Names without borders

Mar 1st 2007

Many globe-trotting readers have asked for advice on choosing names that "travel well." Foreign relatives, international work assigments, or simply a sense of the small world around us can make a global-ready name an attractive target.

You may have specific cultural targets. Indian-Americans, for instance, know the standard pool of "crossover names" -- Maya, Sarita, Neil -- that sound natural in both of the cultures they straddle. But suppose your goal isn't a specific cultural match but a broad accessibility? What can make an English-based name attractive and pronounceable for the rest of the world?

In one respect, current styles are already leading in that direction. As I've discussed in the past, American fashion has turned against names with multiple pronounced consonants in a row. English has plenty of these consonant clusters, in words (prompt, strange) as well as names (George, Martha.) Yet many languages simply don't permit clusters, or severely restrict them. Japanese and Hawaiian are familar examples. Think of typical names from those cultures, like Kalani Kealoha or Takahiro Suzuki.

Even languages that load up on consonant clusters may not permit the same ones as English. In Spanish, for instance, S* clusters don't start words: special is especial, Steven is Esteban. And unfamiliar clusters are notoriously frustrating tongue-twisters for ESL students. English speakers are similiarly tripped up by some Slavic name openings; think Ksenia and Sviatoslav. So rule #1 for smooth traveling: keep the consonants apart.

For single sounds, the vowel sounds ah, ee and oo are near-universal and vowels in general are pretty forgiving. In speech, a slightly-off vowel tends to be less disruptive than a slightly-off consonant. From the annals of ESL classes, the classic insanity-inducing English sound is TH, both voiced ("thy") and unvoiced ("thigh"). W is the least favored letter.

Finally, there's the question of endings. In many languages, names ending in vowels are more comfortable than consonant endings. Hawaiian and Japanese apply once again, along with Italian, Kiswahili, etc.

So where does this leave us? Frankly, with a lot of girls' names. You can use these rules to generate plenty of names, familiar and unfamiliar, with a simple, timeless feminine sound. Try Adina, Amira, Anna, Ayana, Leila, Lena, Malaika, Malia, Mari, Melina, Mika, Mira, Nina, Saniya, Shani, Sofia, Talia, Tamara, get the idea. But boys are tougher. Not that options don't exist (Nico and Dario, for example). But by and large the closer you get to a globalized boy's name the farther you get from an American one. You may never have met an American girl named Adina or Shani, but would you blink an eye if you did? For an American-sounding boy, though, you typically have to slap a consonant on the end. Try Lucas, a hit name from New Zealand to Belgium, Sweden to Brazil.


By Anne B. (not verified)
March 7, 2007 3:52 PM

Lee, someone else mentioned it but Benjamin has to be my all time favorite classic boy's name. It's great for a little boy - Ben, Benji, Bennie and also great for a grown man - Ben, Benjamin. On the issue of translatable names, I agree with the poster who said we're seeing a sort of globalization of names. I understand couples from 2+ different cultures using a translatable name, but it also makes me sad that we're heading towards a McDonalds-ization of names. Before, you knew that a Kai was from Hawaii or Asia. Now he's just as likely to be from suburban Maryland (there were 3 new Kais born in my little city in the last year). My husband and I travel a lot and have family in Germany and we specifically want to give our kids recognizably American names - i.e. Sawyer, Wyatt, etc. If you were to pool the names of my relatives in Germany and here in America, it would be difficult to tell where most of us are from (Anna Marie, Veronica, Josef, Karl, Norbert, Vincent). I guess I just don't like homogenization.

By Melanie (not verified)
March 7, 2007 3:59 PM

Anne B. - I'm sort of with you there. Maybe we're losing part of the charm of cultural names by using them apart from their culture? I'm not really sure where I stand on that. Just the same, my husband and I like the name Caoileann a lot - and neither of us is very Irish. *sigh*

By RobynT (not verified)
March 7, 2007 4:21 PM

It's okay. I think places will still have their uniqueness. It will just be a different kind of unique than before.

