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.


February 19, 2009 11:39 AM

Posted at the same time as Susie Q and didn't see that she was also suggesting Gail as a nn. AND how could I forget Eliana Jolie?? I really like that name as well (I think I was stuck on the Charlotte conversation). So let me restate:
1.Charlotte Louise or Eliana Jolie
2.Charlotte Claire

February 19, 2009 11:41 AM

Louise: I think it's great when women name their daughters after themselves because I don't get why boy juniors and thirds and fourths and fifths are so normal but the same is never done for women! (Okay it's not that I don't get it; I just don't like it!)

Miriam: You know so much! Are you a language scholar? (Apologies if you've told us before; my memory's useless... which is probably another reason I'm so impressed with all the info you've got in your head!)

By Patti (not verified)
February 19, 2009 11:42 AM

J&H's mom,

Try finding the grandmother's name in another language.

My youngest daughter is Alanna Ailene. Ailene is a respelling of the Irish form of Helen, which is my mom's name.

If she had been a boy, her brother wanted to call the baby Coyote Flyspanker.

By T (not verified)
February 19, 2009 12:05 PM

I have to laugh at this entry because my mother just suggested Nevaeh for one of our girls' names.

On that note, I thought I'd put our naming project in the hands of the commenters here. Y'all usually have great ideas.

We are expecting twin girls in July. We already have one name picked out that we love love love: Cordelia. I have always loved that name ever since Anne of Green Gables wished that her name were Cordelia Montmorency, and my husband has grown to love it, too. (And being the good daughter in King Lear is also a nice literary reference.) We anticipate a nickname being Corrie, although Cora or Delia would also be cute.

We also have a middle name picked out for each daughter: Marjorie and Dorothy. Marjorie is for my husband's grandmother, and Dorothy is for my great-grandmother. We don't really care which middle name goes with which first name.

The project is that we need to come up with a first name for Baby #2. We like classic, old-fashioned names, for the most part, and aren't afraid to be a little bit "out there." We really are not fans of made-up-sounding names, odd spellings, anything too Biblical, or anything too contemporary. We are also trying to avoid being too matchy-matchy with Cordelia, so in my mind, that kind of rules out any names that start with a C or K (or any name that rhymes, like Aurelia). Also, our last name begins with an S, so that rules out any names like Frances or Beatrice that end with an S sound.

So far our short list of names we like is:


If we used Louisa, we couldn't pair it with Dorothy, because my great-aunt is already Dorothy Louise and it's too close to that for our liking. We also have a debate going about whether the name should be pronounced with a soft S sound or a Z sound.

We also probably can't use Theodora because of how similar it is with Dorothy.

Madeleine is a family name, which makes us like it, but I have concerns about it being too popular, and I am also not a fan of the nickname Maddy. If we were to go with Madeleine, I'd want to find another nickname, like Linnie. Something different.

We both love Eleanor, but my best friend's daughter is Ellie and we can't use that. I suppose we could use Nora as a nickname instead, but being so close to Ellie is kind of a drawback. Also, it seems like this name is on the upswing in popularity.

Isabelle was our favorite about 10 years ago, but it has gotten way too popular for us to be comfortable with it anymore. My husband has a name very common to our generation and he doesn't want our daughter to be Isabelle S. all the time in school. And I agree with that.

The others are all in the running, but we're not in love with any of them, and we feel like we should be in love with whatever name we pick.

So ... does anyone have any suggestions for names we should consider that we haven't already thought of? I guess this is a very specific and detailed challenge. We just want to make sure we're not overlooking anything.

By JillH (not verified)
February 19, 2009 12:06 PM

Louise: Going on sound alone, I love Charlotte Claire. But I'm big on honoring people with middle names, so if it were me I'd go with Louise or Gisele. Out of those two, I prefer Gisele. And I don't think it's pretentious in the least bit to connect yourself to your child in that way.

By GirlRandolph (not verified)
February 19, 2009 12:13 PM

T - Why not just go with Marjorie? It seems you have stumbled into a beautiful and less popular name right there. I love Marjorie. Namepedia says it is a variant of one my all time favourites - Margaret.

Or because it means pearl - why not Pearl?

I love Dorothy too, but it comes with more associations. I also love the nns Dot or Dottie. I can see why parents would shy away from it. But there won't be a lot of Dorothys kicking around.

My favourite on your list is Henrietta and it shortens to the very cute Hetty.

February 19, 2009 12:14 PM

RobynT, yes, I have a PhD in Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic and significant formal study of Germanic philology. My studies in this area go back almost 45 years, and I taught medieval literature and history of the English language (among other things) for thirty years until my retirement a few years ago.

