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 Tansey (not verified)
March 14, 2007 4:07 AM

I would have to agree with Dorothy - Avi Greer is a bit too gravy for me too. One only has to think of poor little Shiloh Pitt to see that while nicknames are one of those things, parent's careful prior thought is essential.
If its any help - I love Ria too.

By Adina (not verified)
March 14, 2007 12:23 PM

I've enjoyed the posts about using international names and need some advice. We're having a baby girl in 8 weeks and everyone around me - husband, mother, friends - have decided she should be called Orly. I'm still on the fence.

By RobynT (not verified)
March 14, 2007 1:05 PM

Adina: I think Orly is cute and unique. I'm sure it could be mocked in some way, but nothing is jumping out at me right now. Maybe Roly? I think it wouldn't travel well to Asia, but depending on what part of the world you are concerned with maybe that is not so important.

By Amy (not verified)
March 14, 2007 5:17 PM

Isn't Orly an international airport in Paris?

By Amy A (not verified)
March 14, 2007 6:14 PM

Adina - yes, for me at least Orly will always mean Charles de Gaulle Airport's less glamorous sibling! Perhaps just because I seem to spend half my life there though.
Also, the thing that stands out to me is that it sounds like 'orally', which might not be much fun when she hits her teens.
Shame because without those associations, it is a cute name...

By Adina (not verified)
March 14, 2007 9:00 PM

Thanks for the thoughts on Orly. Agree with the airport problem - we have friends who named their daughter Logan and immediately swore we'd never use an airport name. But that was before my husband trained our 2 year-old to say Orly...

By Tansey (not verified)
March 15, 2007 12:53 AM

Snap, Amy! My first thought too.
Sorry Adina but I guess the airport is just too well known.

By Sam (not verified)
March 15, 2007 4:43 AM

Amy A- No we pronounce it Gretta too, but the little girl can't. She doesn't have her t's down. She calls herself Grey-ba. Anytime anyone asks her name, she says Grey-ba. With exaggeration on the BAH. It reminds her mother of a star wars name. She said maybe a new Jabba the Hut could be called Grey-ba. :). And to catch up, I like Emrys better than Ambrose, too close to Amber and Rose for me.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
March 15, 2007 12:51 PM

Check out this letter from this morning's "Dear Prudence" (advice column in

I hate my first name. Or rather, I love my name the way it was intended to be pronounced, but I have never been comfortable with the American pronunciation it devolved to when I was a kid. It's just not me; it's a bad nickname that stuck. How, at age 40, do I go about having people call me by the name using the Danish pronunciation that was intended? Do you think it would be easier if I changed the spelling to the American phonetic version to produce the correct pronunciation? Where do I begin to introduce this change?

—Awnyes, Not Agnes

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
March 15, 2007 12:51 PM

And here is Prudie's reply:

Dear Awn,
If Curtis Jackson can become 50 Cent, you can become Awnyes. I contacted a French Agnes of my acquaintance who in high school went from ag-nis to on-YES. She too loved her name but couldn't stand the American pronunciation. This Agnes said there's really no way to get rid of the hard "g" pronunciation except doing it the hard way. That is, you'll probably have to instruct your friends at least 10 times that ag-nis is dead, long live awn-yes. And for the rest of your life, correcting mispronunciation will be a daily occurrence (which on-YES says is still worth it). Changing the spelling of your name will probably only complicate matters (can't you just hear people saying, "What's your name—Awn-E-es?") Perhaps at work you could send an e-mail to your colleagues and explain for your 40th birthday you're reclaiming your Danish heritage and invite them to celebrate the rebirth of Awnyes with a lunch time smorrebord.


By Meg (not verified)
March 16, 2007 12:55 PM

Okay, first off, I really was hoping for some more male name suggestions. Our son is Kai which was perfect since I speak Chinese (I'm not Asian, though) and my husband is of Swedish descent--it works in both languages. Now we are adopting a n older son from China named Ru, which isn't so different from Kai. But we want to give him an English name in case he chooses to use it. Names ending in vowels or "n" (possibly "m") are about it, as far as easy to pronounce. Hear are some choices

I like Marco, but that's our bird's name.
Toby (people tell me lots of dogs are named Toby)

My husband likes none of these names.

Meanwhile, to the E name question, there is a Welsh boy in our school named Emlyn.

To the person who knew 3 Antons (my Viennese grandfather's name) how is it pronounced. He said Ahn-tone.

By Keren (not verified)
March 19, 2007 9:50 PM

You could go for Ruben perhaps, or Reuben. Or Rob, Robin, Robert, Rowan.

By Meg (not verified)
March 19, 2007 10:43 PM

I had thought of Ruben. I like Rowan, too, although it's pretty rare. Does anyone else out there like Rowan?

My husband has 4 friends named Rob, one of whom has a son named Rob who is friends with my son. So I guess Rob is out.

