The Middle Name Illusion

Apr 6th 2016

Caution: Middle Names On Your List Are Smaller Than They Appear.

For most of us, the baby name hunt means looking for two names, a first and middle. The middle name is the junior partner, of course, but they're both baby names. We sweat over both choices to create the ideal three-part composition.

Then a funny thing happens. The child is born, and one name becomes an integral part of the fabric of our lives while the other name vanishes. The pre-birth prominence of the middle name turns out to have been an illusion.

The middle name illusion may seem harmless. What's wrong with having an attractive full name, after all? Yet misreading the impact of middle names can lead us astray in the whole naming process. I hear from a lot of parents in situations like these:

"We love Edward, but it's awkward to say with our surname Dwyer. We're looking for a smooth middle name to fix the rhythm -- maybe James?"

"Her middle name is going to be Doloris, after my grandmother. What's a first name that sounds good with Doloris?"

"We have really different tastes, so instead of struggling to find something we both like I suggested a compromise: I'll choose the first name, and he can choose the middle name."

These parents are all asking middle names to do jobs they aren't equipped to handle. A middle name your child will never be called can't fix a broken first-last pairing. A middle name chosen for sentiment rather than style shouldn't determine your style. And a compromise that leaves one parent holding only the middle name is no compromise at all. In each case, overestimating the middle name interferes with the first name decision.

The solution isn't to ignore middle names. It's to realize that a middle name -- assuming you don't use it on a daily basis -- is different in essence from a first name. Your first name is your interpersonal identity, a verbal face you present to the world. Your middle name doesn't do that job, but it can play other roles. For instance:

• Honoring relatives or family/cultural traditions.

• Attaching a special meaning or story to share with your child about her name. (E.g. naming after a personal hero, or a particular etymological meaning, or the place the child was born.)

• Creating an elegant full presentation for formal occasions.

• Embedding a "secret message" (e.g. "Danger is my middle name").

• Creating an appealing monogram or initials (e.g. choosing the name Jayden Rex for the option to use the nickname J.R.)

• Providing a change-of-pace alternative if a first name with a specific image doesn't turn out to fit the child.

That's an impressive range of possibilities, and your family may think of even more. Once you look past the illusion, you can focus on making the most of what middle names do best. Instead of just asking "What name goes well with this first and last pair?", try starting with the question "What do I want to accomplish with a middle name?" Whatever your answer, you should end up confident that that your child's whole name is the best it can be.


Read more: A One-Step Recipe for Baby Name Contentment


15 Baby Names with Classic Royal Style

Mar 30th 2016

There are royal names, and then there are regal names. One is purely a matter of history, the other of image and style. And when it comes to names, regal style is the scarcer commodity.

The plain fact is that plain names dominate most royal family trees. The roots of those trees were planted back in an age when baby naming was dominated by a handful of core classics. Tradition-minded royals stayed close to that naming path, and set the style for generations of commoners. Today, names like Henry and Alice sound sweetly familiar rather than regal, despite their royal histories.

Princess Charlotte of Wales, With Mom
Image via INFPhoto/SplashNews

Royal style pairs history with a stately elegance and steely backbone. A name doesn't have to be fussy to hit the mark, but it does have to be formal. In fact, many regal names are undermined by their own nicknames. Compare the effect of a couple called Victoria and Philip versus Vicki and Phil. The latter pair may sound like nice folks, but it's hard to picture their coronations.

The names below are our picks for timeless regal style. If that's what you're aiming for, be prepared to fight off un-regal nicknames -- or to accept the possibility that your Josephine may end up preferring FiFi or Jo.


The smoothest of all regal names, Amalia retains a bit more formality than the equally royal but more familiar name Amelia. (Royal Example: Princess Amalia, 2003- , heir apparent to the Netherlands throne)

Straightforward Anne may seem like an unlikely choice for our list, but its simple elegance is refreshing and the name has become remarkably rare. (Royal Example: Queen Anne of Great Britain, 1665-1714)

Beatrix, Beatrice
The -x version of the name sounds more obviously exalted to American ears, but both variants are regal. (Royal Examples: Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, 1938- ; Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom, 1857-1944)

The name of Britain's young princess is cute on a little girl and dignified on a grown woman. (Royal Example: Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, 1744-1818, Queen of Great Britain)

This is a serious, grounded name, and yet if you take a moment to hear it fresh it sounds surprisingly romantic. (Royal Example: Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1122-1204, Queen consort of France and England)

Most Josephines choose one of the name's jazzy nickname options, but the full name is all elegance. (Royal Example: Josephine of Leuchtenberg, Queen Consort of Sweden and Norway, 1807-1876)