If anyone is curious about the language background needed for my field of study, by the time I graduated high school in addition to English, I had a reading knowledge of Hebrew, Latin, French, and German. As an undergrad and graduate student, I learned Old and Middle English, Old Icelandic, Old High German, Old Saxon, Middle High German and could also read affiliated languages like Old Frisian and Gothic. More recently I have learned Modern Dutch and Middle Dutch. Unfortunately I have a poor ear for spoken languages, so the only language I speak fluently is English, although I can order dinner in a bunch of languages including the modern Nordic ones.

Forty-odd years ago when I was a student, the philologically oriented education I received was already out of fashion and available at only a few universities in North America. Today you will find very very few students with the kind of preparation I had. This leads to students publicly announcing things like "I am doing a dissertation on Christine de Pizan and need a recommendation of the best translation...." This also leads to seriously stupid arguments in books and articles written by people who cannot really read the texts they are analyzing.

I am interested in onomastics from philological and sociological points of view. I have no more babies to name, and I am quite sure my daughter-in-law will not seek my input, nor would she pay any attention if I volunteered it, should she ever give me a grandchild.

February 19, 2009 12:53 PM

Re: the meaning of Charlotte.

I think it would be helpful if commenters could include citations to actual source materials, whenever possible, when making the claim that a name does not mean X. Then it's for the prospective parents to do their homework in order to assess which of the multiple, often conflicting sources they deem to be most credible and most reflective of current understandings.

Some baby name book authors (such as Bruce Lansky in "55,000+ Baby Names") suggest that Charlotte is the French form of Caroline, and Caroline means "little and strong." So the suggestion that "Charlotte does not mean strong because it's the feminine form of Charles" (which means "farmer" in German, and "strong and manly" in English) perhaps excludes too much. OTOH, the source material for Namipedia's meanings, "A World of Baby Names" by Teresa Norman, suggests that "Charlotte is the feminine diminutive form of Charles (meaning full-grown, a man), which originated in France but is just as commonly used in England."

If one insists upon concluding that Charlotte simply cannot mean strong because it actually means man, they do so against the grain of several currently published sources.

@Louise - FWIW, if you believe Charlotte to mean strong, I simply don't see sufficient evidence to conclude you're "wrong." Some sources support that claim directly, others do not. Make of that what you will. It's a lovely name.

By Joni
February 19, 2009 1:22 PM

Guest wrote: "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." Seriously? I had no idea. I never heard her say that (I am big fan of Survivor!). I always just thought it was a "Utahn name" (http://wesclark.com/ubn/)

February 19, 2009 1:44 PM

Louise- I agree that it's fine to use your name as a middle name. I've noticed in my family and my husband's, that my brother and he received their father's names as a middle name, whereas the girls in both families did not. It's about time things were evened out!
I like Charlotte Louise or Charlotte Elizabeth.

Incidentally, my grandmother's name was Louise, which I've never used, except that one of my cats is named Louis! My other grandmother's name was Hilda, which I don't like at all. Backwards would be Adlih... hmmm...!

Miriam- thanks for your info- fascinating.
I bet that whichever name books are saying that Charlotte means 'strong' are aware that Charles means man, but feel that they can't also say that therefore Charlotte means man. So they're going for a traditionally manly attribute-- strong. So many name books do not have the kind of knowledge that Miriam has, so she has my vote, personally. But I agree that generally it's good to quote sources.

T- I like your style! Have you considered Linnea?
Cordelia Marjorie and Linnea Dorothy?

By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 19, 2009 1:46 PM

T-Even before I read your list, I thought, "Penelope."

Penelope and Cordelia sound just right to me, as do Penny and Corrie or Nell and Delia. I also like the idea of using Marjorie or Pearl. Do you suppose it's the fear of "large Marge," that has kept it from having a revival as a fn?
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Thea is a form of Dorothy. Penelope Thea and Cordelia Pearl sound like perfection to me!

Patti-I'm not actually naming any babies, and I sort of doubt my grandmas' names work in other languages (one was Gladys; one was sort of like Velma). It's a lovely idea, though.

By Livingston 41 (not verified)
February 19, 2009 1:58 PM

Blanket rule to remember: Baby name books just aren't good sources for etymological meanings.

You all must have noticed how many of the baby name books are full of joyous uplifting meanings--when in reality, a lot of lovely older names have less attractive linguistic origins. EVERY name can't mean "beloved and precious." I've been the bad friend who rolls her eyes whenever someone announces "we named her X X, which means 'beautiful princess of peace,'" when I know full well it means no such thing.

