Reinventing the wheel

Sep 2nd 2005

Take a look at these pairs of related names. How are the names in column A different from column B?

GIRLS
A / B
Afton / Ashton
Alina / Alida
Elle / Belle
Katlyn / Kathlyn
Nyla / Lyla
Dasia / Stasia
Stephany / Stephania
Willow / Willa

BOYS
A / B
Denzel / Denzil
Addison / Edison
Dorian / Florian
Garret / Garnet
Tanner / Turner

In terms of sound, each pair of names is close as close can be--only a single sound distinguishes between them. Yet in terms of popular usage, they're polar opposites. The names in the left column are all trendy new creations. Once rare or unheard of, they've emerged as common names over the past generation. The near-twins in the right column, meanwhile, are antique relics. They hit the top-1000 popularity charts consistently 80+ years ago but have since sunk into obscurity.

Each pair of names has its own story, why the old and new seem so close, yet culturally far apart. Kathlyn was a blend of Kathryn and Kathleen, while Katlyn is an offshoot of Kaitlyn. Denzil was a traditional Cornish name, whereas Denzel is African-American on the model of actor Denzel Washington.

As a group, though, the right-hand names could pass for a 21st-century classroom. The girls in particular seem positively voguish. ("Afton and Kathlyn, meet Lyla and Belle.") Yet even as parents rush to revive antiques like Isabelle and Ella, these names haven't been resurrected. Rather, they've been reinvented from scratch. There's a perfectly fine name sitting on the scrap heap, ready to be good as new with a little loving care. *Sniff*. Perhaps some thrifty--or rather, tradition-minded--parents could consider this an opportunity to reduce, reuse, recyle.

Stretching the limits

Aug 24th 2005

The standard length for an English boy's name is four to seven letters. That's the sweet spot for most of the popular classics, both old (John, Edward, Henry, Joseph) and new (David, Michael, Steven, Mark). As a group, these mid-length names maintain a very steady popularity over time and account for more than 90% of all boys. Styles change, but 4-7 remains a comfort zone where even new creations sound natural.

But name length does tell a tale. The effects of changing styles stand out most clearly at the ends of the length spectrum. Each generation has a distinctive pattern of very long and very short boys' names that speaks volumes about parents' tastes.

Take a look at the frequency of 2-3 letter boys' names since the 1880s:

And now the 8+ letter names:

In the early years of the graphs, pet forms like Joe, Sam and Gus show up strongly as given names. That's a window on an age when--despite our impression of stiff, buttoned-down ancestors--fun and informal names like Buster and Birdie were at their peaks. In the middle of the century you see parents withdrawing from both ends of the spectrum and sticking safely to the center. And the past generation shows a dramatic rise in long, multi-syllabic names...turf traditionally ceded to girls. (The girls' counterparts to Joseph, Henry and Edward, for instance, are Elizabeth, Catherine and Margaret.)

This "fancification" of boys' names is part of a general change in our approach to naming boys. Boys' names used to change slowly, but now they're just as subject to the whims of fashion as girls' names are. (Consider the case of Aidan.) So parents are turning to extra-long boys' names as part of the trend away from the average, toward names that stand out from the crowd.

Yet in one way, these long names seem to buck the trends. Parents today are inventing and importing new names at a furious clip, but the 8-letter-plus names look mighty traditional. It's hard to think of Benjamin, Alexander and Nathaniel as fashion-slave signs of the times. Even as parents strive for distinctive names, they try to keep one foot grounded. So we opt for the traditional, but bypass Bob and Jim for Nicholas and Sebastian. Or we get creative, but rein in the syllables with Cade and Tanner. Each style is a balancing act, inching away from the center without tipping into the land of the truly unfamiliar.

Out on a name limb

Aug 12th 2005

Pilot Inspektor. Moxie CrimeFighter. Tryumph, Whizdom, and ESPN. Each of these has made headlines as a baby name in the past few years. Call them creative or call them crazy, they seem to come out of left field, breaking all the naming rules.

But even the wildest names are products of their times. The most famous celebrity baby name of all, Moon Unit, now shines as a clear reflection of the psychedelic '60s. In the same way, Pilot and ESPN carry the sound of today. They just carry it to extremes.

What is Pilot Inspektor, after all, but a tradesman name? That's been one of the hottest name categories for the past decade, and Pilot fits nicely at the macho end of the style. Hunter, Gunnar and Ryder are all popular choices in the same vein, not to mention Jett for the aviation theme.

CrimeFighter ratchets the energy up a notch, past the mere trade names. (Top-1000 name kin might be Maverick, Cannon and Blaze.) The real surprise is that it's a girl's name -- the middle name of young Moxie Jillette. Moxie is an inspired creation at the intersection of two popular styles. First, it's what I call a "guys and dolls" name. You picture Moxie as a jazz-age dame, getting into scrapes with guys names Buster and Rocky. Ruby, Sadie and Lola are all "doll" names that have come back strong, and near-match Max is hugely popular for boys.

At the same time, Moxie is a word name (meaning gumption). It bursts with confidence, which puts in right in line with the bold style of new meaning names for girls. Destiny and Justice fit the theme...as do Whizdom and Tryumph, the daughters of Jayson Williams.

ESPN is a brand name, a jock counterpart to girls named Lexus and Chanel. It stands out chiefly because of its fanciful spelling. Spoken aloud as "Espen," it has a thoroughly mainstream sound. Easton and Aspen are close matches, and the ubiquitous -n ending dominates current boys' names.

No matter how far we go out on a limb, it seems that limb still grows from the same naming tree. When Moxie CrimeFighter Jillette is Moon Unit Zappa's age, her name will probably sound like a perfect souvenir of 2005.