Hayaven backwards: on the meaning of meanings

Feb 18th 2009

Not long ago, a reader wrote to me about a name she saw in the newspaper that gave her pause: Nevayah.

For those of you new to the baby naming wars, the name Nevaeh is a one-of a kind phenomenon.  It was dreamed up by one prominent parent in 2001, based on an anagram -- it's "heaven" backwards.  The idea caught on like wildfire, so that today it ranks #31 among all U.S. girls' names, ahead of the likes of Katherine and Jessica.  The anagrammatic origin was the key to its appeal.  As I wrote in my book, many parents see it as "a loving secret message to a child."

But when the 2006 baby name statistics were released, I noticed something surprising.  The name Neveah -- note the spelling -- also cracked the top-1000 list.  In 2007, it moved up 100 points higher.  Haeven backwards?  What's the idea?

Some of those alleged Neveahs are likely to be transcription errors.  The -aeh ending is non-standard in English, and somewhere in the data-entry process someone could have easily transposed it to the more familiar -eah, as in Leah.  But I suspected that a large number of the Neveahs were real, and that the transposition was done by the parents, intentionally.  They saw that the -aeh ending was awkward, so they "corrected" it to something more familiar.

Since then, a rising tide of creative respellings supports that belief.  Not only are little Neveahs on the upswing, but so are Niveahs, Naveyahs and Nevayahs.  There's little chance that Nevayah is a mere transcription error (or that the parents think the world beyond is "hayaven").  Rather, those parents did what so many contemporary parents do: they looked at a popular name and decided to personalize it to make their child's name unique.

But there's a big, big difference between Nevayah and, say, Maddasyn.  Nevaeh's spelling is its meaning.  Respell it, and it means nothing!  Which makes it...just like every other name.

Nevayah and friends are the ultimate demonstration of how names have a life far beyond their literal origins.  This has been true for time immemorial.  You may be able to trace a name back to its Old English meaning, but even back when Old English was New many of the familiar roots (Eg, Ethel, Bert, Dred, etc.) had become standardized as name elements. They were recombined at will, regardless of meaning.  Yep, 12th-century parents were already doing their own version of mashups like Gracelyn and McKayleigh.

As soon as a word becomes a name, it takes on a new meaning.  It is a social construction, shaped by the people who bear it.  Which is why traditional name dictionaries, fascinating as they are, tell us only a small piece of the story.


By poppet (not verified)
February 18, 2009 10:43 AM

I'd imagine that, instead of trying to be unique, parents are changing the spelling to assist others with pronunciation. An English speaker can somewhat accurately guess how to say 'Nevayah' much easier than how to say 'Nevaeh'

By Eo (not verified)
February 18, 2009 10:50 AM


I personally don't care for names that are words spelled backwards. It does feel too "gimmicky" to me. Yet, I can see the secret code aspect appealing to loving parents who feel they are giving a gift to their child...

Re-spelling the reversed word does seem to rob it of the original potency or message. What is the point?

BUT, I do rather like the idea of excavating other, preferably obscure, languages for words that might make interesting names to English-speakers who wouldn't necessarily know that the name IS a word in that language...

Have found lots of those words in various Celtic languages-- Welsh, Cornish, Manx Gaelic, etc. that make wonderful names in English.

Example: I'm thinking of "Eirlys" (snowdrop in Welsh) which might not have been a traditional Welsh name, but the word, because it evokes a pretty image, was relatively recently adopted as a girl's name?

Rats, I don't know if Eirlys is a good example, but I know there ARE a number of Celtic words that have been adopted as names in recent years, especially in Wales. Better examples, anybody?

I've said here before what a classic NE thrill it was to discover by accident, that the exact spelling of my name is a word in Manx Gaelic! And a rather pleasant one at that, luckily! (But in Welsh the exact same spelling means something pedestrian and even a bit scary, boo!)

Recently discovered word-name that I found very pleasing-- the young, well-known African-American founder of the National Black Pro-life Union-- "Day Gardner".

I wish I had known about her when we were discussing calendar and day-of-the-week names. She is the flip side of the film director's name M. Night Shyamalan! "Night" is so perfect for him given the dark, brooding nature of his movies! Anyone know how he came by "Night"? He's of Indian origin, isn't he?

