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.


By Anonymous (not verified)
September 30, 2005 1:58 PM

One possible exception, which isn't really an old name but a new "surname" name - how about Palmer?

By Anonymous (not verified)
September 30, 2005 5:24 PM

Actually, Palmer IS an old name! check it out on the namevoyager.

By Kristin (not verified)
September 30, 2005 8:53 PM

Awesome post! I often wonder about these things. The next question is WHY did these sounds become unpopular? And is this cyclical? Will Elmer and Wilma regain popularity one day?

By Anonymous (not verified)
September 30, 2005 10:56 PM

Well, well. I hope the same doesn't hold for last names! Our last name has a prominent LM sound. And not only that we just had a baby girl this summer and named her Daphne. I guess we are flying in the face of fashion with an overdose of consonants. I just love that name and couldn't help it. :)

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 1, 2005 6:44 PM

Interesting! Some other combinations that took a dive were names starting with Ag- (too close to nag, I suppose) and Bu-.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 2, 2005 8:12 PM

Could the name Flynn be an exception?

By rosewater99 (not verified)
October 2, 2005 9:58 PM

But some consanant clusters have become more popular in recent years. Just a few days before I saw this blog, I was wondering if the name I've planned on using for a boy the past few years is too "modern" for me to use because not only is the name itself much more popular in the past couple of decades, but when I put "Tr" into the name voyager, I see that names starting with those letter are pretty much a recent thing since the 60's. And also names like Austin, Justin, Easton, Karsten tend to be more modern and recent. And thost are all names with the "st" sound in the middle. So clearly not ALL consanant clusters have become less fashionable.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 5, 2005 3:20 PM

Palmer wouldn't be an exception, because Laura is talking about sounds, not letters. The 'L' in Palmer is usually not pronounced.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 5, 2005 8:02 PM

I pronounce the L. Is it a regional accent that doesn't say it?Palmer sounds like Paul but with the trendy ending of surname first names like Tanner, Taylor and Hunter, so it sounds updated. I think it's a much better alternative to, say Elmer. I like Flynn too, but prefer Finn.

By Becky (not verified)
October 6, 2005 1:57 AM

Elmer, Velma, and Wilma will never regain popularity as long as Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo, and the Flintstones are still running somewhere.

By Becky (not verified)
October 6, 2005 1:58 AM

Elmer, Velma, and Wilma will never regain popularity as long as Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo, and the Flintstones are still running somewhere.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 6, 2005 7:22 PM

i think you start running into more problems with 3 consonants together more so than 2.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 7, 2005 10:49 PM

I have considered naming my child Wilhelmina because I like the sounds of looks terrible written. Too many consonents!

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 11, 2005 2:27 AM

My son's middle name is Flynn

By Antoinette (not verified)
November 22, 2005 4:35 PM

Myrtle and Thelma are pretty. Way nicer than Madison or Alexis. People always say Gertrude is an old woman's name but remember, Gerty was young once too and Alexis is going to be old someday.

By Anonymous (not verified)
December 2, 2005 12:29 PM

And then there's that old favorite, and a presidential name to boot, Dwight. Poised for a comeback? Probably not.--Elizabeth

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 2, 2006 3:57 AM

Eh HEM! Replying to Oranjello and Lemonjello and the earlier comment that this is a legend and they do not really exist....NOT TRUE! My sister works at a hospital in DC. She treated the twins.NO JOKE!

By ZG (not verified)
June 24, 2007 10:37 PM

you don't name your kids according to what's in fashion.

By monica (not verified)
December 11, 2007 4:50 PM

i name my son elishio hernan jacobo, but my husban doesn't like the name. So what do you think?

By gretchen (not verified)
December 17, 2007 11:40 PM

ain't ain't a word so i ain't gonna' say it.

By Richard (not verified)
January 22, 2008 4:01 AM

My grandfather's name was Bluford. What about that one? Two consonants at the beginning but bad anyway.

By Sponge (not verified)
January 22, 2008 4:34 PM

Sounds like someone mis-spelled Buford!