More than a century after Queen Victoria's death, her name still carries all of its regal power. (Royal Example: Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, 1819-1901)


This name has been regal for millennia, borne by monarchs from ancient times to modern. (Royal Example: Alexander the Great, 356 BC-323 BC, King of Macedonia)

The most modern-sounding name on the boys' list, Christian is a kingly classic in Northern Europe. (Royal Example: King Christian X of Denmark, 1870-1947)

Edmund edges out Edward on our list; less common and more unexpected, it makes a bigger impact. (Royal Example: King Edmund I of England, 921-946)

This substantial classic could stand out in an age of smoother, lighter boys' names, but it's particularly prone to nicknames. (Royal Example: Frederick the Great, 1712-1786, King of Prussia)

In contrast to Frederick, James is sleek, timeless, and increasingly nickname-free. (Royal Example: King James I of England and Scotland, 1603-1625)

Never common in the U.S., Magnus could hit a rare two-fer as both a royal classic and a creative name choice. (Royal Example: Magnus Barefoot, 1073-1103, King of Norway)

Understated, Maximilian is not. But if you like your regal elegance full-throttle, you can't do better. (Royal Example: King Maximilian II of Bavaria, 1811-1864)

A generation of guys called Phil has left this refined classic overlooked. The full name is still a perfect gentleman. (Royal Example: King Philip IV of France, 1268-1314)

The Trend That Has Quietly Taken Over Baby Names

Mar 24th 2016

A small, elite group is quietly taking over American baby names. Not Hollywood celebrities, not Wall Street bankers…vowels. The letters a, e, i, o, u and y have become the most dominant force in modern baby name style.

Of course, vowels have always been powerful. They're an essential ingredient in every word and every name, the glue that holds it all together. Over the past generation, though, they've risen from supporting players to star attractions. Vowels make up a much greater proportion of American baby names than ever before.

This trend holds true for boys and girls alike, across all name styles. In the historical graph below, you'll see the ratio of vowels to consonants in all names given to American babies. The ratio reflects actual name usage, so if 50,000 girls were named Jennifer in a particular year, the name Jennifer would count 50,000 times in that year's tally. The top orange line represents girls' names and the bottom green line boys'.

The first thing you'll notice is that girls' names have always featured more vowels than boys' names. The biggest driving factor in this difference is name endings.  An -a ending is the classic feminine name marker, and diminutive endings like -ie are mostly female as well. Hard consonant endings, meanwhile, typically point toward the masculine. (Try thinking of a girl's name ending in -rd, or -k.)

Looking at the trend, the concentration of vowels has risen dramatically for both sexes since the 1980s, with both currently hitting new all-time highs. On the boys' side, the rise in vowels is unprecedented. Boys' names used to change more slowly than girls', and the boys' graph reflects this with a century of stable vowel usage. Then in the past generation, everything changed. Boys' names became just as subject to the changing winds of fashion as girls', and that meant more vowels.

For perspective, take a look at the dotted gray line on the graph. That line represents the vowel/consonant ratio in typical English text, like a book or newspaper. Historically, boys' names have always been heavier on consonants than common text. Now, for the first time, they're lighter.

The trend would be even more dramatic if we looked at distribution of vowels throughout a name. Parents prefer to insert vowel sounds between consonant sounds, rather than allowing consonants to mass together and gain strength. The only boy's name in today's top 10 with consecutive consonant sounds is Alexander. Compare to Robert, George, Charles, Edward, Frank and Walter a century ago.

The movement toward vowels isn't absolute. It's easy to find examples of new consonant-packed hits, like Harper and Jackson. But it is a style trend of extraordinary scope. It encompasses other big trends I've identified, like liquid names and raindrop names. It's the engine in the background propelling traditional names like Olivia, Isaiah and Abigail to new heights, and making Aria, Aiden and Ava some of the fastest-rising names of their generation. At the same time, it has sped the decline of classic English names like Margaret and Richard, and kept Mildred and Walter from enjoying the same kind of antique revival as Amelia and Oliver.

Incredibly, a megatrend like this can shape a whole generation of names without any parents deliberately favoring it.  If you like classic names, or unisex names, or cowboy names, you know that and you target the style. But millions of parents didn't start their name hunt by saying "let's hold down the concentration of consonants." Vowel dominance isn't a style in itself but a secret sauce that makes one name sound a little bit better than another. It might have started with just a couple of stylish sounds, or a desire to move away from the familiar English standards. Then it developed its own momentum, as the sound of vowels increasingly represented the fresh and contemporary. Now it quietly guides your choices within your own sense of style, whatever that style may be.