Names, Exotica, and Scrabble, Part 2

Sep 26th 2004

The previous post showed how parents are gravitating toward exotic letters in names -- particularly letters like Q, X and Z that score highest in the game of Scrabble. So what does that trend look like on an individual name level?

Any traditional name with a Q, X or Z now has a shot at the big time. Axel, Ezekiel, Felix, Maximilian, Quinton, Xavier, Zane and Zoe were obscurities a generation ago, but all are top-500 choices today. Zachary, once a biblical oddity, is now an everyday standard name:

To broaden the field, parents are also juicing up standard names with an extra shot of Scrabble power. Some popular choices:

Alexander-->Alexzander
Jackson-->Jaxon
Jasmine-->Jazmyn
Xavier-->Xzavier

(Jazmyn also illustrates another Scrabble-friendly trend, the mass substitution of Y for I in names like Kaitlyn and Madelyn.)

So what's up next? Here are 10 names with Scrabble mojo that have yet to break through:

Ajax - Think of the ancient Greek hero, not the srubbing bubbles
Beatrix - A sassier turn on Beatrice, with distinguished forbears
Jabez - The biblical Jabez had his prayers famously answered
Lazar - Eastern European form of Eleazar or Lazarus
Lennox - A tough, sophisticated Scottish surname
Quinlan - From the Irish surname, it also works as an elaboration on Quinn
Rex - From the Latin for "king," a promising alternative to Max
Xanthe - A traditional Greek name with the popular strong -e ending
Xristina - Eye-catching Greek form of Christina
Zilla - A thoroughly neglected Old Testament choice for girls

Name Inflation, Scrabble Style

Sep 22nd 2004

You see a car drive by with a metallic avocado finish, and you know you're looking at the pride of 1973. You see a blouse in neon chartreuse, and it's 1999. As colors are to fashion, letters are to baby names. They sweep in and out of fashion, alone and in combinations. The hot letters today sound quirky and exotic, the kind of letters that beg for individual attention.

But how do parents know which letters are most exotic? No problem. That question was answered generations ago by an unemployed architect named Alfred Butts, who invented the game of Scrabble. Butts chose point values for letters based on popular usage of the time, with the workhorse letters (vowels, l, n, r, s, t) worth one point, and the rare birds far more.

Those depression-era value assignments remain an intuitively accurate portrait of letter "exoticness." The letters that jump out from a rack of Scrabble tiles -- Z and Q (the 10-pointers), X and J (8), and K (5) -- also catch the eye in a name. They're beloved by the brand-name consultants who've coined such names as Exxon and Verizon, and they're the first stops in the alphabet for parents who want to give their children's names punch.

Here you see the percentage of American babies whose names include at least one high-value tile, either as the first letter (blue) or anywhere in the name (green):

Since 1900, the rate has nearly doubled. American parents' instinct to avoid the "ordinary" has created a name-scoring explosion.

A few points to ponder about that graph -- first, note that the first letter of the name accounts for more than half the occurrences of high-value letters. The exotics, fittingly, don't mingle with the commoners. Letters like Q seldom venture into the middle of a name, unless it's a foreign import (Jacques, Enrique) or an African-American invention (Tyquan, Laquita).

Second, consider that J is a great leveling factor. It's rare in common English words, with their Anglo-Saxon and Greco-Roman roots. But names more often have Hebraic roots, making J a common naming letter. A handful of biblical standards like John, James and Joseph were enormously popular a century ago, and their frequency swamps the growth of names like Xander and Quinn. If you look only at the rarest, most aggressively exotic letters, the trend is far more dramatic:

To Be Continued...