The Two Kinds of Place Names

Nov 9th 2017

Here's a curious fact about two geographical baby names, Bridger and Boston. Bridger is most popular near the places named for mountain man Jim Bridger, in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. Boston, meanwhile, is most popular in...exactly the same places. In the region around Boston, Massachusetts, the name Boston is almost never heard.

That's a fundamental divide among place names. Some are emblems of local pride, most popular near the place itself, while others are chosen only from a distance. Here's a sampling of the two categories:

Acadia Boston
Aspen Brooklyn
Bridger Cairo
Charleston Ireland
Denali London
Georgia Madison
Memphis Paris
Raleigh Salem
Virginia Trenton


Paris and Denali. Images: Wikimedia Commons

Foreign locales like London and Cairo obviously can't be "local flavor" in the U.S., but they aren't trendy in their homelands, either. (Last year, there were 20 times as many girls named London in the U.S. state of Georgia as in all of England.) U.S. places like Boston and Brooklyn show that the two types of place name occur closer to home, too. What's more, the name Ireland isn't popular in the parts of the U.S. with the largest Irish-American populations. In short, geographic names break down into "here" and "there" varieties.

While the place names themselves vary, one simple explanation for the difference is regional style. Some communities love contemporary place names for babies, while others seldom touch them. I live near Boston myself, and I almost never meet local kids with place-based names—not even Madison. So it's not surprising that the name Boston is most used elsewhere. It's not that Bostonians don't love Boston, it's that their baby name taste runs to Benjamin and Thomas instead.


Even within a community that loves to take names from a map, a local place name feels like a different impulse from a globetrotting choice. Local flavor is often described as "authenticity," but I don't think that's the right concept here. It's not as if parents from Georgia who who name their daughters London are pretending they're from London, England. They just like the essence that place names lend to a baby name, and a glamorous global capital has a special spark. (The name Paris is a hot choice in Georgia, too.)

Perhaps it's more like the difference between naming a baby after a great-grandfather vs. naming him after a cultural hero or celebrity. Surely the name Martin is equally "authentic" whether it's in honor of Grandpa Martin or Martin Luther King, Jr. But the impulse and familial meaning are different.

For parents who are drawn to place names, there's a final factor to consider: popularity. The cosmopolitan romance of a Paris or London is unbeatable, but there is only one London, England; only one Paris, France. That means a lot of sharing when it comes to baby names. In the past decade, more than 40,000 American girls have been named London/Londyn. Meanwhile, there are countless towns, neighborhoods, natural attractions and local landmarks in every corner of the world. Somewhere in your neck of the woods is an attractive and little-used place name.

Choosing such a local name does sacrifice the universality of the message. Wherever you go, you can feel confident that the name Paris will summon images of the City of Light. A Tennessee native who names a son Burgess, in contrast, has to accept that the homage to the beauties of Burgess Falls State Park will be lost on most audiences. Yet just as with naming after grandpa, you're giving a lasting personal message to your child. And with the name Burgess not even registering on America's baby name stats last year, it's a gift he'll have all to himself.


Adventurous Word Names

Nov 7th 2017

With names like Haven, River, and Journey ranking among the 300 most popular names, it seems that parents have adventure in mind. These word names embody excitement and discovery, but also sound elegant enough for a birth certificate.

If you’re a fan of travel- and exploration-inspired names, check out this list of fifteen uncommon choices. These word names work for all kinds of kids, with connections to the natural world, meaningful connotations, and the promise of daring deeds.

Bridge. Strong and handsome Bridge isn’t too far off from current names like Gage or Bryce, but it feels more substantive - as a connection between two points, a bridge represents the unity created when different paths converge. This sense of togetherness is sure to embolden your little one as Bridge experiences all sorts of new places in life.

Story. This exciting name has already moved celebrity parents such as Soleil Moon Frye and Jenna Elfman, both of whom welcomed boys with the name (though Story is not strictly gender-specific). Such a name encourages the wearer to “write their own story,” be it filled with faraway adventures or mindful journeys close to home.

Cedar. Known for its strength and longevity, cedar wood was used to build Solomon’s Temple (according to 1 Kings) and the Sea of Galilee boat, giving this natural material a few religious associations. The name Cedar holds warmth and positivity, with links to travel, music, and even ancient mythology in its illustrious history.

West. Weston and Wesley rank in the top 1000, but inspiring West has yet to join them. Still, this directional choice has symbolized enlightenment, promise, and freedom for all kinds of cultures, from the Buddhists to the Celts to the Judeo-Christians. West feels both friendly and fearless, a word name with energy and hope.

Beacon. For centuries, beacons have been used all over the world to guide travelers in unfamiliar or dangerous territory; they signify guidance through the unknown. In addition to having this beautiful connotation, the name Beacon is similar in sound to Beckett and Brecken, choices already beloved by American audiences.

