The Next Frontiers in Names, Part 1: Wordplay

Jan 11th 2012

A look at the new trails parents are blazing in search of fresh hit names.

It isn't just Nevaeh any more.

When "heaven backwards" first raced up the name popularity charts, it was just an individual name -- a fresh idea with a smoothly feminine sound, for a generation of parents craving both of those qualities in a girl's name. It got everybody talking because of its unusual origin. But how much talk have you heard about Semaj?

Semaj, "James backwards," made its first appearance as a top-1000 name before Nevaeh did. By now it's a staple. More than 300 American boys are named Semaj every year, along with 100 girls. Yet back in the 1940s, when James was the #1 name in the land and eight times as common as it is today, the name Semaj was unknown.

The difference, of course, is our naming culture. Today, creativity in naming is approaching a norm, and that opens up a whole new wordplay-based approach to creating names.

New names have long been built out of old ingredients, from Vanessa in the 1700s to Cheryl in the 1920s to Gracelyn today. Wordplay names, though, change the nature of name invention. With a wordplay name, the process of creating the name is the whole point; the whole is very much the sum of its parts. Nevaeh's fundamental allure comes from playing with letters to create secret messages.

The trend is spreading. In discussions of Nevaeh, you'll routinely hear the joking comment, "What's next, Legna? Because it's Angel backwards?" In fact, 17 girls were named Legna last year. Meanwhile Semaj is joined by a small but growing crop of kids with names like Nivek (Kevin) and Trebor (Robert).

Even these backwards names just scratch the surface of wordplay. A while back I talked about the name Ily, taken from the textspeak abbreviation for "I Love You." That name is still rare, but it's rising fast as the text generation becomes the parent generation. The explosion of anagrams and abbreviations in the broader culture portends more such names in the future.

And then there's Abcde. This name is the subject of lots of snickering stories, but it's not just an urban legend. The name, pronounced AB-si-dee, is now given to dozens of girls each year.

Abcde is hard to top for pure wordplay. Play is its very essence. But I suspect there are more names out there, so subtle in their anagrams, letter magic and coded messages that we're overlooking them. Have you spotted any outstanding specimens?



By hyz nli (not verified)
January 15, 2012 7:45 AM

Beth the Original, to answer re: the pronunciation of Semaj--my daughter used to have a boy in her class named Smaj, which was generally pronounced Suh-MAHZH. Not sure of the derivation of his name, but I always assumed Semaj was said the same way. In a related note, the Trebor as a Trevor derivative, Spanish or otherwise, is a good thought, and pronouncing it like Trevor makes it a bit more appealing--in my head, it was always "tree-bore" or "tray-bore" and seemed a bit like a stereotypical robot or alien name ("I am Trebor. Take me to your leader."). lol.

January 15, 2012 11:08 AM

hyz-lol on the robot named Trebor. I have always thought of Trevor or tremor and then figured Trebor was similar. I suppose it could be more like Trey though too.

By Heuristics Inc. (not verified)
January 16, 2012 5:05 PM

Re: Nivek, I've seen that one. The lead singer of the industrial band Skinny Puppy goes by that name (although his given name is Kevin). Wikipedia says:
"Nivek Ogre (born Kevin Graham Ogilvie December 5, 1962) is a Canadian musician, performance artist and actor best known as a founding member of the industrial band Skinny Puppy.[1] Since that band featured another Kevin (Crompton, a.k.a. cEvin Key) and was produced by another Ogilvie (Dave, a.k.a. Rave), Ogre's alias was practical as well as theatrical."
So you can place that usage around 1982 or so when the band formed.
Not sure how many Skinny Puppy fans hang out here on babynamewizard, though :)

January 16, 2012 5:28 PM

Guys, thank you so much for your wonderful responses to the start of our name journey (two posts ago) Thankfully you’ve all hit the nail on the head with our boy choice. He’s totally going to be an Alistair and we’ve now got plenty to think about with middle names. (zoerhenne – you actually suggested my husband’s name as another boy option!)

We won’t be finding out the sex before the baby arrives so I can already predict long discussions to get the girl list down to two or three to take to the hospital!

I think it’s interesting how the familiar sounds make a name sound good, but then it could also saddle the child for life. Polly was my granny’s name and I’d love to honour her, but I think I know that it’s not a good idea. Maybe as a middle name?

PennyX - Grey, Grey, Grey! Totally would not have thought this would be my style but yet I adore it! It fits so well into the name and really adds to it.

January 16, 2012 7:03 PM

@NJ - I love Alistair :) Great choice. Keep us updated with how your girl picks are going!

By Guesty (not verified)
January 16, 2012 10:13 PM

I knew a Tenaj (girl), named after her mama Janet. I thought it was weird at first, but it grew on me, and she rocked it well.

By Mother of Benjamin (not verified)
January 17, 2012 3:58 AM

I am not a fan of wordplay names, but I do kind of like Beyonce going for Ivy = IV or 4. Luckily for her, it's a lovely name!
Just saw that someone commented that the name Corinne is too hard to pronounce. What am I missing? I know 2 Corinnes and it seems like a really simple, easy name to say!

January 17, 2012 7:52 AM

Mother of Benjamin-I would tend to agree about Corinne. I think it is a great name. I'm guessing that some may pronounce it, mistakenly, as something with a "long I" sound to match Caroline maybe if it is spelled as Corine. It also could end up with the accent on the first syl as Core-in rather than more of a Co-rin.

January 17, 2012 8:42 AM

I have heard Corinne pronounced both Coreen and Co-rin.

January 17, 2012 10:39 AM

I can't imagine Corinne pronounced any way other than core-IN. Seems pretty easy.

Ok, as of right now, I think we're leaning towards Xavier Camille and Ursula Mireille. Less because they're the best aesthetically, but in that case both middle names would be significant family names. Camille for dh's honored relative, and Mireille as a name related to mine. Who knows how many times it'll shift before we need names, though...or if we have 2 girls or 2 boys...

By Joni
January 17, 2012 2:24 PM

I've heard that name Amron named for her grandmother Norma. This was a few years ago. Now it reminds me of the arabic name Imran. Any of these is far and away better than Abcde.

By Essy01 nli (not verified)
January 17, 2012 2:50 PM

RE: Corinne - I would pronounce this like Maureen, I know someone named Lorrine pronounced Laur-een. (like Laurie+Colleen) - I didn't even think to pronounce it cor-IN until someone mentioned it. I can see how it could be pronounced that way but it definitely isn't my first reaction.

By mk
January 17, 2012 4:02 PM

Mother of Benjamin: I've known several Corinnes over the years and they were all Cor-IN. However, the French pronunciation is cor-EEN, so there are language/regional differences. But generally I would assume the -in for Corinne and -een if the spelling was Corine/Corrine.

By hyz nli (not verified)
January 17, 2012 4:51 PM

I was also puzzled at how Corinne would be hard to say/spell--I've only ever heard it as cor-IN. I think it's a lovely, underused name. FWIW, the only Corinne I ever knew personally was British, and her daughter was Jocelyn, another name on your list. I thought that was funny when I noticed it.

NJ--yay for Alistair!!

Penny X, I really like that pair of names. They go well together, and they both seem rather romantic and sophisticated. Thumbs up from me--now good luck!!

By cabo (not verified)
January 17, 2012 9:22 PM

@nameless Eliza sounds wonderful with Ivy. I think first names ending in -a sound lovely with your last name. Agree with your instinct to avoid double plant names (Willow, Laurel) and agree that Rosalind doesn't fall in that category. My favorites from your updated list are Eliza, Evangeline, Rosalind, and Vivienne. I will also toss in my suggestion of Genevieve given the style of your list.

January 17, 2012 11:45 PM

Re Corrine: I had a friend in school named Kor3n. It was pronounced like Core-in which is sort of like Karen but with an "or" sound. It's pretty to me and I prefer that over the -een sound. I love the spelling of Corrine. Also, I just remembered that there is a movie and 50's song entitled Corrina, Corrina with the -een sound.