February 18, 2009 11:02 AM

Even though I look through the name lists from time to time I don't think it had struck me how popular Nevaeh is! I knew it was popular, but in the 30's plus alternate spellings is interesting. As for the respellings Nevaeh isn't my style, but I can see that it has a nice sound and that people might like it just for the sound and respell it with that in mind like Poppet said.

Eo, I would love a list of names like Eirlys if you can think of them. I also love the idea of meanings from other languages! Where have you found this information on Celtic, Manx Gaelic, etc words?

Also, for Laura or anyone who knows (Miriam?) what did Eg, Ethel, Bert, and Dred originally mean?

By Eo (not verified)
February 18, 2009 11:26 AM

Oh good, I just found in Dunkling and Gosling that "Eirlys" WAS only taken up as a name in Wales in modern times. They say ditto "Eirwen"/"Eirwyn" (meaning "goldenfair") Only in use as a name since the 1920's...

And they say "Carys"/"Cerys" (from the Welsh "caru", meaning "to love") has only been in use since the Sixties.

I'm going to guess that it was feelings of renewed nationalism and Welsh identity that sent parents in search of these Welsh words to transform into meaningful names for their children...

By Eo (not verified)
February 18, 2009 11:29 AM

Oh, Jenny L3igh, thanks, I just saw your post now, I wasn't ignoring it in mine above! Have to dash now but will definitely respond later...

By Aybee (not verified)
February 18, 2009 12:00 PM

I dont find it that surprising that people have changed the spelling of Nevaeh-- proving that the like the name more for sound than for meaning.

Jaden Smith was named for his mother, Jada (not sure if this is the first Jaden of the surge, but its the first I remember), and millions of moms not-named Jada love the name for its sound.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 18, 2009 12:04 PM

I know Laura did an entry on the letter K as sort of a naming Rorshach (sp?) test.

I have similar feelings about y in the middle of names. Anyone else?

And, while I suspect some parents did want to make the name easier to say, if you go to traditional baby naming sites they are chock full of moms saying things along the lines of ,"We changed the spelling to be different," or, "Which of these spellings do you think looks prettier?"

I've also noticed a lot more Havens (or should I say Hayvenes). I suspect some parents who liked Nevaeh toyed around with just using Heaven and landed on a variant of Haven.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 18, 2009 12:05 PM

Oh, and I adore Carys.

I know there is a little actress named Kerris.
Is there any history of this spelling?

By Joni
February 18, 2009 12:41 PM

J&H's mom - there are two names that give us the sounds/look of 'caris'. The Welsh Carys/Cerys and then the Greek Charis/Karis (think:charisma). I am guessing that Kerris the actress is probably from the Greek version...

Laura, as always, a fascinating post!

February 18, 2009 12:46 PM

Yikes! To me, Nevaeh and its progeny spell one thing: "Etsat Dab" !! ;)

February 18, 2009 1:03 PM

I find the Nevaeh thing fascinating, because one of the fastest things to turn me off a name for a child is multiple spellings or pronunciations.

I love the name Katherine (and all its variations) but would be reluctant to bestow it upon a child for just that reason.

By Heather DollarStoreCrafts (not verified)
February 18, 2009 1:50 PM

@Eo (comment #2): "Night" is a nickname that Shyamalan adopted (in college?). His first name is "Manoj." and his middle name does begin with an N, but isn't officially "Night."


By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 18, 2009 1:51 PM

Thanks, Joni!

I once read about a little girl named Ilys, for "I love you so."

I actually thought that was charming and so trend-on.
Isla, btw, is my early pick for rising name.

By DEH (not verified)
February 18, 2009 1:51 PM

I personally like the name Nevaeh, though I would probably never use it because so many people seem to dislike it, and it doesn't work with our last name anyway.

Nonetheless, I just like the way it sounds and could care less about the "heaven spelled backwards" part, though it does lend the name a nice feel. It's the same way I feel about other names I like: if I like the sound then I like the name usually. If is has a good meaning, then that's a huge plus. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the parents of variously spelled "Nevaehs" feel the same way and are simply being creative with the spelling like they would with any other name. I'm not much for creative spellings, but I can see how a more normal-looking English spelling (such as Neveah) would appeal to many parents.