By Keren (not verified)
March 20, 2007 6:43 AM

I love Rowan. Beautiful name. Or I have seen Rohan. Russell or Rory might also work I suppose.

By Amy (not verified)
March 20, 2007 3:40 PM

I like Rowan too. Far too under used IMO.

By CN (not verified)
March 22, 2007 3:34 PM

I love Rowan, and Rohan, but I have a hard time saying them right. My son and DH are huge LOTR fans, and one of the main cites is Rohan, RO-H-AN, with a lot of emphasis on the H. Which I love, as a name, but not sure how I'd feel about leaving that sort of a mark on a child. lol

By Ending in Vowels (not verified)
March 25, 2007 10:15 PM

Most American classics have childish derivatives that end in the -ee sound: Thomas - Tommy, Francis - Frankie, Robert - Bobby, John - Johnny, Joseph - Joey, David - Davey. The list goes on. While most boys don't like using these names past the age of tweleve, it wouldn't be difficult for them to adapt to them when dealing with people who speak foreign languages.

There are even some more adult derivatives that end in vowel sounds:
Joseph - Joe
Andrew - Andy
Lewis - Lou
Anthony - Tony

By kristi (not verified)
March 27, 2007 5:40 PM

I think Osmo is a way cool name that would travel well. Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra.

By M (not verified)
March 28, 2007 3:27 PM

How about Angus?

By Amy (not verified)
March 30, 2007 1:39 AM

Angus...I can hear that wonderful Scottish accent already. I think Angua is a great name.

By Abi (not verified)
April 3, 2007 11:10 AM

I have no idea what the difference would be between 'Donna' and 'Donner'. I'm English and I would pronounce both of those exactly the same, ending in an 'uh' sound. How would you possibly pronounce the 'r' in 'Donner'? Do you just say Don-uh and then go 'rrr'?

Also, I don't understand when you say 'American classics' and then list a load of English names. Do you mean that they are seen as classics in America?

The best boy's name for being international is in my opinion Alex.

By RobynT (not verified)
April 5, 2007 1:57 PM

Abi: I find your thing about Donna/Donner really interesting. I think it really shows how we get locked in by language. Crazy!

And yeah, I think when people say American classics, they are referring to names that have been used very frequently in the U.S.

By Amy A (not verified)
April 5, 2007 9:04 PM

"Do you just say Don-uh and then go 'rrr'?"!

Abi, I am loving it... But no, I believe they would just say 'Donrr'. Think of a pirate or a farmer if it helps!

Yes, RobynT, to us Donna and a doner kebab are exactly the same. Lots of times reading this blog and the comments I come across pronunciation issues that make little sense to me as a Brit... some sounds merge and some are separate, depending on the accent. Confusing but interesting!

By Dee (not verified)
April 7, 2007 3:09 AM

I know of a couple whom the mother was American the father Eastern Indian and they named their boy Bhryan, simply pronounced Bryan, but allowed it to be understood with ease in India also....anyone have ideas like that? One to join the Indian and American to give a name easy for everyone?

By mercedes (not verified)
April 10, 2007 7:19 PM

My son's name is Lucas! and that is why i chose the name. my husband is french with a very french last name and i am mexican american so we wanted a name that would be sound great with our last name but yet be the same for our english,spanish relatives. my other son's name is Mario. it also seems to be a perfect match. we are going to have a hard time findind a 3rd boys name to go so well.

By emily (not verified)
April 11, 2007 9:41 AM

I am an American living in India. There are many good Indian names that also translate to the West, and vice versa. Actually I'm not sure how Bhryan would translate as Bryan in India - H's are never silent here. I think there are more options for girl names: Anjali, Kavita, Priya, Esha, etc. The male list is a little harder: Dev, Amir, Rajesh. The way Hindi is put into the Roman script is actually a bit incorrect to our English phonetics, so it would need to be read in the Hindi script to know correctly how to pronounce it, or better yet, how Indians would pronounce it. A's, D's, and T's are the worst offenders. (ex: Anand is pronounced correctly as Uh-nuhndh, no aspiration, not Uh-nahnd or Uh-nand)

I have learned my name is a hard name for lots of South and East Asians to pronounce. It doesn't help that Imli, in Hindi, means tamarind or sour, and since the meaning of names is so strong here, I have to emphasize Eh-mi-lee, which I actually don't like as much, because in the South U.S. we pronounce it Imily.

By Dee (not verified)
April 17, 2007 2:29 PM

Emily, I think it is meant to be pronounced as just Bryan the H was placed for a "touch" of Indian I believe.
Dont really know to be honest, but would love some other thoughts on it also.

