Hayaven backwards: on the meaning of meanings
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.