February 18, 2009 2:55 PM

"Also, for Laura or anyone who knows (Miriam?) what did Eg, Ethel, Bert, and Dred originally mean?"

Ethel (originally spelled with an aesc--that is, A and E with a ligature--and an eth--that is, a d with a bar crossing the ascender) means 'noble.' It shows up frequently in the West Saxon royal dynasty (Aethelstan, Aethelred, Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians).

Bert is originally beorht and means bright.

Dred is originally Thryth and means strength, as in St. Etheldreda (actually Aethelthryth).

By Luckymomma (not verified)
February 18, 2009 2:21 PM

Eo, I lived in Dublin for a year in college, and knew a Sonas, which I was told meant "light" in Irish. I always thought it was pretty.

By Livingston 41 (not verified)
February 18, 2009 2:29 PM

I've wondered how much the brand name Nivea has to do with the Nevaeh/Neveah/Nevayah trend--just because past brand names have also contributed to creative naming trends (Qiana, for example), and also just because it makes the sound combination something familiar, and associated (by the advertisers) with beauty and health.

Haven't met a single little Nevaeh, of any spelling, here in suburban LA. If I ran across one, I'd probably assume the parents were recent transplants from elsewhere!

February 18, 2009 2:43 PM

Wonderful post as usual Laura! I find it amusing to see all the changes in spelling and, sometimes as a result pronunciation, a name can go through. Those sentiments caught me a few days ago when I saw Alijah and Na'ture in my local listings. I have come across 3 sp of Addison, 2 of Aiden, 2 of Callie, 2 of Madelyn, and 2 of Marlie. So not so much a big deal here with that but many kre8tiv names that are like no others. No Nevaeh's but a Nylah and Nayana. The trend I am seeing is the ending -iah. There is already a Zakiah(b), Tamiah(g), Nehemiah(b), Mariah(g), Josiah(b), Janiyah(g), Jaliyah(g), Isiah(b), Elijah(b), Alijah(b), Amiyah(g). So 11 in a month and a half. There is also an ee ending sound and a J thing going on.

By jennifer h (not verified)
February 18, 2009 2:48 PM

Are the brand Nivea and Nevaeh pronounced the same? I though the brand was niv-e-a and the name was Ni-ve-ah (with the end sounding like Leah versus Lee-a)? I'm not good at phonetical spelling so this might be very confusing.

February 18, 2009 2:56 PM

re: Nayana: I think this may have Indian roots. I know an Indian-American woman who uses this as her nickname. Her given name is a little longer. Not sure if it's a traditional nickname or what.

re: -iah: There's also the octuplets names!

February 18, 2009 2:56 PM

Virtue-type names also popping up locally-

By Pele
February 18, 2009 3:30 PM

I saw a local announcement for a Vyolet. At first I thought it was kre8ive, but it didn’t strike me the same as say Navayah would. Maybe it was the mn: Vy0let J0seph1ne. Very nice imo. Other recent new babies:

and a handful of Heavens, Nevaehs, and Destinys

All girls.

I’ve been trying to sell Enfys to people lately. It’s Welsh for “rainbow”

By Livingston 41 (not verified)
February 18, 2009 5:23 PM

Innocent has a long history as a name, of course--several popes used it (well, more likely the Italian equivalent, Innocenzo, but English speakers call them Pope Innocent I/II/III)

Nayana, yes, it's Indian--there's a notable designer based in Kolkata named Nayana Gangooly:
and a Bollywood starlet named Nayana Tara.

Vyolet (that spelling) was a character on Futurama:
and Vyolet (yes, that spelling) is also a Spanish DJ:
--wonder if the new parents are fans of one or the other?

By TinusMagoo (not verified)
February 18, 2009 5:23 PM

In middle school I knew a girl named Novia --- it was pronounced No - vey - ah. This is really similar to Nevaeh. She would have been born in 1984/5.

By Eo (not verified)
February 18, 2009 5:33 PM

Enfys, very nice, Pele!

So is Sonas, Luckymomma. Thanks for adding to my collection...

