A few more sound ideas

Oct 12th 2005

After I wrote about the decline of consonant clusters in names, a reader noted that certain pairs like TR actually seem to be going up: TRavis, TRistan, TRevor. In fact, about 20% of consonant sound pairs have been significantly more common over the past 30 years vs. the previous 70.

What makes a cluster buck the trends and rise? There seem to be two main factors. First, clusters that stick to the start of names like BR (BRandon, BRooke, BRianna) do better than those that hang around in the middle. In fact, while TR is a trendy starter, it's on the outs as a center sound--think paTRicia and gerTRude. Second, a pair has a better shot if it leads with a strong unvoiced consonant, a sound made just by the passage of air through the mouth without vibrating vocal chords. Top letters include S (SPencer, SKye) and K (KRista, KRistopher).

And some more quick consonant hits...

• The separation of consonants isn't just an American trend. Take a look at the top names in Germany, traditionally the land of Ernst and Wolfgang, Bertha and Helga:

BOYSGIRLSMaximilianMarieAlexanderSophiePaulMariaLeonAnna/AnneLukas/LucasLeonieLucaLea/LeahFelixLauraJonasLenaTimKatharinaDavidJohanna • There is one trendy group of names where voiced consonant pairs are actually hot. It's the girl's names taken from old-fashioned boys names that were themselves adopted from surnames (which were usually borrowed from place names. Namers are good recyclers.) Try Sidney, Shelby, Lindsey, Courtney, Whitney, Aubrey.

It makes sense that those names would have more of the outmoded pairs, since they're selected from a field of outmoded names. And the very fustiness of the choices for men helps sharpen the style for girls--think of singer Avril Livigne tossing on a striped necktie.

A few more consonant-packed candidates that could follow the same path: Clancy, Murphy, Kirby, Arley, Finley and Tierney.

A stranger in fiction

Oct 6th 2005

I often hear from readers about odd names they've come across. But seldom about odd fictional names.

As a rule, the most perfectly named people on Earth are fictional people. They have an unfair advantage, acquiring their names as fully formed adults with complete personalities and life stories. Whether mundane or fantastical, fictional names usually fit their characters so seamlessly you never even pause to consider why they were chosen.

But one current example is anything but seamless, as readers have been telling me. It's "Mackenzie Allen," the female U.S. president played by Geena Davis on the TV series "Commander in Chief." For a young girl, Mackenzie is a perfectly likely and fashionable name. But President Allen, at a fictional 45 years of age, is a good generation older than any real female Mackenzie, save one.

In November 1959, John Phillips named his new daughter Mackenzie after friend and fellow musician Scott McKenzie ("If you're going to San Francisco..."). Phillips later hit the big time with The Mamas and the Papas, but back in '59 he was still a little-known New York folk singer, not a name-fashion maker. The name Mackenzie wasn't launched into public circulation until 1975, when teenaged Mackenzie Phillips starred in the sitcom "One Day at a Time." Her name's popularity climbed slowly but steadily until the 1990s, when it really started to soar.

So the president Mackenzie doesn't ring true, and it makes you stop and ponder what the writers were reaching for with that choice of name. Some commentators have suggested a plot to boost a presidential run by one particular real-life woman. James Dobson, for instance, claimed that Mackenzie Allen "sounds remarkably, poetically like" Hillary Clinton. But that's some sketchy poetry--Mackenzie and Hillary are far apart in sound and style. (Besides, if you wanted to conjure up images of Hillary would you cast Geena Davis?)

The real key, I presume, is androgyny. "Commander in Chief" has roots in creator Rod Lurie's earlier film The Contender, about a female V.P. candidate. Her name was "Laine Hanson," another surname conversion with a masculine edge. Lurie's other female characters have conventially feminine names like Cynthia, Rebecca, and Amy. But it seems that when he wants to conjure up a woman who sounds strong, sounds like a leader, he makes her sound like a guy.

He's hardly alone in this quirk. Consider Alien-fighter Ripley, C.J. Cregg of "The West Wing," Dana Scully of "X Files," Murphy Brown, even "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," otherwise known as Dr. Mike. When Hollywood wants to signal that a female character is tough and an authority figure, the quick shorthand is to give her an androgynous name. The real world may give us Margaret (Thatcher), Madeleine (Albright) and Condoleezza (Rice), but TV gives us Mackenzie.

The whole point of "Commander in Chief" is that the president is a woman. Mature, responsible, mother of teenagers, ruler of the free world. How curious, then, to give her a name so agressively coltish. Imagine for a moment the same character with a more realistically womanly name -- say Dianne, or Susan, or Elizabeth (all names of current senators). Doesn't the whole scenario suddenly seem more real? But perhaps, in a political fantasy, it doesn't pay to get too close to reality.

Stalking fashion's foe

Sep 30th 2005

The most common question about names is "what makes a name become popular"? (Actually that might be the third most common question, after "did you hear about the twins Oranjello and Lemonjello" and "what's up with Apple???," but indulge me anyway.) Today, for a change of pace, let's turn the question on its head. What makes a name unpopular? Why do we hear Myrtle and Gertrude and instantly say "no way"?

If you want a single rule of thumb for designing a 21st-century name, it's to make sure the consonants don't touch. Look at the middle of Myrtle, Mildred and Gertrude and you'll find three consonant sounds clustered together. Those tongue-challenging clusters were perfectly fashionable back in the 1890s, but today they're a rare breed. From Madison to Olivia, Emily to Alexis, we're sending our consonants out solo.

Can a single pair of sounds really be enough to sink a name? Right now yes, especially if the pair is heavy on the soft voiced letters L, M, N, R and W. (For all you linguists, that's the "liquids," "glides" and "nasals.")

Take a look at the usage of L* pairs:

And when you pair two of the demon sounds together, the effect is even stronger. It's fertile ground for the kind of names that are exclusively comic relief today: Merwin, Delmer, Durward.

So what is the single least fashionable sound of the moment? It's not enough for it to be unusual. It must be fallen from a great height, a once-common sound now relegated to the fashion cellar. There are many fine candidates, from FL at the start of names (Floyd) to RV in the center (Orville). But the nod goes to LM in the middle:

The only LM-centered name that stands much of a chance today is Alma, which clears out all other consonants from the vicinity. By the same token, Elden sounds more viable than Eldred, Flora more current than Florence. If you're using a consonant cluster today, you have to give it room to breathe.