By Linda (not verified)
April 26, 2007 11:36 AM

Coming back on internationally feasible names: my husband & i are Dutch, lived in Italy, France and Spain (now NYC) and we want our son's name to be pronounced the same way wherever we go, and to be at least somewhat recognizable (no need to repeat spelling 5 times for people to get it right). Should not be too common (no name from the Dutch top 10 such as Lucas, Thomas, Nils, etc., to avoid herds of Lucases in our son's class should we decide to move back). The quick&dirty market research I did amongst colleagues checking a few of our options, brings Marnix to a nr 1 position, but we really like Rolf (which has not received much enthusiasm). Does anyone like Rolf? Does it have adverse connotations here? I think of it as very masculine, but others seem to disagree. Comments? Any suggestions for other names? Thanks so much!

By Mica Low (not verified)
April 27, 2007 1:12 PM

I write, and it really tickled me to see one of my main character's names on your "travel well" list. Amira. And my name, Mica (although you spell it "Mika" )

By R.B. (not verified)
April 29, 2007 5:41 AM

I had a college professor named Rolf. We would make barking sounds behind his back and I can't imagine that grade school classrooms would be any nicer.

By Jon (not verified)
May 2, 2007 5:27 PM

I had to skim about 1/2 of these posts in the interests of time (on lunch break), but I've noticed the Enlish "J" is difficult for many non-English speakers. My name is pronounced just like "John," but when I in my travels abroad, I get a variety: "Hon" "Hone" "Don" "Yon" "Chon"Like previous posters have said, most of it is based on phonetics--persons whose linguistic systems don't include that particular sound have difficulty with my name. I'd imagine James, Gerry, Janice, etc. have similar issues.

By orly j (not verified)
May 8, 2007 3:00 PM

Adina, I don't know if you've decided on a name yet, I'm sure whatever you chose is great.
For others that might be thinking about Orly, i'd like to say that I've never had any problems with my name. If fact its always a pleasant ice-breaker if people ask "like the airport?" Many other times people have never heard my name and often comment on what a pretty and original name it is. It makes me feel unique. sometimes i have to repeat it twice in a noisy place, but i dont' care.
"Orally" was only got giggles in school when the teacher asked someone to read something "orally"...then again kids today know a lot more so I can't comment on that one :-)

By orly j (not verified)
May 8, 2007 3:03 PM

by the way, you can also spell Mica or Mika as Micah (pronounced My-Ka). THis is my boyfriend's name and i find it a very nice name, although people often pronounce it Mee-Kah. Still worth having an original name.

By Kelly (not verified)
June 15, 2007 8:33 PM

Regarding Ambrose... That is my son's name. He is all boy and hardly effete. The only thing he may be guilty of is being a little too excited about race cars.

Anyway, we named him after a doctor of the Catholic Church- a strong and wise leader. If you don't like Ambrose, then you will reallly love his middle name-- Campion, after St. Edmund Campion, another strong Catholic man. ;)

Anyway, as far as nicknames he could easily be called Brose or A.C. for that matter, but we hardly think a nickname is necessary. We especially like how the name is familiar, yet still unique.

If you are looking for another 'name without borders', perhaps you will like the name we selected for our next son: Augustine. I know someone mentioned August and Augustus, but we are partial to Augustine since St. Ambrose was the tudor of St. Augustine, another strong Catholic male figure.

Best of luck whatever you choose!!

By Jennifer (not verified)
June 20, 2007 8:38 PM

--personal name question--
Pregnant with baby #3. My boys are Samuel & Noah. Given my name, I live in terror of accidentally giving a daughter a too-common name. I am currently considering Dorothy, with the nn Dory. My husband's family is Spanish-speaking. Am I asking for trouble?

By kristi (not verified)
June 28, 2007 4:39 PM

I expect we'll see more & more little girls called Dorothy; enough to make it common but not too common.
Ask a few people to make sure Dorothy and Dory don't sound like any unpleasant words in Spanish.

By ness (not verified)
August 30, 2007 8:36 PM

I have a friend who is a teacher. While doing role call the first day of school, she tried so hard to do pronounce the students names correctly. She kind of butchered them. Cmon=Simone, you can see it after the fact. This one she didn't even want to touch, Shithead=Shateed. I would have never guessed that one. She really wanted to get them right, she didn't, but they did get a good laugh at her. That was a good ice breaker.

By Murali Iyer (not verified)
November 14, 2007 10:51 AM

Any ideas/suggestions for a beautiful name which should the merger of 2 names like:
Murali & Srilatha...
You can email me at

By Sarah (not verified)
November 19, 2007 2:38 AM

i'm having a baby girl, and me and my husband are both from french background and we have key names we want our daughter to have but we dont know how to arange the names so they flow. we would like her first name to be Anastasie(Pronounced; An-a-sta-ZEE) or Anastasia with the following middle names
Genevieve Josette(Jo-ZET) Chantal(shawn-TAL) Élodie (L-lo-DEE) Margaux (MAR-go) Antoinette

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