Choose a name you love. If you want to find out what it means, go to more reliable sources than baby name books. If you plan to announce what it means when you introduce the baby, PLEASE be sure that you're right, or you'll have some NE friends cringing and groaning just out of earshot. If you find the original meaning isn't all that inspiring, well....you COULD make up something nicer, but do you really want to shape any part of your kid's identity with a lie?

February 19, 2009 2:18 PM

Louise, in my (very ordinary) extended family it's been pretty much the 'norm' to give each child a family name -- usually the mn -- and often one of the mother's names for a daughter, one of the father's names for a son. My sister used her name Rebecca as her daughter's mn. A SIL expanded her mn Ann to Suzanne for her daughter's mn. My first name is the mn of my second daughter. My oldest daughter used another form of her name Catherine for her second daughter's name Catrina. Another daughter and her little girl have the same middle name Elizabeth. For me, it makes a name more special when a family name is included. I don't see anything pretentious about sharing your first or mn with your daughter.

I think Charlotte Gisele would be a lovely name for your daughter, carrying on the name Gisele from your grandmother and yourself. I also like the uniqueness of Gisele paired with Charlotte.

Best wishes!

February 19, 2009 2:20 PM

Sorry, Nicole S. Karl/Carl/Karel mean 'man.' It is a common pan-Germanic word (like bread and milk), and it means 'man'. The Latinized form is Carolus from which is derived Caroline, Carola, and Carol (although the latter as a name is probably also affected by 'carol' meaning 'round dance with singing' and thence 'song'). The French form is Charles, the diminutive of which is Charlot, hence the feminine Charlotte.

As far as baby name books go, by and large, they are dubious sources for the meanings of names. They vary all over the lot as to accuracy. The aim of many such books appears to be the provision of a "pretty," positive meaning for a name whenever possible. Obviously the average baby name book author doesn't want to write down 'man' as the ultimate meaning for Charlotte and Caroline, so someone came up with something else, in this case, 'strong', which will be more appealing to prospective parents, and this seems to have been copied by later authors. I am quite sure that baby book authors do not independently do the philology to determine the ultimate meanings for all the myriads of names derived from numerous languages that they list. Frankly I don't think anyone could. IMO baby name book meanings as scholarship should be taken with a huge lump of salt. OTOH if an entry in a baby name book is pleasing, then the prospective parents should consider using the name and not worry about the accuracy of the scholarship.

Now the words of a living language are subject to change, and carl (now obsolete in this form in English) has undergone some semantic shift. As I mentioned before, in modern English the form is churl and the meaning is pejorative. In the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, the word carl essentially means giant. The Carl was made a giant by a spell which is "dispelled" by decapitation. Post-spell he becomes the LORD of Carlisle, clearly indicating that Carl is a title, not a personal name and that the title refers to his giant status. So I can see how one baby name author casting about for something euphemistic to say about the meaning of a feminine name which means 'man' could hit upon 'strong' since strength is a manly attribute which is also positive when applied to a female. However, the ultimate meaning of karl/carl and all the names deriving from it is still man.

All that being said, I don't think it makes a damn bit of difference. I would not hesitate to name a daughter Charlotte or Caroline because of their ultimate derivation, just as I would use the name Cecilia (my grandmother's English name) even though its ultimate meaning is 'blind.' I personally would be concerned with meaning only when the name is a word in current usage of which everyone knows the meaning.

As for sources, after 45 years of studying/teaching Germanic philology, I don't need a baby name book to tell me that Carl and all its derivatives mean 'man' and Frank means 'free' and Ethel means 'noble' and Alfred means 'elf-counsel.' BTW I just looked up Frank in Behind the Name, and the entry does not say that "Frank" means 'free.' It just refers to the tribe of the Franks. However, the tribal name means 'free,' 'freemen.' Behind the Name does say that Carl and all its derivatives mean 'man.' However, if I go beyond Germanic (and to a lesser extent Hebrew, Greek and Latin) names, then I cannot rely on my own scholarship at all. For other languages, I must rely on reference books used with a critical eye.

February 19, 2009 2:38 PM

@Livingston 41 - I tend to agree with you that baby name books aren't "good" sources for many things. Nevertheless, they are, along with the internets, the main sources today's parents most often turn to in order to ascertain meanings.

It would be helpful if you could please list examples of those "more reliable sources than baby name books" which you mentioned in your comment.

@Miriam - There's no need to apologize. I don't doubt the veracity of your claims, nor your impressive educational credentials. It's really too bad that you haven't published a baby name book - I'm sure it would be one we NE's would really respect and enjoy.