By Amy (not verified)
March 7, 2007 4:28 PM

Anne B--I agree. One of the reasons that my husband and I chose not to use Indian/Hindu names was that out kids are American. We aren't ashamed of that. We believe that no matter how much a parent may want the child to have a connection to a foreign culture, a name just isn't a strong enough tie. You are of the culture in which you are raised. I heard a report on NPR a few years that stated that the place we live when we are 12, is the place we are from. So, since we are not planning a move to India or anywhere really, our kids will consider themselves American not Indian. Even my India born husband feels more American than Indian since he has lived here from about the age of ten. We want our kids to appreciate and tolerate all cultures, but also be happy to be American. A foreign name without an actual cultural immersion is just a kid with an odd name. He will be the adult saying, "Yea, the folks loved India. Never been there myself." There's no right or wrong here. We all just try our best.

By Lola (not verified)
March 7, 2007 4:35 PM


My maiden name is Ambrose and I was thinking of naming my baby boy Emrys Thomas Engel, -Emrys is the Welsh version for Ambrose...Do you think this is to hard to pronounce? My husband wants to name the baby Ambrose but I think that would be too much for the g-parents.

By Anne B. (not verified)
March 7, 2007 4:53 PM

I like the name Ambrose a lot! I wonder what nicknames there are, though?

By Lee (not verified)
March 7, 2007 5:53 PM

Thanks for the help...that gives us some new ideas to work with.

I will keep you updated.


By Liz (not verified)
March 7, 2007 6:11 PM

My favorite girl's name is Sophie, which seems to be quite popular in Europe. I like it becuase it seems simple, elegant and classic. Sofia/Sophia has been extremely popular in the U.S. for the last couple of years, but Sophie seems to have been overlooked (perhaps becuase of the trend on more feminine names ending in a).

By Christiana (not verified)
March 7, 2007 6:14 PM

Lola - Looks like an interesting name, but I wonder at the pronunciation, myself. I actually prefer the name Ambrose - have they said anything about not liking it? I would think they would enjoy having such a close connection. Either way it works, but you're going to get a lot of "how do you pronounce that?" from people, etc. if you use Emrys.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
March 7, 2007 6:16 PM

I have no idea how to pronounce Emrys. Is it pronounced the same way as Ambrose? If so, I'd stick with the one that looks the way it sounds (in English).

The grandparents could go either way on Ambrose. They might be thrilled to have a baby given their name as a way to honor them. They might think it's weird, though. But if so, they'll come around once they meet him. My boss's son just gave his baby her maiden name and she thinks it's bizarre (it's not a common last name, poor little guy), but she is over the moon for her grandson. Go with what you love!

By RobynT (not verified)
March 7, 2007 6:17 PM

Lola: I would guess EM-ris, but might also think em-REES. I think if I knew it was a boys' name, I would think of the short I. Why do you think the g-parents would not like Ambrose? There was a kid at my high school named Ambrosio. I can't remember waht his nn was. Maybe Brosio?

By Cheryl (not verified)
March 7, 2007 6:17 PM

I prefer Ambrose over Emrys (but I prefer Thomas over Ambrose). Ambrose is more clearly male, and you son wouldn't have to pronounce his name for people. If nicknames are the issue, maybe Ross? Bo? Abe?

By Keren (not verified)
March 7, 2007 8:59 PM

Emrys - very masculine, burly Welsh farmer type. Sexy. Em-rees I think. Love it.

Ambrose - hopelessly effete, sorry.

By Heather A. (not verified)
March 7, 2007 9:07 PM

Lola- I like Emrys. It was the boyhood name of Merlin (of Aurtherian legend). If I remember my Mary Stewart correctly he also went by Ambrosius. The author of one of the parenting books I was reading while I was pregnant (for the life of me I can't think of the title) named her 2nd son Emrys. (The older son had suggested it because of the Merlin connection.) Anyhow, it sounds less heavy and stuffy (in my opinion) then Ambrose.

Christiana/er- Was your co-worker from downeast Maine? or the Boston area? (Or should I say areer?) In those dialects (which I am lucky(?) enough to hear daily) the "ah" sound is pronounced "er". and the "er" sound is an "ah". Lots of people call me Heathah, and that's how I know if they're real "Mainahs".

