Composing a series of names

Nov 5th 2009

Today's baby naming thought of the day comes courtesy of my eight year old daughter. Hearing me comment that each name you choose affects future sibling names, the name-wizard-in-training chimed in with a provocative literary analogy. She pointed me to this quote about writing a book series, from "Paddington Bear" creator Michael Bond's introduction to his Paddington Treasury:

"In the case of a series, the first book is always the easiest; you go wherever your fancy takes you, the world is your oyster. But, and it is a big but, you also set parameters for all the ones that follow."

Setting parameters for the ones that follow. Doesn't your first name choice do just that? Your first baby -- like a totally new book -- is a whole world unto itself. You choose from a vast, unformed universe of options, then that choice defines a space. The space may be stylistic. The name Margaret, for instance, sets you down in the realm of English classics. In other case the space may be shaped by family ties, or by ethnic or religious connections, or by a name's eye-popping uniqueness. The space each name defines also includes some closed doors. Choosing Iva closes the door to Ivy, and Lewis shuts down the passage to Clark.

But again like a book series, future family additions (editions?) can cast a new light on the names that came before them. Michaela looks different with a sister named Eleanor vs. a Braeleigh. A dramatic shift in style can highlight the individuality of each element, or simply jar people with the curious contrast. (Anybody read The Starlight Barking, the surreal sequel to Dodie Smith's classic 101 Dalmations?) And the series as a whole has a meaning and texture beyond the individual stories it comprises.

The challenge, always, is to make each volume live up to the original. Many parents who fall head over heels for their first baby's name find it hard to duplicate that magic. It's the name version of the classic parental anxiety: "How can I love another child as much?" Let's hear Michael Bond's take:

"It's like making a cake. If all the right ingredients are assembled in the correct proportions, and if they are mixed together in the right order, then baked for just the right amount of time, the result can be rewarding. Repeating the success, recapturing the freshness of the original, is something else again and can often take much, much longer."

Counting People, Counting Names

Nov 2nd 2009

Global phone directories are a standard part of my name explorer toolkit. When a user submits a name like Wynagene to Namipedia saying "This is my grandmother's name," a directory search can give me a quick sense of how many other Grandma Wynagenes may be out there. (Answer: not many.) A couple of months ago, I tried out a new search from It allowed convenient first-name only searches of the U.S., so I was happy to add it to my bookmark list. Until...

Last week, I heard from a PR rep promoting the official release of that tool as a baby name popularity search. They hoped I'd write about it. According to their official press release, is responding to "a growing trend to give babies uncommon names" by "making it easier for parents-to-be to identify unique names for their babies based on popularity rankings" which will "help new parents identify whether or not their desired name is as unique as 'Brooklyn' or 'Seraphina.'" The press release goes on to cite research about the increasing uniqueness of baby names, based on 2007 birth data.

I was so astonished that I did something I've never done before. I called the contact number on a promotional email. I told them, before their official press release, what I'm going to tell you now. They are misleading parents by suggesting that their directory can help identify uncommon baby names. What's more, they are misleading all their users by stating that they're counting the people in the United States with a given name. Their tool does neither.

Their own examples illustrate the problem. Whitepages says that they'll help you find "unique" names like Brooklyn. Now, why would you consider Brooklyn "unique"? The name has made the U.S. top-1000 charts for two decades straight. Last year alone there were 5,249 Brooklyns born in the United States, making it a top-50 girl's name. Ah, but that's not what thinks. According to them, Brooklyn is a rare name indeed. It ranks #7,576 in America. There are three times as many people named Sunshine as Brooklyn. And here's the grand national total, according to the big, bold result on their site:

"There are 1,036 people with the first name 'Brooklyn' in the United States."

Obviously, that's not even close to right. The problem is that, being a souped-up phone directory, isn't really counting "people" as their site claims. When I asked, their PR rep confirmed that by "people," they mean "adults." And from some experimenting with their site, I suspect they might really mean "adults with land lines." The percentage of young adults with land lines in their names shrinks daily. So the directory numbers massively favor the 30-80 demographic -- precisely the generations of names which are LEAST trendy today.

That makes turning to for baby name guidance a lot like turning to your grandma: they're a generation or two behind the times. The results can be pretty comical. Adelbert three times as common as Aiden? Six Myrtles in America for every Madison? And don't even ask about Novella vs. Nevaeh.

I might have let it pass with a chuckle if it weren't for the PR campaign, complete with statistics about babies they don't actually track, aimed directly at the expectant parents who care most about name popularity. If you actually talk to these parents as I do, you know this isn't a game. Choosing a baby name is a heartfelt act. Assuring a parent who truly, deeply wants an uncommon baby name that Brooklyn or Aiden is "unique" when you know you don't count folks born since Reagan left office is...umm...well, if you can think of a polite term to insert here, be my guest.

On a cheerier note, you can find a much more interesting take on population-wide name usage at WolframAlpha, the "computational knowledge engine." They use tricks like crossing birth data with mortality tables to make intelligent name population estimates. For instance, Wolfram estimates 37 times as many Brooklyns in America as whitepages does. Unfortunately, Wolfram's models break down for unusual names. (Estimated number of people named Calla alive: 0.) That means it will still take some creativity and cross-referencing to track down the likes of Grandma Wynagene.

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: