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 mortgages (not verified)
August 27, 2009 6:24 AM

Yeah you can see this phenomenon everywhere.

By bambi (not verified)
November 5, 2010 2:56 PM

The name Nevaeh, needs to be stopped. Really? WOuld you name your daughter Heaven? I guess some of you would, but then the idea of raising your daughter to be a stripper probably appeals to you. Do you want your child for the rest of their life EVERYTIME they say their name to follow it either themselves with "its heaven backwards!" or the recipient, "oh, its heaven backwards!" Having worked with many, many backgrounds of people i have seen this name more than I care to. More than I care to see any name. And it is the first I have seen to not follow a particular ethnicity, however, the majority of those naming their child this, in my experience have been teenage moms, welfare recipients, and those not quite educated enough to put any thought in past the lastest trend. When all of these Nevaeh's grow up, they for the most part will be labeled from where they came from. If they do get out of this or have been named from someone who actually thought it was cute, but obviously still had no brain power to think of anything that would actually make a good name, then I hope that they have a decent middle name......however, if little Nevaeh oes become a stripper and wants to disguise her name, does she just spell it backwards? No need to send a baby shower present to one of these families, just send the food stamp application pre filled out for baby Nevaeh, she probably won't be able to do it herself when its time.

By Guest someone (not verified)
November 8, 2010 5:23 PM

I had an aunt Amre with a mother's name Erma - named her child Amre , Erme spelled backwards. Probably not the same Amre, although I've never heard of another Amre.

By MUMMY (not verified)
December 16, 2011 10:49 AM

My daughters name is nevaeh, and suits her very much. Nevaeh is a nice name as it is not common like boring everyday old names that everyone chooses! we chose the name before we realised it was heaven backwards but that adds extra meaning to our little girls name

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