By Kerri (not verified)
March 7, 2007 9:55 PM

My friend's grandpa was named Ambrose--always went by Andy.

Her grandma's name was Myrtle Agnes, I always loved that, seemed the quintessential grandma name!

By Tansey (not verified)
March 7, 2007 10:36 PM

Love Ambrose - its recogniseable but not common. Another similar to it is August - Augustus feels a little too much like an older man but August seems fairly contemporary.
Keren - effete? Putting connotations like that on a name may come back to bite you if one day you have a close relative/friend/employer of that name. Are you going to stand up and tell them (or think it and show them by your reaction)they are effete just because of their name, when possibly they're actually a strong healthy capable person?

By Tara (not verified)
March 8, 2007 1:19 AM

Marie-Claire, I think Tara is a very good suggestion that would fit with Danielle's criteria....However, my name is Tara and I find that it has 2 different pronunciations in the U.S. and it can get a little irritating. My mom named me after the plantation in Gone With the Wind, so the way we pronounce it rhymes with Sarah. When I was in school, many teachers pronounced it Tar-uh, as in tar (the black sticky substance). I must admit, that I like the way I pronounce it better. Just pointing out that it has the potential to be an annoyance.

By jennifer (not verified)
March 8, 2007 3:26 AM

Names can be tricky when crossing cultures. I didn't have him in class, but there was a poor fellow at my school named Phuc. Luckily, the u=oo!

By anon (not verified)
March 8, 2007 8:29 AM

Anne B.—The Kai I know is a German man. The name has a long history there and in Scandinavia, not just Hawaii...

By Elly (not verified)
March 8, 2007 2:43 PM

I agree with Anne B. and Melanie above- I think there's plenty of room to appreciate and respect other cultures with out appropriating names. So many times I've put my foot in my mouth, hoping for a story about an unusual name, only to be told that it just sounded good (I learned to stop asking a while ago).

Melanie said that names lose their charm when they're disconnected from their cultural origins, and I agree with that. Anais just doesn't seem right on someone with no connection to Provence- maybe that's why the names lose their charm? We expect the history of a name to have some direct relevance to the person who bears it? On the other hand, how do you define the culture of immigrant nations like Canada and the US?

By Christiana (not verified)
March 8, 2007 4:03 PM

Heather - She was from New England, but I don't remember which state. Ironically, her name was Donna and she didn't pronounce her own name Donner.

I totally don't get the feminine ideal from Ambrose, Keren. Maybe that's because I know a guy who is very masculine whose last name is Ambrose and that's what i think of when I hear it. I also cannot picture naming a girl that. Rose, yes, Ambrose - no way. I'd actually think that, from the American perspective Emrys looks more feminine - similar to Emmy, a girl's nn.

By Peony (not verified)
March 8, 2007 4:24 PM

*** personal name question interruption ***

So our favorite name for a girl right now is Anne. Although no one seems to be using that name these days, Anna is hugely popular (#23 in the U.S., #11 in our state, though it seems to have peaked at #7 in 2001). Because of my own experience with the most popular name of the decade, I don't want our Anne to feel adrift in a sea of Annas.

Question for you all: Would Anne and Anna be constantly confused in the classroom and on the playground? Are the Annas these days using the nn Annie (which we probably would)? With the popularity of Hannah (#4 here), Brianna (#21), and Savannah (#25), are we phonetically inviting a lifetime of Jennifer-dom when it's what I most want to avoid?

This is our first child and I don't have any exposure to the under-five set, so your thoughts would be most helpful! (We have lots of other names we like and several months to figure this out, so I won't be too sad if we have to take Anne off the table.)

By Amy (not verified)
March 8, 2007 4:53 PM

Peony--Anne is a lovely, classic name. Anna may be more popular today, but Anne may be more popular in a few years. I don't believe that a true classic, even when quite popular, has a dated feel to it. I don't think an Anna and Anne in the same class would be confusing. Good luck and have fun choosing a name.