I still fail to see how Louise is necessarily wrong for stating that Charlotte (also) means strong.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 19, 2009 2:22 PM

T-Here are a few more


I've included the last one somewhat selfishly.
I know of one Araminta irl (the daughter of the gal who founded Jimmy Choo-please don't ask me how I know).
At any rate, I always imagined it was a modern invention, but I finally got around to browsing a genealogy tome sent by my husband's grandmother, and it's chock full of Aramintas!
Obviously, the later ones were probably being named for their ancestors, but I was so surprised.
Looking online, all I've found is that it was the invention of an English author, and Harriet Tubman's birth name (no kidding!)
Anyway, I think Araminta would be a nice companion to Cordelia, and if anyone has any Araminta insight, I'd love to hear it!

By Guest (not verified)
February 19, 2009 2:25 PM

T- What about Mabel?

February 19, 2009 2:41 PM

I like what the Oxford Dictionary of First Names says about the name Charlotte: "French feminine diminutive of Charles, used in England since the 17th century. It was particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in part due to the influence of firstly Queen Charlotte [Charlotte Sophia] (1744-1818), wife of George III, and secondly the novelist Charlotte Bronte (1816-55); it has again come into prominence since the 1980s, especially in England and Australia."

Cleveland Kent Evans in his Great Big Book of Baby Names says, "Charlotte was probably invented in the Savoy region of the French Alps and spread to the rest of Western Europe after Princess Charlotte of Savoy wed King Louis XI of France in the 15th century."

Charlotte may not mean "strong", but it certainly sounds like the strong, classic name it is.

February 19, 2009 3:07 PM

Louise, you may have seen this praise of Charlotte in Baby Name Wizard: "Three key traits: warmth, dignity, and the cute, old-fashioned nickname Lottie."

By Prairie Dawn (not verified)
February 19, 2009 3:01 PM


I like your style. Cordelia is really lovely, especially with the nn Delia. Of your list, I prefer Louisa (with the /s/ sound) and Eleanor. Eleanor is also on my short list for girls (it IS becoming quite popular), with possible nns Leni or Nora.

I will second Augusta, Willa and Helena (nn Lane or Lanie) from others' suggestions.

And here are my own suggestions:

Rosa/ Rosalie


February 19, 2009 3:10 PM

"I still fail to see how Louise is necessarily wrong for stating that Charlotte (also) means strong."

Louise is not "wrong." She consulted references which were not the best and assumed the information therein was accurate when it wasn't, and she had no easy way of knowing it wasn't. Other than that, it seems to me that saying Charlotte means 'strong' is roughly like saying 'bread' means 'milk.' It just doesn't. There are no texts that read the equivalent of "That guy is so carl, he can lift 500 lbs." For one thing, Carl is a noun, and strong is an adjective. Even if Carl and its derivatives mean 'strength' (which they don't), they couldn't possibly mean 'strong.' Maybe baby name books aren't too hot on the parts of speech....

By Delia (not verified)
February 19, 2009 3:36 PM

J&H's mom -

Araminta reminded me right away of a madrigal called "Fair Phyllis," in which her lover's name is Amyntas.

According to the behindthename.com, Araminta is "perhaps an elaboration of Aminta." Aminta is derived from Greek αμυντωρ (amyntor) meaning "defender," which is the same derivation as Amyntas.

February 19, 2009 3:48 PM

Interesting dilemma: what can baby name authors wanting to give a meaning for every name in their book do about the meaning of the female name Charlotte which comes from a male name meaning "man"?

I checked two of my favorite baby name books (as opposed to first name dictionaries) to see what is given as the meaning of Charlotte:

an a-z of baby names (UK 2006): "Charlotte, Old German 'man', meaning by implication 'womanly' "

The Baby Name Bible (USA 2007): Charlotte, "little and womanly"

February 19, 2009 4:20 PM

"an a-z of baby names (UK 2006): "Charlotte, Old German 'man', meaning by implication 'womanly' "

Patricia, that is interesting. The Germanic word 'man' means person, human being, someone--not just male human being. Modern German makes a clear distinction in spelling between 'man' (some human being) and Mann (male human being). In Old English the word that specifies male human being is 'waepnedman' (weaponed human being). Modern English makes no spelling distinction between 'man' random human being and 'man' male human being, leading to the recent feminist assault on many traditional uses of 'man' where the word was the equivalent of the German 'man', not 'Mann.' So if 'carl' meant 'man' in the Modern German sense, then we could say that 'woman' (not 'womanly'--those pesky parts of speech again) was implied.

