America's Least Wanted: Vowel Edition

Dec 7th 2007

Back in 2005 I asked, "what is the least fashionable name sound in America"? What common collections of letters can instantly torpedo a name's fashion potential? At the time I focused on consonants, since 21st-century name style leans heavily toward vowels. (Try typing A, E, I or O into the NameVoyager to see the surge in vowel names.) But amid our love affair with Emily, Aidan and Olivia, have any vowel sounds been left behind?

My NameVoyager instructions above offer a clue. You might have noticed that I left out a vowel. U is a very uncommon English name initial, so much so that "Unknown" accounts for a fair percentage of the U babies. It's not, though, an uncommon name least, it didn't used to be. To get a "yoo" sound, just start the name with Eu. How does that look on the NameVoyager?

The boy's name Eugene dominates the graph, but it's the girls' list that's really hopping: Eudora, Eugenia, Eugenie, Eula, Eulah, Eulalia, Eulalie, Euna, Eunice, Euphemia, Eura. Every one of them has disappeared. It's much the same story for names with the EU buried inside, as long as it's pronounced "yoo" (like Beulah rather than Reuben), and for the likes of Buford and Hubert.

Is there hope for this poor neglected sound? Maybe. Names seem to do better when the "yoo" syllable is unstressed as in Ulysses and Samuel. That's good news for Eudora and Eulalia, not so good for Eura and Eunice.

p.s. be sure to submit your nominations and comments for the Name of the Year!

Nominations, please: The 2007 Name of the Year

Nov 30th 2007

Each year new baby names are created, old names are rediscovered, and familiar names start to sound different to us. Some of those changes are subtle or evolutionary. Others are just blips on the screen that will fade from memory. But perhaps one transformed name stands out above the others...a true Name of the Year?

The Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year could come from anywhere. It might be triggered by music (as Kanye was), movies (Charlize), politics (Monica), commerce (Armani), even the weather (Katrina). Or, like Nevaeh in 2003, it could seemingly come from nowhere to appear everywhere. Whatever its origins it should be a cultural time capsule, capturing some part of the zeitgeist in a single name.

Please post your nominations here, and feel free to second others. Criteria for the final choice will include:

- A dramatic change in the name's usage or social meaning

- A reflection of a broader cultural theme, or influence on broader style trends

- Your votes (frequency of nominations, and compelling arguments)

Look for the official Name of the Year announcement here in two weeks!

Names on the Verge: Tiana

Nov 24th 2007

Shh...listen. What's that sound? Could it be the tooth-gnashing of hundreds of parents who named their daughters Giselle?

With the release of Disney's new film Enchanted, the classic French name Giselle -- already associated with beauty and glamour via model Gisele Bundchen -- has been officially Princessized. Princessization isn't necessarily fatal. Take the name Aurora, still uncommon and and artistic-sounding despite its title role in Sleeping Beauty. But it's a fair bet that few moms of a toddler Giselle were banking on the 1000-pound gorilla that is the Magic Kingdom when they chose the name for their babies.

What name is next in the Princess Pipeline? Funny you should ask. In 2009 Disney plans to go back to its roots with a hand-drawn, 2D princess tale. This time the story is American, set in New Orleans in the 1920s. Having pretty much exausted all other racial options (Arab, Native American, Chinese, White, White, and White), Disney is finally introducing its first African-American princess. As originally announced by executive John Lasseter, the film was to be titled The Frog Princess and to tell the tale of a chambermaid named Maddy.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Mr. Lasseter! The announcement was met by a slew of angry blogs, complaining variously about this long-awaited Black princess being a maid to a White character; about the movie's title (offensive to the French?); and about the lead character's name.

Maddy is, of course, a wildly fashionable nickname today. Every imaginable spelling of Madeline and Madison fills America's schoolyards with little Maddies. Disney's critics, though, heard Maddy and thought "slave name." To them, Maddy seemed like an amalgam of Mammy and Addy -- a put-down rather than a royal uplift.

So years before the movie was even set to hit theaters, Disney found itself in damage-control mode. In a letter to multiple websites, the company addressed some "incorrect information" about the new princess. The movie, retitled The Princess and the Frog, now tells the tale of "a heroine in the great tradition of Disney's rich animated fairy tale legacy": the glamorous Princess Tiana.

Tiana. It's a contemporary name with an undeniable sparkle that appeals to many parents. (To adult-film producers, too. Word to the NOT do what I just did and run a Google image search for "Tiana" in the middle of a public cafe. Hoo-boy.) The resemblance to "tiara" also makes the name a natural for a princess. But one thing Tiana is not: a plausible name for an African-American girl in 1920s New Orleans.

The 1920 U.S. Census reveals a heyday of nicknames as given names, especially among African-Americans. As I've noted in the past, the baby name Willie was more popular in 1910 than any name is today. By 1920 that meant ten thousand Black males named Willie in Louisiana alone, more than were named William. The 1920 Census counts tens of thousands of Madelines and well over a thousand Maddies and Maddys, including 150 Black females in Louisiana. So Maddy is a realistic period name for the character, as well as one familiar and appealing to modern girls.

As for Tiana, it's a popular choice of African-American families today. While the name doesn't appear to have African roots, it does echo the style of some African names. (Among them is the Kenyan name Kiara, which is also a Disney Princess of a sort. It's the name of Simba's daughter in The Lion King II.) Take a look at the 1920 census, though, and you'll find only 14 women named Tiana in the United States -- none of them in Louisiana, and almost all of them White.

In other words, in their scramble to honor African-American history Disney switched from a historically accurate African-American name to the complete opposite. But perhaps that abandonment of realism is the true sign of Princesshood. Tiana, welcome to "the great tradition of Disney's rich animated fairy tale legacy."