Backwards Baby Names: The Master List

Nov 11th 2010

It isn't just Nevaeh anymore.

Wordplay names, especially reversed spellings, are on the rise with namers of all styles. Aidan and Nadia, for instance, is a top-10 pairing for male/female twins. Semaj, created from James, is a top-1000 name for boys...and in the top 2000 for girls, too.

But like month and season names, this style is self-limiting. Not many names sound as good backwards as they do forwards. To spare you sleepless nights mulling over non-starters like Dennis, Lana and Star, I've combed through 4000 names (the top 2000 for boys and girls) to find the plausible backwards name pairs. All names in the left column rank in the top 2000; I eliminated pairs like Alaya and Ayala that are too close to consider using in the same family.

Adair / Riada
Adela / Aleda
Adiel / Leida
Aidan / Nadia
Ajani / Inaja
Alani / Inala
Alec / Cela
Alex / Xela
Alexi / Ixela
Ali / Ila
Allen / Nella
Ameer / Reema
Amin / Nima
Amir / Rima
Amirah / Harima
Anali / Ilana
Ani / Ina
Arden / Nedra
Ares / Sera
Ari / Ira
Aric / Cira
Ariel / Leira
Ariyah / Hayira
Aven / Neva
Avi / Iva
Axel / Lexa
Ayah / Haya
Aydan / Nadya
Flor / Rolf
Halie / Eilah
Hayes / Seyah
Iman / Nami
Issac / Cassi
Ivan / Navi
Kavon / Novak
Lina / Anil
Mac / Cam
Mara / Aram
Miah / Haim
Mika / Akim
Mikah / Hakim
Miles / Selim
Naima / Amian
Nala / Alan
Nate / Etan
Naya / Ayan
Noa / Aon
Noel / Leon
Nola / Alon
Nova / Avon
Nya / Ayn
Om / Mo
Semaj / James
Siri / Iris
Zaid / Diaz

Names Have Been Changed to Protect the...Movie?

Nov 5th 2010

I recently heard a curious tale. A friend of mine organized a kids' book club, with a twist. The kids would read a book, talk about it, then watch a movie based on that book and discuss the relationship between the two versions of the story. Everything was going swimmingly, until the day they read Lois Duncan's Hotel for Dogs.

As the kids discussed the book, they just weren't clicking with each other. One would describe a scene that really captured his interest, and others would stare at him in bafflement. Confusion grew, then irritation, then hostility. The book group was on the brink of meltdown when somebody cracked the code. Kids who took the book out of the library or ordered used copies were reading about a girl named Liz. Kids who bought the book new were reading about Andi. Same book, different names.

The culprit behind this switch-up was Hollywood. The book Hotel for Dogs was written in 1971. By 2009, when the movie came out, some of the names in the story didn't pass muster. That's a reasonable decision, on the face of it. The movie was set in the present, and name styles do change. Curiously, though, the changes don't seem to be about modernization. There are at least as many girls named Liz as Andi today, and Sadie is a positively trendy choice that got the boot. Meanwhile the name of the young male lead remained the far more outdated Bruce.

Stranger yet, the new names were adopted in the book of Hotel for Dogs -- not just the movie novelization, but the reprint of Duncan's 1971 novel. They went back and changed history.

The book group fiasco was just one side effect of this naming revisionism. As an Amazon reader noted, educational materials that had been built around the book, including popular testing software, were totally thrown off. And what about the book itself? How is the story affected by changing the author's name choices?

Perhaps it seems a little silly to fret about the artistic integrity of Hotel for Dogs, so let's push the question further. How about the naming equivalent of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Meet the Bennet sisters of Longbourn House: Leighton, Makenzie, Ainsleigh, Kendall and Braelyn. They'll need some beaus, of course. Let's call them nice-guy Bridger, imperious Slade, and squirrelly Kylen. Would you read that version of the book exactly the same way?

Hey, it could happen. We just need someone to make the movie version first.

The Names You Choose Mean More Today Than Ever Before

Oct 28th 2010

The title of this column may seem like puffery, but I mean it very literally. Baby names carry more meaning now than in generations past. And all the time that today's parents spend fretting over the perfect name? They're not just obsessive, they're responding to a new reality. I can prove it.

I've talked before about a revolution in the way Americans name their babies. It started in the 1960s, when individuality was elevated to a prized cultural virtue. More parents started looking for names that stood out, rather than fitting in. It accelerated with the new media and information landscape of the '90s. Internet searches, unique user names, and 300 cable channels all upped the ante on finding a distinctive name. Bit by bit, the core classic English names that ruled for centuries began to disappear. They left behind a wild and woolly world where there's no such thing as a normal name.

That's the bird's eye view. What might not be obvious is the revolution's impact on an individual name, and an individual name-hunting parent. With the change in naming culture, your name choice carries more information; it means more.

Let's use clothing as an analogy. Imagine a company where employees are expected to wear gray or blue suits to work. If you see a guy wearing a gray suit in that office, what does it tell you about him as an individual? Not much. Now imagine another company with an anything-goes dress code. Couldn't you read more about an employee from his outfit there? And wouldn't the same gray suit mean a lot more in that environment?

Similarly, the more diverse the names around us, the more each name choice means. Back in the 1950s, "normal" really was the norm. The top 25 boy's names and the top 50 girl's names accounted for half of babies born. That meant that the typical child received a name that was very broadly used, so the name didn't communicate much about the family that chose it. (Gregory, George, Kathy, and Denise were typical/median names.)

Today, you have to include 134 boy's names to reach the midpoint of babies, and a whopping 320 names for girls. Names around the median now include Giovanni, Collin, Cody and Kayden for boys; Kyleigh, Ximena, Paisley, and Juliet for girls. Similarly, the 75th percentile of rarity has moved from Fred (rank: #93) to Giancarlo (rank: #677). There is no more naming "dress code," and so the names we wear speak volumes.

You can quantify this rise in meaning. (Serious stats coming up! If you want more methodological background, see these additional research notes.) In the field of information theory, a measure called Shannon entropy is used to describe the information contained in a message. The more diverse and unpredictable a message, the more information it holds. Think of how a photograph of a real-life scene, with all of its subtle colors and shapes, makes for a far larger file than a same-sized solid color block.

I calculated the entropy for the distribution of American baby names at five-year intervals over the past 125 years. Here's the full graph, for scale and reference:

 The Amount of Information Carried by Given Names

Now I'm going to zoom in for discussion:

Name Entropy Closeup

Notice how the curve starts accelerating in the '60s and speeds up again in the '90s. Name entropy, or the information carried by names, has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (It's not just a function of the number of babies born, either. See the research notes for more.)

This is the statistical underpinning of the practical reality we sense as parents. Choosing a name is a fraught, consequential process today.

Remember that company where you could wear anything you wanted to work? Imagine meeting three guys in that office. One's in an oxford shirt and baggy khakis. The next is dressed like an H&M model. The third is wearing a t-shirt with a "Far Side" comic strip that he bought in 1992. It's not just that you CAN glean information from those fashion choices -- you DO, automatically.

It's the same with names. As the cultural information conveyed by names grows richer, people process that information, often without even thinking about it. Or to put it another way, the more names have to tell us, the more we learn to listen.

So if you're obsessing over baby names, you're not crazy. In a world where babies are as likely to be named Elijah and Serenity as John and Mary, even John and Mary send powerful signals that the public is primed to receive.