But carl/karl is not used in the sense of Modern German 'man.' As attested in surviving texts, often in the compound housecarl/huskarl, it is used to mean man as a fighter (see waepnedman above), a bodyguard, a member of a king's or lord's elite fighting unit--in modern times a Ranger or a Special Forces type. So if we are going to say that Charlotte means 'womanly' by implication, I think we are talking womanly as embodied by Xena Warrior Princess and Kara Thrace :-).

So feminine names Charlotte, Caroline, Carola, Carol are ultimately derived from Carl/Karl/Carolus which means man in the sense of male. By the (relatively late) time Charlotte came into use as a female name, no one remembered that its ultimate derivation was 'male person,' and hence no one saw anything incongruous about it. It was simply a female version of Charles/Charlot. Along came the recent enthusiasm for baby name books, the authors of which did not want to put down 'man' as the meaning of a female name and so, I would assume, cast about for a suitable substitute, lighting upon strong, strength being an attribute of a carl while also being a suitable attribute for a girl, especially in these times when parents are giving their girls gender-neutral and outright masculine names.

Charlotte, in any case, meaning aside, is a lovely name and a delicious dessert (the dessert name may or may not be derived from the feminine personal name). I admit, I always associate yumminess with the name Charlotte.

February 19, 2009 4:23 PM

Yes, I second the idea- Miriam, please write an etymologically sound name book for NEs!!

February 19, 2009 4:36 PM

I find this whole discussion about names' meanings absolutely fascinating, largely because I don't understand why people care so much about what names "mean." To me, a name's meaning is interesting insofar as it is an historical artifact--of how languages change, how countries and cultures came to be conquered or assimilated, etc. Personally, however, I didn't give two hoots about a name's meaning when considering it for either of my own two children. (Exception: The meaning is important, in my mind, for names that are words in common parlance, like Honor, Heaven, or Angel.)

I know that there are many on this board who do consider a name's meaning to be really important, however. Why? I feel almost silly asking that, because it seems like I haven't been let in on the secret, but I've always felt like I'm not a real NE, since this aspect of naming just doesn't matter to me. Please elucidate!

[And Miriam, I love your reference to Xena and Kara Thrace!]

February 19, 2009 6:06 PM

@Elizabeth T. - I won't speak for everyone else, but I believe the search for meaning in life is a valid pursuit. I also happen to enjoy talking about names, and a name's meaning is certainly one core aspect of the art of naming. It's fascinating to me.

I get that not everyone cares. I also get why someone very learned doesn't wish to see a parent-to-be laboring under a misapprehension about a name's "original" meaning. I can't help but wonder if parents who don't look AT ALL to a name's meaning before bestowing it on their child aren't missing out on a special opportunity to make their gift of a name all the more "meaningful."

Edit: Thinking back into my own childhood, I also remember those name meaning exercises we did in elementary school, where we all went around and told the class what our names mean, and did an art project about it. Some kids didn't know what their names meant (I thought that was a bit sad really), and so the teacher consulted a baby name book for them, filled with dubious positive meanings I'm sure. Funnily enough, I had to do the same type of name exercise in recent years at a corporate retreat (sans art project). Also, one of the most thoughtful wedding presents we were fortunate enough to receive from a dear auntie was a small framed piece with DH's and my name written in calligraphy, along with the meanings of our names.

BTW, I would never correct anyone who insists their child's name means something positive even if I suspect it "originally" meant something negative. Case in point, a colleague believes her little girl's name means Strong, Hard Working, but it probably means Manly Rival. My lips are sealed.

February 19, 2009 5:23 PM

I have an inquiry for other NEs. I am hosting a baby shower this weekend (the fourth one in about a year!). One of the games I'm playing is a baby trivia quiz, including some questions about baby names. The parents have selected the name Tristan for their baby boy. In searching for Tristan's meaning (and I know from this conversation that this could be WAY off) I found that it means "Tumult." Not one of those pleasant meaning names. So one of my quiz questions is about the meaning of the name Tristan. But now I'm afraid of leaving that question on the quiz, because I don't want the negative meaning of the name to discourage the new parents-to-be from using a name they love.

What do you think? Should I take it off? Leave it on? Am I way overthinking this because of my time here on this board? Miriam, does that meaning sound right to you?

By Livingston 41 (not verified)
February 19, 2009 5:36 PM

"Interesting dilemma: what can baby name authors wanting to give a meaning for every name in their book do about the meaning of the female name Charlotte which comes from a male name meaning "man"?"

The authors probably have to decide between truthfulness and mass appeal, in such a case. Telling the truth will result in a book full of complicated, obscure, unattractive, and odd origins for names; the parents looking for shiny happy meanings will turn elsewhere, and give the book bad reviews on Amazon, and you've lost much of your target audience. So bending the truth, or just making stuff up, is a very tempting option -- look at reality TV!