And thanks, Heather DollarStoreCrafts, for the explanation of M. Night's name. I like it so much. And Day Gardner's name is so perfect for her, evoking as it does sunlight, and flowers and gardens and growth! Thankfully, her parents felt no need to spell "Day" backwards-- "Yad" just doesn't appeal, except maybe in a Star Wars kind of way! Of course, Day could be a surname-name too.

Jenny L3igh, to answer your question-- one very simple thing I've done is to pump things like "Cornish names" or "Manx names" or "Gypsy names" into Google, and it comes back with lots of fun lists.

You can also goole things like "Cornish-English dictionaries", or "English-Manx dictionaries", or "Anglo-Saxon dictionaries", and then just start roaming through the words looking for gems. That's how I discovered my name is an actual word in at least three languages!

For Welsh names like Eirlys, look in Welsh baby name books. No doubt some will specify whether the names came from actual words first. I have a book called "Enwau Cymraeg I Blant-- Welsh Names for Children".

A few from there that I love:

Afan-- 6th century saint

Alys-- Welsh and medieval version of Alice

Cadfael-- battle prince

Delyth-- pretty

Dilys-- genuine (another one that's a word that has only been a name since the 19th century)

Eryl-- place of outlook, or a "watcher"

Gethin-- dusky

Glasynys-- blue island

Gosh, I could go on and on, but any good Welsh name book will have tons more...

February 18, 2009 5:42 PM

Thanks, Eo, what fun!

Also, thank you Miriam, very interesting.

By Aybee (not verified)
February 18, 2009 5:59 PM

TinusMagoo- Isn't novia spanish for girlfriend?

By Guest (not verified)
February 18, 2009 6:03 PM

I always wondered if the idea of Nevaeh might have somehow been connected to the Survivor player Neleh (I think she played in 2001 or 2002). She often talked about how her name was tribute to her grandmother Helen.

By Louise (not verified)
February 18, 2009 7:08 PM

Hi all, sorry to be hijacking this great post yet again-but I am in CRISIS MODE! Please help, NEs!

I am currently admitted into hospital (at 33 weeks) to have our little one possible next week...and we are STILL stuck on a girls name. I would really appreciate some input/ideas/opinions on our list so far, and any combinations of fn/mn would be lovely!

On the list:)
Abigail-husbands pic

(Recently) off the list:

Middle name options:

If the baby is a boy (please God!) his name will be Eli Benjamin Jacob. I think 1 single middle name is more my style for a girl however. I really look forward to your inspirations...it's all a bit of a mish mash at the moment, trying to work out the right combinations that sound good together WITH our short dutch last name (ala Boo-MAR)is proving a challenge.


By ba (not verified)
February 18, 2009 7:42 PM

Charlotte Louise stands out to me as being a particularly beautiful combination!

February 18, 2009 8:12 PM


Keep in mind that if you use Eliana this time, you can't really use Eli next time. So if you really love Eli Benjamin Jacob, I would nix Eliana.

I've met too many Abbies to get that excited about Abigal. How about Charlotte Claire Boo-mar, with the nickname "CC"?

Good luck!!!

February 18, 2009 8:22 PM

I agree that Charlotte Louise is lovely.

By Aybee (not verified)
February 18, 2009 8:44 PM

I also like Charlotte of your choices.
Charlotte Louise and Charlotte Elizabeth for name combos

By Livingston 41 (not verified)
February 18, 2009 8:45 PM

Yes, novia is girlfriend in Spanish. I wonder if her parents were thinking of that, or just liked the sounds, or were inspired by the character "Nova" in Planet of the Apes....

February 18, 2009 9:12 PM

re: Vy0let J0seph1ne: my friend who gave birth last summer was considering both these names! She ended up going with Lucia Violet.

re: Psalms: I imagine this person wanted to give a Biblical name but also something different. Maybe also something easily recognizable as Biblical. Very interesting.

By jennifer h (not verified)
February 18, 2009 9:43 PM

My first thought was Charlotte Louise. It flows very well.

February 18, 2009 9:56 PM

Louise: I think Charlotte works with all your middle name options except Claire. I think Eliana works with all of them too--except some might not like the sound with a middle name also ending with a. (I'm just going to ignore Abigail since it seems your husband likes it more than you and you have so many other great options anyway!)