By Nameless (not verified)
January 18, 2012 9:45 AM

Re Corinne: At least where I live, I know it would be mispronounced and misspelled. I've never met a Corinne and when I showed my list to a couple people, 3 out of 4 mispronounced it on the first try. They would say COR-in or COR-eye-n. Also, with the single R and double Ns, it doesn't follow normal patterns. So at least for me, I'll have to rule it out as not worth the trouble for my future daughter.

By Mother of Benjamin (not verified)
January 18, 2012 4:23 PM

I understand the confusion over Corinne now! Where I live, it is pronounced Cor-een, but I can see how it could be Cor-in too. Speaking of questionable pronunciations, excuse my ignorance but how do you pronounce Viola? Vy-ola or Vee-ola? I am assuming Vee-ola like the instrument? I love the look of this name but I have never met a Viola in real life, so am not totally sure of the pronunciation!

By Essy01 nli (not verified)
January 18, 2012 6:01 PM

Mother of Benjamin: RE: Viola: it can be pronounced either way you suggested, the instrument as well can be pronounced either way, so it just depends on how you first learned to pronounce it. I pronounce it Vy-ola.

By Nameless (not verified)
January 18, 2012 10:13 PM

Interesting that one of my choices I hadn't considered pronunciation being questionable on, Viola, turns out to be not so clear cut! I pronounce it vy-O-la more like Violet or violin (at least how I pronounce those!)

Another note: Evangeline, even though I love it, has been removed from the running. All my husband can associate with it is "evangelize" and he doesn't want that to be our daughter's name, which I can understand. :(

By Essy01 nli (not verified)
January 19, 2012 12:29 AM

Nameless - this might help or harm how you and your husband see the name but perhaps show him a pic of Evangeline Lily? That might change his mind about the name good or bad. Definitely get it hubby's concern though he makes a good point

January 22, 2012 2:30 AM

In other news, the wife of Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, Harvest Gionta, was on the radio giving an interview about the team wives' newest charity initiative and the interviewer couldn't help but ask about her name.

What she said was that all of her older siblings had names beginning with "H" and that she was born around Halloween so her parents wanted to give her a name that tied in with the season.

She also said that she didn't like her name when she was younger, but that she appreciates it now that she's older because, "when she was a kid, everyone had 'normal' names but now it's become popular to have really different names so..."

By Sylviesmom (not verified)
January 25, 2012 12:46 PM

Hi all,

Could I get some help with a name that goes well with my daughter Sylvie? I've read the BNW book and like the suggestion of "Iris," but that's about it and it doesn't feel perfect to me for some reason. The others don't feel quite right. I'm hoping to have a French vibe, nothing overly popular, and I do like the nature/botanical names that are current now (but am not married to the idea - I just like how they go with Sylvie). I'm having SUCH a hard time finding something perfect. New baby is a girl, btw. Thank you!

By SunnyT (not verified)
January 25, 2012 5:08 PM

Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, is an epic poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published in 1847. The poem follows an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel, set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians.

The idea for the poem came from Longfellow's friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow used dactylic hexameter, imitated from Greek and Latin classics, though the choice was criticized. It was published in 1847 and became Longfellow's most famous work in his lifetime. It remains one of his most popular and enduring works.

The poem had a powerful effect in defining both Acadian history and identity in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

By nicole a. (not verified)
January 25, 2012 5:24 PM

i see alot of abrievations that i am not sure what they mean. what is DH? also. i am looking for musical names.. other than harmony and lyric please.... my daugthers name is kaydence (form of cadence) which means rhythym... i am interested in international names as well that mean song, sing, dance, musical... you catch my drift. the names doesnt have to mean musical.. but i would like to keep in the music family... (e.i) kianna means singers .... (my husband doesnt like it tho bc he knows ppl will call her kiki.. ) anything will help , thanks!

