Naming beyond letters

Feb 3rd 2011

The 26 letters of the English alphabet mark a natural limit on our baby-naming creativity. A performer like Prince might dream up a new glyph for his identity, but the rest of us are stuck with the traditional alphabet. In fact, U.S. courts have rejected names consisting of numbers and other non-letter forms, defining a name as being a "word," and thus made of letters.

But are words really made from just the 26 alphabetic ingredients? First off, there are 52 letter forms: 26 uppercase, and 26 lower. Our language recognizes meaningful distinctions between them. A pirate plunders, a Pirate pitches. Then there are diacritical marks. Resume is a verb, résumé is a noun. Add in punctuation, too, as in were vs. we're.

If we're following the model of words, then, we should have a lot more than 26 ingredients to play with. And sure enough, as the distinctive-baby-names arms race escalates, we're seeing more and more names pushing the alphabetic boundaries. Hyphens, apostrophes and intercaps abound. (Try Mary-Kate, D'Andre, and JohnPaul.)

Unlike with words, though, these naming forms have questionable standing. José isn't traditionally treated as a separate name from Jose. Diacritics, non-standard capitalization, and even punctuation marks are routinely stripped out of name databases. It's hard to get a handle on the reality of a name like "Le-a," because it will show up in official records as Lea. Similarly, The Name Lady has noted that a child name "J.R." can end up looking like a "Jr."

There can be serious consequences when different systems treat non-letter name forms in different ways. On this point, I'll defer to an expert who wrote to me. (I've edited his letter for brevity.)

"I am a computer programmer who moves data from an older computer system to newer ones at colleges and universities. I see and work with hundreds of thousands of names. 

Parents of daughters are very creative in their spellings...I see TaWanda, Tawanda, Ta'Wanda, TaWanda', etc. The result is that their computer records have lots of misspellings, and they are often considered by the computer to be different people. I'll find TaWanda's grades under one student ID and Tawanda's financial aid application under another, though they are the same person. As for TaWanda' -- that gratuitous apostrophe is becoming more popular and it WILL create a dozen confusions in her computer records.

This is the computer age. Remember that, when naming your baby."

This programmer went on to recommend names with straightforward spellings and clear gender identities. (He has an androgynous name himself and says that can lead to duplicate records, one filed as male and one female.) That may be the ideal from a technical standpoint, but it's a losing battle in the name style wars. Not only are unexpected spellings and punctuations proliferating, but people are becoming more protective of them.

I'm not about to tell the proud mom of a Brae'Dyn that she really should have chosen Braden; she clearly chose every character of that name with pinpoint precision. Instead, I'll just warn creative spellers to go in with their eyes open. The farther a name veers from expectations, both human and machine, the more mistakes will be made with it.

I thought I invented that name

Jan 27th 2011

A user comment on the Namipedia page for the boy's name Baylen:

"I started playing around with name endings and thought I 'invented' Baylen. Guess not. Two years ago I went to Pensacola, FL for work. There is a street named Baylen as well."

Baylen is the given name of hundreds of American boys, including a son of NFL quarterback Drew Brees. It's also a rare surname, and an occasional alternate spelling of the Arthurian knight Sir Balin (though not "the French version" as another reader wrote on that page). So obviously that mom didn't "invent" the name.

Or did she?

When parents create a name they've never heard out of raw materials, haven't they gone through the process of invention? Does the fact that another family 100 miles (or 100 years) away chose the same name really change that? Or perhaps invention is the wrong concept. Perhaps names are "discovered." After all, there are only so many different short, attractive combinations of sounds and letters.

It's not as if the inventor of a name gets a patent on it. In fact, many names arise independently in multiple languages, and we acknowledge all of those origins as equally valid. Nobody insists that we designate a single culture as the "inventor" of Nina. So does it even matter whether that mom was the inventor of Baylen, or whether it has other, older roots?

In fact, it does matter to many families, a lot. The reason is meanings.

Parents often invent a name themselves, then paradoxically go hunting for its origins. I've mentioned before that I regularly get the question, "I made up this name, can you tell me what it means?" For some of these parents, a traditional origin helps legitimize a name choice, to themselves or to skeptical relatives. To others, a linguistic meaning -- even one discovered after the fact -- has a near-mystical significance, a connection to a child's future character. And still others are simply curious about the name's meaning, even when they've chosen it for meaningful reasons of their own.

Unfortunately, this search for a name's roots sometimes takes you farther from its essence. Consider these comments, from the Kayna page:

"We 'invented' this name by combining the child's grandmonthers names: KAY & NAncy (Kayna). After extensive web searches we have found that it is listed as an Irish / Cornish word meaning 'A saints' name.'"

First off, the parents seem to have taken the dictionary-style definition a little too literally. The "Cornish word meaning 'A saint's name'" is actually a reference to a particular saint venerated in Cornwall: Saint Keyne. The 5th-century St. Keyne (pronounced "Cane") was born in Wales, and her name is believed to come from the Welsh element cein/cain, meaning "beautiful." Keyna is one variant of Keyne, and Kayna could easily be a variant of that.

So after the false step at "Cornish word," you could plausibly say that the name Kayna derives from the Welsh for beautiful. But how can you say that this particular little Kayna has a Welsh name? We know the true source of her name: she was named for her two grandmothers, Kay and Nancy. That's a lovely origin, brimming with family tradition and love. Good Saint Keyne strikes me as a red herring in the search for true meaning.

I don't think that creative namers should have to look to the outside world to define their own creations. Perhaps the wisest perspective I've seen is that of the father of a young Brayson, who filled in the "Meanings and History" section on the Brayson name page:

"The history of the name Brayson is in the making!"


The Ultimate Geek Name?

Jan 19th 2011

Scanning a list of names that users recently added to Namipedia, one leapt out at me: Zaphod. Yes, as in Zaphod Beeblebrox. (If you haven't read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, now's a good time. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

Is a two-headed alien a good enough reason to keep such an unlikely name in our baby name encyclopedia? My first instinct was no, but my husband disagreed. A certain sort of person, he argued, will indeed want to learn about the name Zaphod. He works for Google, so I accept his expertise on that "certain sort of person." It made me wonder...has anyone actually named a baby in honor of Mr. Beeblebrox?

Sure enough, the U.K. is home to at least three Zaphods and even more boys with that middle name, all born since the Hitchhiker's series premiered.

This prompted a family discussion: is Zaphod the geekiest of all names? My husband questioned whether Zaphod was really any geekier than, say, Gandalf. My 10-year-old daughter, who is currently reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, responded that Gandalf is a COOL name, thank you very much. Such is life in the Wattenberg household.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many candidates for the ultimate alpha-geek name. America welcomes about a hundred baby Anakins and Neos every year, along with a couple of dozen Aslans, Enders and Atreyus. Then there's the grand new crop of video game baby names, like Fenix, Ryu and Alucard. And let's not forget Kal-El.

Yet there's something about Zaphod. It has a certain geek purity, perhaps because the original Zaphod wasn't some sleek, all-powerful force of light or darkness. He had a self-confident charm, but was voted "Worst Dressed Sentient Being in the Known Universe" seven times. Plus unlike Anakin, Neo and friends, his name does not follow a fashionable rhythm. Plus he had three arms.

So to me, the name Zaphod represents an apex of authentic, committed geekhood -- at least among names borne by multiple real people. I'm sure there are some fine examples I'm missing, though. Any nominees?