By molly h (not verified)
March 8, 2007 6:10 PM

Peony: I have a sister named Anna (she'll be 30 this year) and it wasn't a popular name growing up... We also have an aunt named Anne and maybe it's just because I was familiar with Anna first, but I *never* got the names confused... They may look similar but have an entirely different feel to me.

Also - jennifer, I wonder how common the name Phuc is in aisan cultures, because I know one too! He's one of the coolest people I know. And yes, he pronounces it "Fook".

By Keren (not verified)
March 8, 2007 6:58 PM

I don't think a person is effete just because they might have an effete name (I have a colleague called Floris for example, who is absolutely not effete at all). But it would be a factor which would interest me if I were planning to call my child that name.

Ambrose sounds too much like both Amber and Rose to be at all masculine to me. I suspect a boy might be called Rosie for short.

It's all about associations though - I hear Emrys and I think rugged Welsh rugby player. I hear Ambrose and I think Victorian milksop. Of course others make different associations.

By Tansey (not verified)
March 8, 2007 10:25 PM

Keren - if you called him Rosie then you'd be setting him up yourself but boys wouldn't dare do stuff like that - not the boys I know at least. They generally don't care and most just use the first few letters of a name as a nickname, so Ambrose would likely be Am or Ambo while Emrys would be Em or Emmer. Would you then see your rugged Welsh rugby player as effete?
You are right - it's everyones perspective that counts, but if your child/children have good friends whose names you put negative connotations on it can be, at least, unfortunate.

By o.h. (not verified)
March 8, 2007 11:03 PM


As others have said, don't worry much about what isn't being used right now. After accidentally giving our first daughter an over-popular name, we checked VERY carefully to make sure NOBODY was using Maeve, then used it for our second daughter. Four years later I'm reading this blog and people are moaning about how tired they are of all the little Maeve's and Ava's. Thank God I didn't name her Neveah.

If it's not popular now, but you like it, I promise it will be very hot shortly.

By anne (not verified)
March 8, 2007 11:58 PM

Also, get used to lots of people THINKING Anne is much more popular than it is. In my experience, you'll get a lot of "Not very original/unusual" opinions, even though you're right- it's not popular. For some reason, Jane and Anne get stuck with the "overused"/"plain" label a lot.

I detested my bread-and-butter name growing up. It's OK now, I guess. We actually had an "Anne" discussion on this site a month or two back, if you want to check that out. Oh, and I never had a problem differentiating my name from Anna in the classroom, for what it's worth.

By Beth (not verified)
March 9, 2007 2:09 AM

Stephanie, Laura is a lovely name. It's one of those where you just have to close your eyes and think the spelling while you say it -- like "Anne-with-an-e" in "Anne of Green Gables." Which brings me to:

Peony: Anne is beautiful and underused (I don't like Ann and am bored with all the Annas). Annie is the cutest nickname ever; I have never met an Annie I didn't love.

Lee: Clara is just beautiful. Jack and Henry's mom mentioned Jane for a mn, which I second (bias: it is my daughter's mn). To me, "Marie" and "Ann" are still dull non-choices for middle names, but "Jane" has a certain no-nonsense feel. I'm not wild about all the Frenchified middle names, because they kind of outfrill Clara. With all those liquids (l and R), plus the two long a's, I think you need a sturdy middle name.

Liz: Sophie, while supercute, is very trendy where I live. I must know 4 or 5, and every time I am on the playground there is at least one!

By Keren (not verified)
March 9, 2007 9:26 AM

I wouldn't ever say a name was effete if it was actually attatched to a person...just when it's up for discussion. But good point about Em v Am.