Taiga. Unusual and intriguing, Taiga is an intrepid option for fans of the uncommon: the name was only given to 10 boys in 2016. From the Yakut language for “untraversable forest,” taiga refers to the ecosystems of the north, filled with coniferous forests and snowy mountains. Taiga feels vast and vivacious, a bold choice for a child setting out to explore their world.

Cove. In contrast to other boisterous choices, Cove is a calmer name that feels peaceful and safe, a haven in an exhilarating journey. Tranquil Cove fits in aurally with names like Cole and Cora, but feels substantial enough to stand out in a crowd.

Echo. While the name comes from a tragic character in Greek mythology - the nymph Echo was cursed by Hera to only repeat the words of others - Echo seems much more compelling in a modern context. As a reflection of sound, echoes represent the continuation of ideas and words over time, giving this pretty name a significant connection to all that’s come before.

Breeze. Bright as a summer’s day, Breeze is a lovely word name with an upbeat personality. As Brianna and its variants begin to decline, Breeze would make a more wild and free alternative. This beautiful choice has already been used in fiction, from a male Marvel hero to a few female literary characters.

Scout. Though Atticus’ acclaim has waxed and waned over the past few years, adorable and dynamic Scout remains an underdog - it’s never ranked in the top 1000. If you’re not attached to the To Kill a Mockingbird namesake, Scout still offers a confident and pioneering energy, which many celebrity parents have admired.

Prairie. This pretty word is French in origin, but was borrowed by English speakers to describe the grasslands of North America; it’s a word filled with history and discovery. Prairie feels vintage, like Sadie or Daisy, yet it’s filled with the sensation of wide open spaces and blue skies above.

Ocean. Elegant Océane has a following in France, but serene Ocean has yet to inspire the anglophone world. It’s an unexpected choice that feels both unchanging and full of life, a name with an abundance of possibilities. Ocean would fit in well with names like Owen, Orion, or Odin, but it’s by no means strictly masculine.

Timber. Another sylvan name, Timber is an attractive choice that appeals to both genders - the name was given to over 50 boys and 50 girls in 2016. The word calls to mind old-fashioned building and classic craftsmanship, a creative connotation that may appeal to artists. Timber’s aural similarities to Timothy or Kimberly will help it cohere on American playgrounds.

Canyon. Sweeping Canyon conjures images of magnificent landscapes and thrilling voyages, a name that would make any adventurer proud. It’s not too distant from Carson or Camden, with more grandeur and gravitas.

Harbor. Derived from the Old English for “shelter” and “protection,” Harbor is a pleasant name with many positive links: there’s the historic sense of trade and human connection; there’s the emotional sense of security, as in “safe harbor”; and there are the many coastal landmarks that make it a meaningful place-name.

Name That Bo!

Nov 2nd 2017

Try to think of an American man called Bo. You can probably name a few, like musician Bo Diddley, Oscar-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman, multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson, or fictional Bo Duke of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Guess what? None of them were actually named Bo. In fact, until "Dukes of Hazzard" debuted in 1979, almost no Americans were named Bo. It was a pure nickname, all rugged, down-home simplicity. In the case of Bo Duke it was a short form of Beauregard, and others used it as short for Robert, but most often, the nickname Bo bore no relation at all to any given name.

Beauregard "Bo" Duke of Dukes of Hazzard

Bo now stands as an emblem of a bygone nickname era. Today, most nicknames are trimmed-down versions of formal names, but it wasn't always that way. From Jack being "short" for John to nicknames like Bear or Duke that you had to earn, the land of nicknames used to be a much more flexible and creative realm.

To illustrate the change, I've collected every famous male Bo I can find find who was born in the U.S. through 1978. If you already knew the legal first name of even one of them, that's one more than me. Let them be a reminder that nicknames aren't just thumbnail views of full names, they're whatever we make of them.


Robert "Bo" Belinsky: Major league baseball pitcher

Harold "Bo" Bice: musician and American Idol contestant

Armenter Chatmon "Bo Carter": early blues musician

Robert "Bo" Cornell: NFL football player

Baudilio "Bo" Díaz: Major league baseball player

Ellas McDaniel "Bo Diddley": influential R&B/rock&roll musician

Richard "Bo" Dietl: police detective/media commentator

Robert "Bo" Goldman: screenwriter (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Melvin and Howard)

William "Bo" Hopkins: film actor (The Wild Bunch, American Graffiti, Midnight Express)

Vincent "Bo" Jackson: athlete named as an All-Star in both baseball and football

Gregory "Bo" Kimble: NBA basketball player

Charles "Bo" Outlaw: NBA basketball player

Mark "Bo" Pelini: college football coach

Marquis "Bo" Porter: Major league baseball manager

Robert "Bo" Rein: college football coach

William "Bo" Ryan: college basketball coach

Glenn "Bo" Schembechler: college football coach

Robert "Bo" Welch: film production designer (Thor, Men in Black, Edward Scissorhands)