Another option, which so many better guides do nowadays, is to leave out the dubious meanings, or all meanings, completely. It's just not that relevant to most parents' decisions, and it eliminates the dilemma you describe. It also leaves room for more interesting observations.

February 19, 2009 5:55 PM

Nikki- I would leave off the meaning question. In some ways maybe you're overthinking it, but people in the general population can be sensitive about the names they've chosen for their children (that's why we always recommend on this blog keeping your mouth shut on negative comments once people have decided on a name), and I'm not sure you want to risk it if you don't know what the reaction will be. Even though I actually think that's a really interesting meaning... Better safe than sorry though!

By Aybee (not verified)
February 19, 2009 5:59 PM

I once went to a small (read:30 student) graduation where a speaker spoke about the meaning of each student's name and how the kids should live up to theirs names in the future.
It was really interesting. A lot of the kids had invented names, so the speaker would just go based on their middle names. She did this for "Calvin" which I thought was odd...Calvin didn't seem invented to me.

I looked it up in a baby book when I got home. Again, this might be a dubious source, but the book said it meant 'little bald one.' I can see why that might not make it into a speech about your life path...

February 19, 2009 6:02 PM

Reflecting on name meanings, personally I always thought it was nice that in Welsh (I believe) Jenny means or meant "white waves/ fair" and Jennifer "the fair or the pretty one." Anyone know if that's true? Anyway, I always thought it was nice, but I never really connected it that much with myself. It's not like I hear the meaning when I hear my name spoken, I just hear me! I think this is why I like Laura's book so much, name meanings are interesting, but when it comes to namebooks I find that where the name fits into the larger world much more interesting. When it comes to meanings I find the history of a name like Charlotte more interesting than the one-word-baby-name-book meaning. Does that make sense?

February 19, 2009 6:11 PM

The original form of Tristan/Tristram is Drust/Drustan/Drystan. It is the best known and most widely attested Pictish name. We have very limited information about Picts, and the nature of their language is a vexed issue. Various theories have been advanced: that it is a form of Gaulish (which belongs to the continental, Belgic, Celtiberian branch of Celtic), that it is p-Celtic (Brythonic like Welsh, Breton, and Cornish), that it is q-Celtic (Goidelic like Scottish and Irish Gaelic and Manx), that it is some form of Celtic with a non-Indo-European substratum, that it is a survival of a language predating the arrival of Indo-European speakers in the area (like Basque in the Pyrenees) with Celtic loanwords. To the best of my knowledge, there is no real consensus about Pictish. Bede is the only early source that says flatly that Pictish is not Celtic, but Bede gives no details as to why he thinks that and what he thinks Pictish is. Given the state of ignorance and confusion about the Pictish language, I would not ascribe any particular meaning to Drustan/Tristan with any level of confidence.

By the High Middle Ages and the emergence of Tristan as a romance hero, the name Tristan became associated with the French word 'triste' (sad). This is an association merely of sound. Tristan is not derived from 'triste', nor are its roots French.

Therefore if I were considering Tristan as a name for a son, I would not concern myself with meaning at all. In the romance tradition, Tristan is a lying, manipulative trickster--rather like Odysseus--and like Odysseus smart as a whip. Which may or may not be a desired association for one's son. I will say that Gottfried's Tristan is one of my favorite medieval works of literature.

February 19, 2009 6:25 PM


Calvin is derived from a surname and does mean bald. It became used as a given name in honor of the Protestant theologian John Calvin (born Jean Chauvin).

Jenny L3igh--

Jennifer is Cornish, not Welsh. It is the Cornish form of Gwenhwyfar (French: Guinevere). Gwen- means white, fair. -hwyfar is generally considered to mean something along the lines of fairy or ghost, but a number of other meanings have been advanced. You are on safe ground about the white meaning, but not about the meaning of the second element.

By Guest (not verified)
February 19, 2009 7:07 PM

Neleh might be a "Utahn" name, I have no idea. It was in her bio that she was named after her grandmother Helen and I remember hearing it in a few episodes. I remember because it took me awhile to figure out what her grandmother was named :) http://www.cbs.com/primetime/survivor/bio/neleh_4/bio.php?season=4

I'm interested in finding out some other anagram based names.

By Guest (not verified)
February 19, 2009 7:07 PM

Neleh might be a "Utahn" name, I have no idea. It was in her bio that she was named after her grandmother Helen and I remember hearing it in a few episodes. I remember because it took me a while to figure out what her grandmother was named :) http://www.cbs.com/primetime/survivor/bio/neleh_4/bio.php?season=4

I'm interested in finding out some other anagram based names.