By Guest1638b (not verified)
January 25, 2012 5:51 PM

I love Evangeline Ivy. Gorgeous! I also like Evangeline and Quinton together, as well as Quinn and Evie, though the combo of Evie and Ivy, not as much, though I love it as the nickname. I can see where you are struggling. I know this was posted forever ago, but had to say, love Evangeline, sounds so gorgeous. Good luck and congrats!

January 26, 2012 1:02 AM

Nicole A. - DH stands for "dear husband". Similarly, DD is "dear daughter". Are there other abbreviations that you don't understand?

As for your other question, off the top of my head I can think of:

Melody (or Mélodie if you prefer the French)
Shir (song/poem in Hebrew); Shiri ("my song"); Shira (poetry/singing)
Rena/Rina ("REE-nah" - melody/song/joy in Hebrew)
Sonata (that may be pushing it)
Lydian (a type of scale)

Edit: I also just thought of Zamira. (Now, I think that this means something along the lines of Song of Praise, as well as "good singing voice" because the word Zamir means "nightingale/songbird" in Hebrew. If any of that isn't accurate, someone please correct me.)

We are talking about girls' names, right?

By JHD (not verified)
January 26, 2012 8:03 AM

For what it's worth, a Filipino professional basketball player is named OLSEN. He was born on All Saints Day. His brother is NASH, born on National Heroes' Day.

Yes, Jejomar (from Jesus, Joseph, Mary) is Jejomar Binay, the Vice President of the Philippines.

By juicy couture diaper bag (not verified)
February 6, 2012 3:14 AM

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By GuestA (not verified)
February 24, 2012 12:28 AM

I read a novel where a minor character was named Ryma--her mother named her after her grandmother Mary but promised to make the name nice and different.

By Juicy Couture outlet (not verified)
March 21, 2012 1:55 AM

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By ErinKaye (not verified)
May 21, 2012 9:38 AM

I too really like Lauren Ivy.  I think it flows very well.


I love the names that my dh and I gave our children.

James "Harrison" and Lauren Emmalee.

My mom and grandmother are both Emma.  My grandmother cannot stand the name Emma because it is such an "old" name, but one of my younger cousins just named his daughter Emma after her. 

By adelonay (not verified)
June 4, 2012 5:34 AM

My daughters name is Nadalee (Natalie but with a "D" sound instead of "T") her father came up with it by putting together our initials using my madien LN and we added a extra "E" at the end so people wouldnt pronounce it naDALE. NAD is her fathers intials and ALE are my intinals. I choose her middle name of Malynn from a character in  one of my favorite movies Steel Magnolias, which would have been her first name had her father not come up with the brilliant idea of putting together our initials. So that is the story of how my daughter became Nadalee Malynn DeLonay. Pronounced- Nad-a-lee Ma-lynn De-lo-nay. Which in my opinion is the greatest sounding name with a very special meaning :)

By 2cents (not verified)
June 19, 2012 11:05 AM

@SylviesMom-I love the name Sylvie and the botanical connection.  Laurel, Lorelei, Linden, Willow, Rowan, Acacia, Ashlynn, Ashley...all have 'roots' to trees in one way or another.


I know this because while naming our oldest daughter, we had a name picked out until 2 weeks before her delivery, that wouldn't work once it was 'stolen' by a "friend"...she was three days old before she got her name of Rowan DeAnn.  (DH name is Joshua-another type of tree.)  Our second daughter is named Linden Ayda, so both are named after DH!

By Jenna Halase (not verified)
July 9, 2012 6:18 AM

Raelyn (Ray Lynn)  Ivy 

By June Polo (not verified)
July 19, 2012 6:27 AM

I didn't know we were being trendy...My daughter's initials are VIP. We chose traditional old fashioned names, but we wanted to have something special... The problem now is what to name the next kid LOL

November 21, 2013 7:44 AM

When "heaven backwards" first raced up the name popularity charts, it was just an individual name -- a fresh idea with a smoothly feminine sound,

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