By Jack & Henry's mom (not verified)
March 10, 2007 8:42 PM

I know of a few little Annas, but I can't think of any "just Anns." I doubt it will ever be super popular, if only because it's still so popular (I think) as a mn (my own in fact). As for confusion, I suppose she may one day be in a class with two Annas or so, but I doubt that would cause a lot of trouble. The Annas I know don't seem to be called Annie, though obviously, this isn't very scientific data! Of course, I look at Jack and call him Henry all the time, so these things will happen.
My own thought on popularity is that if you use a classic (like Anne), even if it gets popular it will never sound bandwagon trendy. I'm not sure this makes sense, but I'd much rather be Emma than Madison (no offense intended to mommies of either).
Liz-I think lots of Sophias are called Sophie-I know of two personally, and some "just Sophies," besides. In fact, one is the older sister to an Anna.
It's still darling, though.
Best wishes!

By Elmo (not verified)
March 11, 2007 10:34 PM

Just wanted to add that two little Manoors were born in Scotland last year, along with a little Hoor - which unfortunately happens to be a colloquialism for 'prostitute' here.

By Amy (not verified)
March 11, 2007 11:46 PM

Elmo--Those unfortunate names would mean the same in the U.S. too. Poor kids.

By C & C's Mom (not verified)
March 12, 2007 1:41 AM

My own son is Coby which I think works well in several languages - english & Hebrew definitely & the Spanish-speakers I know pronounce it very easily. I would guess that speakers of Romance languages in general would have an easy time. I guess it's the strong vowel sounds.

By Anne/kq (not verified)
March 12, 2007 7:24 AM

Another Anne chiming in on it being a great name. ;) I've never wished for a different name (first name, anyway), and even though there were four Annes in my preschool class and three in my kindergarten (in my area, in the early 80s, it WAS quite popular), I didn't mind. It never hurt me to have a popular name (whereas my cousin Siobahn has had a lot of trouble with hers...)

By kbw (not verified)
March 12, 2007 12:32 PM

Back to Names without Borders... My husband and I (both Americans although he is originally Scottish) have lived in Italy for 7 years. When I became pregnant with a girl we wanted an androgeneous name of Anglo, not Italian, descent that would sound nice in both languages. After throwing out Harper (our favorite but Italians can't say H) and Campbell (2 consonants together is a no-no)it was between Avery and Greer. I was indecisive and in post-partum fog wasn't ready to decide on a name but they wouldn't let us leave the hospital without one so under presssure we chose Avery. Unfortunately, Italians can't pronounce or write it correctly. We end up repeating it 4 and 5 times before the listener comes back with a feeble 'Evelyn?' and our now 2-1/2 yo daughter calls herself Aveea. My question is: does anyone else think they made a mistake with their childs name? Have you considered changing it? What about adding a name? I am thinking to add Greer as a middle name (easy to say) calling her Avy Greer. Any thoughts?

By CN (not verified)
March 12, 2007 1:05 PM

For me, even though I wasn't in love with my son's name at the time I've never considered changing it. After a day or two it just became his name, like the nieghbor boy's name. Now I love it just because its my sweet little boys name.

By Laney (not verified)
March 12, 2007 3:00 PM

Jeez. Just let her pronounce her name how she wishes. She can be Aveea in Italy and Avery in America. Who knows, she may go to college there and decide she wants to stay or fall in love with an American instead of an Italian.

You didn't make a mistake and need to change her name. That's silly.

I've never been a fan of Greer. It's a rather sneery grinchy sort of name for a little girl. You might as well name her Gates ala "Prep".

By Kathleen (not verified)
March 12, 2007 7:20 PM

I'm spending a few months in Italy, and Italians have an impossible time with my name. I've realized, though, that "thl" isn't an easy sound, even in English. Try cutting off the Ka- and saying "Thleen." It's like a tongue twister. My friends call me it sometimes because it's so difficult that it's funny. There's no surprise that Italians can't say when Americans barely can. I don't mind telling people they can call me Caterina or Katia, or even just an easier English version, like Katie or Kathy, but usually they try to struggle through with Kathleen.

By Dorothy (not verified)
March 13, 2007 2:56 AM

Hmm, Avy Greer somehow turns itself around into "Gravy" for me. I agree with Laney, leave it be!