By Amy3
February 18, 2009 10:17 PM

Louise -- I agree that if you use Eliana now, you're opting out of Eli later. If you think you'll have more kids and you love Eli, I'd save it. So, I'll cast another vote for Charlotte Louise. Very nice!

By Elaine (not verified)
February 18, 2009 10:19 PM

Charlotte Louise was the first one I saw as well. It's a beautiful name. I also really like Abigail. With that, I'd do Abigail Claire. Eliana is my 3rd choice, but I like the combo Eliana Jolie (though it's a little too close to Angelina Jolie for my taste).

I hope all is well with the delivery of your baby!

By Prairie Dawn (not verified)
February 18, 2009 10:39 PM


Charlotte Claire, nn CC- LOVE it.
Eliana Claire
Eliana Gisele

I like Eliana best of your fn choices, but I agree with the whole Eli thing. Gisele is a name I like because it is my grandmother's name(Gisela). Good luck to you!

By Prairie Dawn (not verified)
February 18, 2009 11:04 PM

I knew of a girl in college whose name was Amre (Am-Ree). The story was that she was named after her grandmother, Erma. Her parents didn't want to saddle her with the name Erma, so they spelled it backwards. I always liked the sound and feel of her name-- fresh and simple but not strange. And this would be one of the only instances of backward-style naming that I'm okay with.

February 18, 2009 11:36 PM

@Louise - my vote is for Charlotte Claire. Good luck!!

@Prairie Dawn - I totally agree that Amre (after Grandma Erma) is just about the ONLY instance of backward-style naming that I can abide. Great example!

By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 18, 2009 11:37 PM

Oh, I do think backwards naming after a grandmother is charming!

My own grandmothers' names are absolutely hopeless, and I've spent many a long car ride trying to rearrange them into something acceptable with no luck.
I've even tried that online anagram generator.
I didn't have girls, so no matter....

I'm voting for Charlotte Claire. I think any of the other mn options work as well, but I'm a big fan of the clean, crisp sound of Claire with your ln. I also think the idea of having CC should you want a built in nn is truly inspired.
Like others, I know many Abbys, and I agree that the name should be one you both love. I also know many Ellie variants, which is what I think of with Eliane (sorry if I spelled that wrong-my scroll is so slow on this site I can't bear to go back and check).

I do believe Allegra was your favorite, wasn't it? If I recall correctly, it's been used as the mn of a niece. It seems to me that they would probably be fine with your using it in the mn spot, also.
Charlotte Allegra is quite fetching.

By Louise (not verified)
February 19, 2009 12:31 AM

Wow! I am feeling very overwhelmed with responses! Thanks so much, this is just the sort of sounding board that I've needed...

I think I'm personally leaning towards Charlotte something...I don't mind Abigail but just don't LOVE it. I prefer Abby but am aware of how many Abbys and Gabbys are running around at the moment. Plus Abby Boo-MAR sounds a bit 'b' heavy to my ear. Charlotte means 'strong' which seems appropriate given the circumstances.

I do like Eliana as well-definately point taken with Eliana/Eli...but we don't seem to have any shortage of boys names so it wouldn't be the end of the world.

@Prairie Dawn-Gisela is my middle name and my grandmother's name as well! I prefer Gisele though...a bit more understated?

@J&H's Mom-good memory! Allegra is the middle name of my 3 yo niece and also the name of a second cousin's daughter...I think I forgot to mention that Charlotte is the middle name of FN Allegra's baby sister! When my SIL named the second daughter she apologised for using Charlotte (which she knew I loved) and said she wouldn't care if we still used it. However I think Charlotte Allegra (as much as I LOVE it) would be a bit too close to home!

Last question-does anyone find it a bit pretentious (for lack of a better word) to use your own name as a middle name i.e. in the case of Charlotte Louise? It feels slightly strange to me but maybe I'm too close to the project!

I will be emailing all your combination suggestions to my husband at work and getting his opinion...

Thank you all again, and keep em coming!

February 19, 2009 12:56 AM

"Charlotte means 'strong' which seems appropriate given the circumstances."

