Name Spotlight: Gage, Gaige, Gauge

Jun 1st 2009

The name Gage hit the American mainstream in time-honored style: as a demon child.

You might think that the spawn of Satan would be a negative association when picking a baby name. In fact, the fiend-children of Hollywood horror are a reliable source of new hit names. The name Damien was launched into popularity by The Omen, Adrian by Rosemary’s Baby, and Regan by The Exorcist. Little Gage of Pet Sematary wasn’t technically demonic, just an undead kid, but he was evil-cute enough to make the cut. The name Gage debuted in the top 1000 in 1989, the year the movie came out, and has been a mainstay ever since.

As a surname, Gage has a deeper history. It has multiple derivations in English and French and ranks among the 6000 most common American surnames. Moved up to first-name status, it strikes a nice balance between the cowboy machismo of Colt and Cash and the preppy breeziness of Tate and Trey. It’s also a snap to spell and pronounce. Until it’s not.

As the baby name Gage rose steadily year by year, alternate spellings started to appear. Gaige first hit the top 1000 in the year 2000. Gauge broke through five years later, and it’s now the fastest rising form of the name. To me, it’s also the most intriguing.

The word gauge is a classic of English orthography, a completely non-standard bit of spelling that’s a fixture on “most frequently misspelled” lists. If you can find another word where the vowel pair AU is pronounced as a long A, you get a word-freak gold star. Gauge means “measure,” as either a noun or verb. As far as I know, that realm of meaning is not commonly adopted for name use in any language. And yet there can be no doubt that the rising new baby name Gauge exists because of the word. After all, you don’t see anybody spelling Paige as “Pauge.”
So let’s recap. People are changing the standard spelling of a modern baby name in order to match a familiar word. In a sense, the creative new spelling is actually a conservative stylistic impulse -- it was invented because it looks less “made up”. And that impulse is so strong that it holds sway even though the word has no intrinsic appeal and its spelling gives people fits. That has to be the most confusing push-pull of spellings and origins since…Page.

Names and fandom: The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat

May 21st 2009

In September 2001, unheralded young football quarterback Tom Brady took over for the New England Patriots' injured star Drew Bledsoe. By the close of that season in February 2002, Brady had led his Cinderella team to a Superbowl championship.

Brady proved to be more than just a one-year wonder. He soon lead the Patriots to two more titles, and in 2007 to the greatest statistical season of any QB in history. Also, he was a nice-looking fella. But February 2008 brought a tough Superbowl defeat, then at the start of the Fall 2008 season Brady tore up his knee and was lost for the year.

Let's tell that story again, in baby-name terms:

Popularity of the name Brady over time

You can see the strong, steady rise that began with Brady's 2002 Superbowl triumph, the extra burst in record-setting 2007, then the six-year surge coming to an end with the 2008 injury. (Note that a baby Brady on "Sex and the City" makes no impact in comparison.) Of course, it's possible that the name had just run its course by 2008 and wasn't reflecting the quarterback's injured-reserve status. But the closer you zoom in, the more the pattern spells football.

Massachusetts, home of the Patriots, experienced an especially strong Brady surge -- and an especially strong post-injury dip. Nationwide, the number of baby Bradys fell by just 3% in 2008. In Massachusetts, the drop was 21%. Take into account that Tom Brady started the year as King of the World and wasn't injured until September, and it's likely that the rate of little Bradys in the Bay State fell off a cliff in the 4th quarter.

Is this the ultimate example of fair-weather fans? The guy leads your team to four Superbowls, then the minute he's hurt you abandon him? I may be biased (I'm a Patriots fan myself), but I don't think it's that simple. For a diehard football fan, a season-ending injury to your star quarterback is a punch to the gut. Thinking about Tom Brady during the "lost season" became painful, so the name Brady was a tough sell.

It's a risky business, tying your child's name to the vagaries of sport. Brady's a relatively safe bet; barring massive scandal, he's a guaranteed lifelong New England legend. But as 2008 proved, nobody's Superman. Worse yet, there's no saying that Brady or any other team-sport athlete won't wind up his career playing for a hated rival. To stay on the safe side of fan naming, stick to retired players, locations (Wrigley and Fenway are big with baseball fans), or other lasting symbols of the team you love.

The latest on the Age of Aidans

May 18th 2009

The more things change, the more they sound the same. Last year I checked in on the dominant sound of 21st-century boyhood, the names that rhyme with Aidan. At that time, the number of top-1000 boys' names rhyming with Aidan had risen to 40. That number held steady this year (though a few names changed: goodbye Adin and Haden, hello Aaden and Zaiden). The number of babies represented, though, continued to rise by a healthy 7%. It's fair to say that the Age of Aidans isn't over yet.

Looking more broadly, over a third of all boys continue to receive a name ending in -n, extending the extraordinary transformation of masculine naming.

For those keeping score at home, here's the current top-1000 rhyming roster. Note that it doesn't include girls' names, near rhymes like Payton, or Adan, which is also the Spanish form of Adam and often pronounced accordingly.