By LauraS (not verified)
March 13, 2007 3:44 AM

I've been lurking on here for awhile and just wanted to say to Peony that Anne is an absolutely beautiful name! And never confused with Anna which is way more popular where I live. I'm partial b/c my daughter is named Anne Cecile. Anne has been my favorite name for a girl since childhood and I was so happy to be able to use it. I'll admit that I was tempted to go with the more popular Anna and I'm so glad that I didn't b/c now she will be unique with a very pretty, feminine name. Plus, I think it would be name that "travels" well.

By Sam (not verified)
March 13, 2007 4:41 AM

KBW - I recently met a girl who had her daughter at the age of seventeen. At the time she was young(obviously) and easily pressured by the baby's grandparents. After months of stern suggestions from both sides, and with both grandma's present for naming, she named the baby Greta. Now two, Greta is Grey-ba. The mother absolutely hates the name, because she didn't pick it, she doesn't like the way it looks or sounds, and somehow, it makes little grey-ba seem less her's. She has decided to change the baby's name. She's looking at Rose, but she's involving her little girl, asking her what she likes. (Blue is the little's girls favorite, after Blue's Clues.) I agree with the gravy thing above. I also have a cousin whose mother married my uncle when Alex(little girl) was five. When my uncle officially adopted her she changed her name from Winter Alexandria to Alexandria Rose, her choice. She loves it.

By Sam (not verified)
March 13, 2007 4:50 AM

Where i was going was to change it if it bothers you. It will be an interesting story for you tell her someday when she is older, much better than the hospital made us pick a name we didn't like enough that we wanted to change it but couldnt. I know nothing about Italian pronounciation, though my parents lived there for six years in the navy. What about Emory? Kind of like Avery, but different. Maybe with the same pron. probs? Ellison? Audree? Hope this helped.

By kbw (not verified)
March 13, 2007 5:22 AM

Thanks for your comments. I hadn't thought of the 'gravy' thing myself and you are probably right. In order to avoid a future identity crisis I thought maybe it would be better just to add to her exisiting name rather than change her name. We would just probably transition to Greer as she got used to answering to it. Then there are all of the people that already know her as Avery so it isn't as easy as it may appear. I found Howard's and Astrid's earlier posts interesting in that they use different names in different countries. Could work... or maybe we should just try to find a pronouncable nickname for Avery. Any suggestions besides the obvious and overused Ava? (In addition to choosing an unpronouncable name, being overseas, we were completely unaware of the Ava/Avery popularity curve occuring in the USA).

By Amy A (not verified)
March 13, 2007 9:34 AM

Re: the name Greta... Sam, I see where you were going with the story but just to get off-topic, I think it's a lovely name! It's sweet for a little girl, elegant for a woman... plus it's so underused, without being unrecognisable. So do people pronounce it 'Gray-ta'? It's my grandmother's name and over here in the UK we say 'Gretta'.

By Amy A (not verified)
March 13, 2007 9:39 AM

For Avery, is it the initial 'a' sound that the Italians have trouble with? If so, maybe look to the rest of the name for nn inspiration - how about Ria? Totally pronouncable for both languages. Plus it rhymes with 'Aveea'as she calls herself, so not such a tough transition...

By kbw (not verified)
March 13, 2007 2:03 PM

Yes Amy, it's the initial 'a' sound that in Italian is pronounced 'ah', then the 'ree' sound at the end. Altogether too difficult. Ria is lovely and worth a try. Thanks for your input!

By Christiana (not verified)
March 13, 2007 2:36 PM

I was going to suggest Avi/Avy (think Abby with a v instead of b) since I knew a girl named Avi/Avigail. But if it's the A and ee sounds that they can't handle then I guess that won't work. Ria sound pretty good to me. Or even "A" whic sounds a bit more andrgenous if that still what you're going for. DH has a cousin-in-law that is Adrienne and goes simply by "A".

By kbw (not verified)
March 13, 2007 3:12 PM

I was actually thinking just 'V', although in Italian even this would be 'voo' not 'vee'. 'A' would be 'ahh' not 'ay'. Sigh... any other suggestions?

By Melanie (not verified)
March 13, 2007 5:56 PM

What about Vera or Veri for Avery? I did like Ria, above.