Um, Charlotte is a feminine form of Charles which is the French form of Karl which means 'man'. See 'housecarl', an Anglicized form of the Scandinavian huskarl (house-man), the personal bodyguards of Scandinavian kings/lords. The housecarls as professional warriors had to be strong, but that's not what the word means. The Anglo-Saxon form of the word is 'ceorl' (now spelled churl). The ceorls were the non-noble free men (as opposed to the thralls who were chattel slaves and the eorls who were the aristocrats). The modern word churl is an example of a negative semantic shift.

Choose Charlotte because it is a beautiful name, not for its meaning. I am very fond of Charlotte myself. My beloved house that I lost to Katrina was on Charlotte Drive. :-)

February 19, 2009 1:02 AM

I think you have many great combos available. It's hard to pick just one that would be perfect. I do agree that Charlotte Allegra would be overdoing it though. I think Charlotte is a great choice given how much you like Allegra. I think they are similar style-wise. Also, my cousin and I have the same initial FN and the exact same MN-think Julie Claire and Johanna Claire. It has never bothered us and actually is quite nice given that the mn is after an aunt who passed away when she was young. I think passing on a maiden name or first name is nice for family history reasons and gives you a special connection to the person you are named after. Best wishes for a happy, healthy birth. My ds was born @34wks so I'll be thinking of you.
Final thoughts for you:
Charlotte Gisele
Elizabeth Claire
Jolie Louise

Pele-There was actually an old screen name I used to use that was Enfyshasa. I combined Enfys with Shasa (Welsh for rainbow + precious water in African). Can you guess my 2 favorite things? I love putting combos together like that for screen names and such.

February 19, 2009 2:05 AM

Louise: I do not find it pretentious to use Louise. If you like it, go for it.

In looking at your list, Charlotte Louise jumped out at me followed by Charlotte Claire.

Charlotte is a very special name to me and I adore Claire for a bright, crisp mn. I also love Louise but am not sure if I really truly love charLOTte LOUise. (emphasis intended) It is a great name but may be a little hard to wrap your tongue around when yelling at her to get out of the bathroom 13 years from now. ha! I have to agree that Charlotte Allegra is a bit much in this case... :(

By Kai
February 19, 2009 3:57 AM

I love the name Charlotte! Unfortunately, it was the number 1 girls name in New Zealand a couple of years ago, so is off the list (grrr).

I also really love Louise. It is the female family name on my mother's side (which I didn't get, but my sister did in the form of Louisa).

Best wishes for the next few weeks.

By SusieQ (not verified)
February 19, 2009 11:35 AM

I'm going to dissent and say that Charlotte, though pretty, is rapidly becoming overused. It, and the middle name Elizabeth which I think goes with it best, would make for a classic but perhaps oh-so-slightly-dull name. And although Louise and Claire both "flow" well with Charlotte (and I certainly don't think it's pretentious to pass on your own name), I just don't happen to love either name. I'm in Britain, and here they're both quite heavy, dated names, whereas from what I gather they sound much fresher to US ears.

Abigail Gisele is lovely, and using the full first name, Abigail, as her everyday name, rather than a nickname like Abby, would make her stand out more. Alternatively you could go with Gail for the nickname, or even use something like Aggie which would combine the first and middle names and is very sweet for a little one.

Eliana Jolie is very pretty indeed, and I think having Jolie in the middle spot would "date" it less (given that I do think it's a name people will associate with Angelina Jolie as well as with its French meaning).

So, my personal rankings would be:

1. Abigail Gisele
2. Eliana Jolie
3. Charlotte Elizabeth
4. Charlotte Louise
5. Charlotte Claire

February 19, 2009 11:36 AM

Louise, best wishes on your delivery! We'll all be thinking of you (which, can I say, is why I love the posters on this blog!!). I just want to back up the general consensus Charlotte Louise is my first pick and then Charlotte Claire (initial nn's are nms). I think it's lovely to use your as her middle name, not pretentious at all. I also like Abigail Claire and if you like that and you want a less common nn you can always call her Gail. Also I love the nn Lottie, don't know if you are planning to use it, but I just wanted to plug it here for a minute!