By Louise (not verified)
February 19, 2009 7:33 PM

Hi wonderful NEs...

Sorry if I address my replies to the wrong people-it is hard work scrolling up and down on this site!

@Miriam ...is it ok if I stay in denial?! Fair enough point, you certainly know your stuff! My only resource in here is a pretty commercial name book which is where I got my misguided information...I will add though, that I like the name Charlotte based on its look, sound and positive associations of other people with the same name. I think the meaning in this case was more of a 'bonus'. It doesn't really change my opinion of the name now that I know more about it.
Thankyou for your insights :)

@SuzieQ: We're in Australia and the name Charlotte is VERY popular here, in my state it is #5-yikes. In any other circumstance I would shake my head and mutter things about it being too popular, but really, it's what seems to fit at the moment and we (or definately I) love it. In a perfect world I would certainly try not to be so mainstream...

Re: All who suggested Gail as a nn for Abigail... It is unfortunately the Gail part which puts me off Abigail-bad personal associations with the name of a awful parent of a kid I taught last year! It will never happen

Thankyou for your comments and the great discussion!

By Louise (not verified)
February 19, 2009 7:33 PM

Hi wonderful NEs...

Sorry if I address my replies to the wrong people-it is hard work scrolling up and down on this site!

@Miriam ...is it ok if I stay in denial?! Fair enough point, you certainly know your stuff! My only resource in here is a pretty commercial name book which is where I got my misguided information...I will add though, that I like the name Charlotte based on its look, sound and positive associations of other people with the same name. I think the meaning in this case was more of a 'bonus'. It doesn't really change my opinion of the name now that I know more about it.
Thankyou for your insights :)

@SuzieQ: We're in Australia and the name Charlotte is VERY popular here, in my state it is #5-yikes. In any other circumstance I would shake my head and mutter things about it being too popular, but really, it's what seems to fit at the moment and we (or definately I) love it. In a perfect world I would certainly try not to be so mainstream...

Re: All who suggested Gail as a nn for Abigail... It is unfortunately the Gail part which puts me off Abigail-bad personal associations with the name of a awful parent of a kid I taught last year! It will never happen

Thankyou for your comments and the great discussion!

By J&H's mom (not verified)
February 19, 2009 8:06 PM

Laura-I read a funny bit about a recent interview with you over at PBS kids.
Can I post the link to it, or is this a subject for a future post?

Louise- I think Miriam alluded to this, but I think the important thing about a name is the meaning and story it has for You.
My father has this crazy story about how he chose the spelling of my name from an old Irish dictionary. He also claimed it meant strong willed.
I've come to doubt pretty much the whole story, but I appreciate that he wanted to create this kind of mythology around my birth in an era when fathers were much less present for the experience. And, as someone whose older son has a very popular, very conventional name, I can tell you that having your little one use her last initial from time to time isn't the end of the world.
If yours is meant to be a Charlotte, then a Charlotte she must be-whether it's at one or 1,000.

Take care!

February 19, 2009 8:20 PM

T: In my view, since you will already have a Cordelia, it sounds less matchy if the other name has a different ending sound (not a). If you are concerned about Madeleine's popularity, I would stay away from it. I think Winifred might be a little hard to carry so I guess from your list, my favorites are Penelope and Annette.

Miriam: wow! Also I'm excited because I know who Christine dePizan is. Also my husband is sort of like you in that he's had to learn different languages for his degree (History) but is much better at reading them than speaking them. I hear you about the value of language study--one of my colleagues has also convinced me of its value for communicating with scholars beyond the English-speaking world--but I also think that it also sometimes seem to be an arbitrary requirement--like all graduate students must pass a second language exam just cuz it's a prestigious degree so you should know another language. I think there are times it makes sense and times it doesn't. Or maybe it has to do with individual students using the language requirement in ways that are relevant to our work.

February 19, 2009 8:43 PM

This has all been so interesting. Thank you to Miriam for teaching us something new. My new rule of thumb: the less sugar-coated a baby name (meanings) book is, the more likely it is to be accurate. For what seems to be a reliable, popular (and at times, rather negative) source on the meanings behind the names, see "A World of Baby Names" by Teresa Norman (the source material for Namipedia). Norman's entries have been roughly in line with Miriam's readings of various names.

I think Laura's "Baby Name Wizard" is by far the most practical baby name book out there today. A friend borrowed mine recently and she has been unable to put it down. I'm paraphrasing another commenter on another thread when I say it's more helpful to have Laura's real world take on a given name (i.e. "Elmo will make people think of the little red Sesame Street character") than to read some baby name book that can only offer you sugar-coated euphemisms about what Elmo may have meant hundreds of years ago in a dead language.

