Surnames that still sound like surnames

Oct 28th 2009

Have you ever met a child named Connolly? How about Barker, or Janson? Most likely not, but if you did I doubt you'd bat an eyelash. So many surnames of the British Isles are used as baby names right now that those fit right in.

That's good news for parents who want to "fit right in." What if that's not your goal? What if you chose Barker because it's your family surname and you want it to sound like a surname, darn it, not like some trendy spinoff of Parker? Or maybe you just miss the buttoned-down prep school style that used to come along with surname-names. When names like Chandler and Dalton have gone mainstream, where's a stuffed shirt afficionado to turn?

Here's one clue. Since quarterback Peyton Manning's first college game, the popularity of the name Peyton -- a traditional surname -- has soared. You can see spikes in the name at notable moments in Manning's career, like a record-setting season and a Super Bowl victory. But...why Peyton? Why not Manning? Manning has plenty of history as a first name, and it gets a double dose of publicity because Peyton's brother Eli is also a championship quarterback.

What Peyton has (and Manning lacks) is an ending from the golden trinity: -n, -r and -y. Today, the vast majority of surname-names cling to those three fashionable sounds. If you're willing to move beyond them, you can still find plenty of names with unadulterated surname style.

Names ending in -ing like Manning are one neglected group. A reader recently wrote to me about a sterling example (no, not Sterling): Fielding. It still has the power to surprise, doesn't it? It may be another British isle surname, but it won't get lost in a sea of Parkers and Peytons.

The -s surnames, particularly patronymic names, are another good target for old-time surname sound. A century ago many names like Evans, Hughes, Hayes and Clemens hit the top 1000, but today Brooks and Davis are the only survivors of the style. That leaves the -s names impeccably buttoned-down.

Put the two styles together and the effect is magnified. A name like Jennings or Hastings practically comes with its own bow tie.

This isn't for everyone, of course. Some people will find the ultra-surnames a little forced, even pretentious. Others will assume that these old-fashioned names were chosen the old-fashioned way, and ask about the importance of the name Fielding or Hayes in your family tree. But if you want pure surname style undiluted by the Peyton generation, try these:




Death by androgyny? The old name rules meet the new generation

Oct 21st 2009

It's one of the classic maxims of the baby name business: most parents who like "androgynous" names really like masculine-sounding names for both sexes. Parents of boys carefully avoid anything feminine. When a boy's name starts to show up on the girl's chart, the male version's days are usually numbered. Take a look at the NameVoyager graph of Leslie for a classic example.

In the past decades we've seen an explosion of new androgynous names. In addition to the 65 names that make both top 1000 lists, countless more names are surnames that could go either way (Jensen), new inventions you'd have to guess at (Braelyn), or spelling variations on androgynous names (Kamren and Camren make the top 1000 for boys only, Kamryn only for girls, Camryn both). It's not just individual names used for both sexes, it's a broad androgynous style that's defining a generation of names.

Does that mean an entire generation of names is destined to turn feminine? Will boys eventually find themselves stranded on a tiny name island with nothing but kingly classics and absurdly macho inventions to choose from? Don't panic yet, parents of boys. There are reasons to think that this crop may be different

Remember that the common wisdom on androgynous names comes from a history of long-time male names being adopted by females. Many of today's favorite emerged simultaneously as names for both sexes. What happens when a name starts out gender-neutral? Is one sex destined to "win" the name, or can it maintain a balanced sex ratio over time? And if there is a winner, who wins?

In many cases, these questions end up moot because the trendy names fade away before any resolution. Yet examples are mounting to suggest that the old rules may not apply, and all bets are off.

Take a look at the name Devin, in all its many spellings. 50 years ago it was essentially unknown, then it started climbing for boys and girls alike. The boys eventually took the lead, and in 2006 every spelling (Devin, Devon, Devyn) dropped off the girls' chart simultaneously, leaving the name suddenly, authoritatively masculine. The girls, meanwhile, are "winning" Addison. And still other names are showing staying power on both sides of the charts. As in the case of Kamren/Camren/Kamryn/Camryn, many of these splinter into multiple variants, each with its own sex ratio. For instance, Jalen is masculine, Jaelyn feminine, and Jaylin a tossup. What that means, in practice, is that you can't assume anything when you hear the name.

So it seems that unlike established names, new androgynous names don't inevitably tip toward the feminine. The trick is, they don't inevitably do anything. What crystal ball could have told you 15 years ago that Ashton would end up masculine and Addison feminine? In each case, the name's fluid gender identity made it easy for a celebrity example to shape public perception. (Check out this past post on Ashton to watch the forces of celebrity in action.) You can weigh risk factors, like whether the name contracts to a girlish or boyish sounding nickname. But in the end, if you choose a new androgynous name today you have to be prepared that 10 or 20 years down the line it may come across very differently.

Call me "Tink": The new adventures of old Tinker Bell

Oct 17th 2009

First things first: it's Tinker Bell, two words, not Tinkerbell. Has any major star of stage and screen been more consistently misspelled? Perhaps that's a sidways tribute to the naming prowess of playwright and author J.M. Barrie. The name flows so naturally, you can scarcely hear the words.

In fact, Barrie introduced a full lineup of iconic character names in his play and stories about Peter Pan.  Captain Hook boiled down pirate tales to their villainous essence. Wendy, a little known nickname, became a girlish standard. And Peter Pan, when you stop to think of it, is just a straightforward linking of everyday boy and untamed, pipe-playing nature spirit...but you don't stop to think of it, because it sounds so natural. Even the Darling family has the timeless feel of fairy tales. Think of Prince Charming before them, and the Dearly family of Dodie Smith's The 101 Dalmations or "Jim Dear and Darling" of Disney's Lady and the Tramp later on.

But it's Tinker Bell who's taking center stage right now. Reader zoerhenne sent me a link about the fairy's upcoming star turn in a new Disney DVD release, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.

When you think of Disney's Tinker Bell, you probably think of her like this, from the original hand-animated film of Peter Pan:


She's a dainty little pixie, giving off the all-important pixie dust that lets trusting children fly. Tinker Bell was Barrie's 20th-century invention, yet in name and concept she slips seamlessly into the immortal realm of childhood magic. Her name follows the convention of heroines like Thumbelina and Cinderella, evocative nouns stretched out into feminine name form.

In the case of Tinker Bell, the evocation of tinkling bells is the perfect auditory counterpart to pixie dust. (The name shouldn't be taken too literally; a tinker was an itinerant tinsmith who mended pots and pans.) It's not just a name of magic, but of dreams of magic: spine-tingling and elusive. Even in our age where "bell" names like Annabelle and Isabella are the peak of style for girls, Tinkerbell remains an unlikely choice -- the most prominent namesake to date has been Paris Hilton's pet chihuahua. Such a pixieish name fairly demands a wand and gossamer wings.

But that pixie's been changing. As the centerpiece of the "Disney Fairies" franchise she's taken on more substance. The new movie appears to take it even further. Check out this screenshot from the trailer:


This time around, the intrepid Tinker Bell appears to be setting out on an Indiana Jones-style adventure, dressed a lot like...Peter Pan.

I'm all for strong heroines, but this is a pretty dramatic change for a fairy who used to be delicate enough to perish from a single child's disbelief. It's a big change for the name, too. The name Tinker Bell is all pixie, zero action hero. Is it any surprise that in this new incarnation, Tinker Bell goes more and more by the nickname Tink?