural or religious heritage.  Does that heritage mark the name's realm of use, and should parents fear to stray outside it?

American parents have already obliterated cultural borders around many names.  You would never assume that a Denise was French, a Brian Irish or a Sandra Italian.  Religious names can be trickier.  A recent discussion here, for instance, questioned the growing popularity among Christians of the name Cohen -- a Jewish priestly title that's not traditionally used as a given name.  Yet I've met enough Jews named Renee to know that even those boundaries are flexible.

So assuming that you can go beyond a name's "ethnic context," should you?  The considerations include respect for the other culture; potential false expectations on the part of those who hear the name; and, as always, style.  If your last name is Finnegan, do Sean and Bridget just go better than Giovanni and Ashanti?

Here's my take, from a style perspective.  Mixing name ethnicities is like mixing ethnic cuisines.  An expert chef may take lemongrass, tomatillos and fettucini and whip up a globe-spanning masterpiece.  When it works, fusion cuisine opens fresh new possibilities that work together in enchanting ways.  It's tricky, though, and not every combination works.  You're in more of a safety zone pairing lemongrass with coconut milk...and Sean with Finnegan.  Sean Finnegan is the classic comfort-food of names, reliable and warm with tradition.  You know what you're getting, and you know it will be good.  But if you're up for something new, Ashanti Finnegan doesn't sound half bad.

The long road from fantasy to reality

Apr 10th 2008

Today's guest namer is my six-year-old daughter, who spent a recent morning hard at work planning a fantasy novel about "centrises."  A centris, she explained, is half woman and half pegasus.  When I checked in with her she was developing a complete chart of the centris population, with columns for "name," "spirit," "parent" and "leader."  For example:

Name: Fironnah (pronounced fye-RAHN-a)
Spirit: Fire
Parent: Liyliah (LYE-lee-ah)
Leader: Niara (nee-AH-ra)

Our young author gave her permission for me to write about the names.  Indeed, she sat down beside me and offered suggestions as I typed this, drawing my attention to particular nuances of her nomenclature.  She definitely has her finger on the pulse of certain name styles.  The extra h at the end is a hot trend in names like Lilah, Myah, Janiyah and Nevaeh.  And speaking of Nevaeh (heaven backwards)...that leader centris Niara?  Her spirit is Rain, and her name was created from "a rain" backwards.  My daughter explained, "I wanted to make it 'rain' backwards, but 'Niar' sounded too much like a boy's name."

Some thoughts that came to mind:

- Long names with endings like -iah do sound like they come from a fantasy world.  This even holds true when you are six years old and most of your fantasy reading has been in the Dickensian namescape of Harry Potter (or prosaic name worlds like the "My Secret Unicorn" books -- think Lauren and Michael).  Oh, and fantasy heroines are not androgynous.  They're majestically feminine.

- The name Nevaeh sounds exactly like a magical heroine of a fantasy novel.

- The name Nevaeh was inevitable.  It's only surprising that it took so long.

- Positive words that sound good backwards are exceptionally rare.

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that Nevaeh is probably the most stylistically divisive name in the English-speaking world.  Many parents find it a creative, lovely gift of a name; others find it not merely unappealing but noxious.  For the purposes of this discussion, let's take the name on its own terms as a kind of loving secret code.

20,000 American girls have been named Nevaeh since the name's debut in 2001.  A large number of them surely have little siblings by now.  Yet Nevaeh has not sparked a new genre -- no other backwards names have entered the lexicon.

Imagine that you named your first daughter Nevaeh, and that she revels in the knowledge of its hidden message.  With daughter #2 on the way, don't you want to give that new child the same kind of gift?  I'm certain that many, many parents have tried, inverting every inspiring word they could think of but ending up with the sad likes of Legna and Dehsirehc.  Most probably ended up with a compromise, perhaps turning to less subtle meaning names like Destiny or Genesis.  Is there a better answer?  Suppose we expand our horizons from reversals to anagrams?  Galen sounds a whole lot better than Legna, after all.

I invited my young fantasy author and her sister to join in the anagram quest.  We poured out our Bananagrams tiles on the kitchen table and started forming some inspiring words.  Ladies and gentlemen, it's harder than it looks.  Sutter (truest) may be passable; Pacee (peace) and Sepira (praise) doubtful; Evilbee and La'Crime...well.  Occasionally my husband would pass by with encouragement.  "You know, Volley is an anagram of lovely," he offered.  "Thanks for sharing," I replied.

Here's the Wattenberg family's very, very short list of siblings for Nevaeh.  Can you do better at turning fantasy into reality?

Galen (angel)
Delia (ideal)
Sutter (truest)
Tanis (saint)

And Baby Name Nation says...

Apr 4th 2008
You've made your guesses of the hottest and coldest names in America in the Baby Name Pool.  Now it's time to learn from your collective wisdom.  When dozens of name lovers pick the same name as a best bet for popularity, you know that name has something going on: the zeitgeist is with it.  This year, the winds of change seem to be blowing for these names...

Most popular "Rising" choices
1. Miley
2. Max
3. Addison
4. Ava
5. Lila

Most popular "Falling" choices
1. Madison
2. Britney
3. Ashley
4. Emma
5. Emily

Let's take a closer look.

1. Miley - No mystery here.  2007 was the year of Hannah Montana, and star Miley Cyrus appears to have a hit name in the making.  In fact, Cyrus herself has filed to legally change her name to Miley from her birth name, Destiny.

2. Max - The only boy's name on either list, Max is also the most surprising.  This name has been perfectly steady for years: ranked from #161-165 every year since 1999.  But maybe you know something that I don't?

3. Addison
4. Ava - These two look like smart bets as two of the hottest rising names of the previous year.

5. Lila - Nice one, name watchers!  I think Lila's going to soar in the next few years (and special kudos to the handful of entrants who picked the variant spelling Lilah).

1. Madison - This was the runaway winner, named on almost a fifth of all ballots...for the second year in a row!  Madison has always been a stylistically polarizing name, and I suspect that a certain number of entrants are simply trying to will it away.

2. Britney - Remember that awesome, world-beating year that Miley Cyrus had?  Take the opposite and you have Britney Spears in 2007.  The name Brittany was #7 in falling votes, based on guilt by association.

3. Ashley - A practical choice, Ashley has already begun its inevitable decline after a long run as baby name royalty.

4. Emma
5. Emily - These have been the top two names in America for several years running, so I guess the thinking is that there's nowhere to go but down.