By Melanie1 (not verified)
February 19, 2009 9:17 PM

Both my grandmother's have a family history of the mother passing on their names (first or middle) as middle name for one of their daughters. I think it is kind of cool. Charlotte Louise or Abigail Claire are the two that sound the best to me. I know Abby is popular now (I haven't met any here, though) but I've always loved Abigail and John Adams so I personally am not ready to give the name up. However, I did wonder about the B heavy sound myself.

I could see how people could like Nevaeh's sound and not care about the meaning. I always think of my niece N4liy4h and could see it being my brother's style even if it's not mine. I know a young Isaiah and Elijah and can see how that sound is in right now.

By Melissa C (not verified)
February 19, 2009 9:29 PM


I feel the same way as SuzieQ when it comes to the name Charlotte.. its becoming way overused in my area. 2 friends in my close circles had baby Charlotte's last year. One said that it meant little woman and that is why she chose it... not sure if that is really the meaning or not.

Of your choices I like Eliana the best, Abigail is very beautiful but very popular. Although Ellie is also becoming popular.. not sure if Eliana would get shorten to this.

Thought I would offer the suggestion of Elisa/ Alisa... it means great happiness... its quite underused and quite beautiful we considered it for our daughter. I thought Alisa Charlotte.. or Alisa Charlotte Ann sounded really beautiful and striking to my ears.

By Amy3
February 19, 2009 9:53 PM

Miriam -- Many thanks once again for your fascinating depth and breadth of knowledge. Particularly fascinating to me is the shift of ceorl-churl into a pejorative and enthrall into a word much more positive than enslave. Wow!

February 19, 2009 10:00 PM

"Thought I would offer the suggestion of Elisa/ Alisa... it means great happiness... "

Once again, I have to ask where this meaning came from. These are two different names. Elisa is a form of Elizabeth which is derived through Greek from the Hebrew Elisheva. Elisheva means 'my God something," the sheva part being somewhat debatable as to meaning. Possibly it means my God is my oath. Alisa is a form of Alice which is derived from Adalheid (Adelaide is also a form of Adalheid). Adelheid is Germanic and means 'noble-ness."

To my knowledge neither has anything to do with great happiness--unless of course these same
names also by coincidence occur in some other language(s), perhaps in Africa. However, I rather doubt that.

Whatever, they are perfectly fine names.

"One said that it meant little woman and that is why she chose it... not sure if that is really the meaning or not."

Nope, it is derived from the French diminutive of a name that means 'man.' BTW diminutives are not only used to mean small, little in stature, but also to convey familiarity, closeness and affection. For the Dutch who live in a small country and are very conscious of it, almost everything and everyone is in the diminutive :-).

By Alitalia (not verified)
February 19, 2009 10:05 PM

Aybee - Calvus is the Latin adjective that means "bald." In Italian the adjective is calvo, and the diminutive is calvino - "little baldy." So you baby name book had its facts right, and Calvin is definitely not a made-up name.

By Melissa C (not verified)
February 19, 2009 10:16 PM

Here's some names I thought sounded nice with Cordelia. Let me know what you think:

Felicity, Rosalind, Arabella, Lavinia, Portia, Esme, Edwina, Emmeline, Gemma, Helena, Rowena, Scarlett, Hyacinth, Louella, Diana, Lucinda, Imogen, Perdita, Viola.

I instantly thought that Rosalind sounded nice with Cordelia. Also like Arabella.. similar to Isabelle that you liked. Also Perdita stuck out to me for some reason.. probably because of its Shakespeare connection.

Also I second Linnea. I had it on my list here but I noticed some one else already suggested it.

By Prairie Dawn (not verified)
February 19, 2009 10:16 PM

Louise-- I forgot to comment on our grandmother's shared name-- Gisela. My grandmother's name is pronounced Hee-SE-lah, which is the Spanish pronunciation. My younger sister is named Gisel after our grandmother, but her name is mostly pronounced Ji-SEL. It's a name very near and dear to my heart and so I am always pleased when I encounter other Giselas/ Gisels/ Giselles.

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


In my baby name book 20,001 Names for Baby by Carol McD. Wallace it says Alisa means great happiness in Hebrew.

By Eo (not verified)
February 19, 2009 11:36 PM

Wow, Melissa C, I love your suggestion of "Imogen" with Cordelia. It has the same ethereal, fairy-tale quality, while having a completely different sound. A choice worthy of Anne Shirley herself!

Personally, I also love a long name-- Cordelia-- paired with a short one, like "Maud". However, Maud doesn't sound as well with either of the two middle names selected. So Imogen is my hands-down favorite...