Fear of Short Names?

Sep 13th 2012

Formality is the fashion in American male names. I know boys named Thomas, but no young Toms; boys named Philip, but no young Phils. Lately, that avoidance of shortened names has jumped the fence, entering the world of short names.

The most common examples are the "just add n" names. These are names like Brycen and Colton, often chosen with the intention of calling the boys Bryce and Colt. Those one-syllable names are perfectly complete in themselves, but a lot of parents are skittish about printing a single syllable on the birth certificate so they add the beloved -n ending for a "formal" version.

The lengthening impulse is now getting bolder. The first step was surnames. Parents who wanted a little Finn turned Finnegan into a first name. Quinlan, Callahan and many more are following in...um, Finnegan's wake. (Look, it just happened, ok?)

Now consider the name Leviticus. The third book of Moses isn't traditionally a baby name, but it's starting to become one in the U.S. today. The popularity of the boy's name Leviticus has risen by 250% in the past decade. In part, that reflects a trend toward adoption of biblical words as names (Messiah, Genesis, etc.). But I don't think it's any coincidence that the sharp rise in Leviticus mirrors a sharp rise in the classic Bible name Levi -- up 300% in the same time period. Clocking in at just four little letters, Levi felt too lightweight for some parents, so they extended it.

Not convinced by that evidence? Try the name Leviathan. It's hard to imagine religious inspiration behind naming your son for the beast described in the Book of Isaiah as the twisted serpent to be killed at the end of time, and in Psalms as the monster whose heads were crushed by God and fed to the creatures of the wilderness. Isn't it more likely that the parents who have chosen the name in recent years -- 19 of them in 2011 -- thought of Leviathan as a formal source for Levi, much as Jonathan is for Jon? (Honestly, it does sound pretty cool.)

I understand the appeal of a name with formal and informal variations. Introducing yourself as Alexander makes a different impression from Alex, which in turn differs from Xander, Sasha or Sandy. If you adore the name Finnegan -- or Leviathan -- but like the idea of Finn or Levi for everyday use, more power to you. But don't let the brevity of Finn and Levi trick you into thinking they're not full, substantial names. In fact, it's those trim originals that are the true classics.


September 13, 2012 5:53 PM

Is this happening on the girls' side as well? Thanks, as always, for the great insights!

September 13, 2012 7:57 PM

I'm still chuckling about "following in Finnegan's wake"!

The trend rings true to me, based on questions and comments in baby name forums. I wonder if it's at least partly an (over-)reaction to the British-style Alfie etc.?

I must admit to a personal preference for full, "proper" names on the birth certificate, but my distaste for surnames-as-given-names and for invented names makes me unlikely to follow this trend. I hope.

(Leviathan? Really?)

September 13, 2012 8:06 PM

I can't think of any examples as spectacular as Laura found for the boys, but the lengthening tendency may be at least partly to blame for things like Addison (Addy) and Elliott (Elly) as girl's names. There's also Evangeline instead of Eve or Eva, Annabelle instead of Ann, Emmeline instead of Emma, and so on.

By Tana
September 13, 2012 8:22 PM

This is off topic, but I'm not sure were to post it.  Most of the pages of the site haven't been displaying properly for me since the new post went up.  It looks like the CSS/Javascript that does most of the formatting is being ignored, and my browser is using raw HTML. 

Is anyone else having the same problem? It happens in Firefox and Chrome, but doesn't seem to happen in Internet Explorer 8.  I haven't noticed it on any other websites.

September 13, 2012 10:16 PM

I know that personally, I'm going to stay clear of one-syllable and very short first names because with a four letter, one-syllable last name, it simply sounds too clipped and looks too short. I like a name to have *some* flow. However, I am also certain that I will never make up a name to achieve the longer sound. Furthermore, I'm not generally drawn to the short names so I don't feel the need to lengthen the names that I do like.

(Nope, no problems in my Firefox, Tana.)

September 14, 2012 1:13 AM

We went with short 5/6 letter names, mostly because of our overly long surname.  Athough, 3 out of the 4 have names that easily lend themselves to even shorter nicknames: Kat, Mae, Pete.  I love the idea of Georgiana called Gigi or Theophilus called Theo... but then I think, I'm not the one that has to live with that "Benedict Cumberbatchy" name.

Recent local births have included Zacharias, Augustus and Dominico, but those are still outliers and most of the boys still have 2 syllable names.

Tana- I'm also having problems with the site in firefox.

September 14, 2012 5:05 AM

Great post!

I've definitely noticed this trend. I know Finlays only called Finn, Benjamins only called Ben and Elijahs only called Eli. I think the parents wanted a longer name on the birth certificate but don't ever seem to use the full name.  

On the other hand there are plenty of kids in my circles that only go by their full names: Alexander never Alex, Thomas never Tom etc.  

With a 1 syllable surname I would never pick a short first name for flow but I don't see anything wrong with them.

I also agree that both Leviticus and Leviathan are pretty, um interesting!

September 14, 2012 5:09 PM

Tana, I'm also having that problem occasionally, in the past few days.  I'm using Safari.

September 15, 2012 8:24 AM

I'm having problems with the site as well.  It's odd because if I click "deep" enough everything looks normal again.

Other examples of this trend that I've noticed Lucus instead of Luke. Jackson istead of Jack/John.  Marcus instead of Mark. 

Seems like this is the reverse of the British trend of putting nicknames on birth certificates.

September 15, 2012 11:43 AM

Another Laura, I'm having exactly the same problem.  I'm using Internet Explorer.

One thing that irritates me is that some people think Eli is simply a nickname for Elijah.  Um, no, Eli is a name on its own, thousands of years old.  Similarly Dan and Nathan also have ancient roots and are not necessarily nicknames for Daniel and Nathaniel.

September 15, 2012 12:21 PM

It also seems to be happening on the girls' side. I'm part of an online naming board where lots of people dismiss Lucy, Sophie and Lily (for example) as mere nicknames and look for ways to lengthen them. Same for Nora and Anna. Although those names seem to be more accepted on their own in that community, there are also plenty of people who use Eleanor and Annabel/Anneliese/etc. as a way to get those as nicknames.

By Tana
September 15, 2012 9:13 PM

Huh.  Just as suddenly as they appeared, the problems that I was having viewing the site have resolved themselves.  I hope that's true for everyone else as well!

September 15, 2012 10:12 PM

No I'm using Internet Explorer and the problems still exist.  I always get my hopes up when there are problems like these that they are working on some improvement...

September 16, 2012 12:19 AM

I know Finnians, Finnegans, Phinneases, Griffins and, oh gosh, I know I'm missing something. Oh! A "just Fin" (one N) but he named himself in adulthood. This is definitely a major phenomenon from where I stand... and it leads to the popularity of some names being grossly underestimated by the SSA stats because  Finn only accounts for a tiny fraction of what's on the birth certificates of the many little Finns I know.

I think many of the surnames being used as girl names are with primarily the intent to use the nickname, but nothing quite as clear-cut as Leviathan or Leviticus has come my way. That one is interesting especially  because I say Leh-VYE-ah-thun or Leh-VIH-tih-cus, which is both an emphasis and a different vowel sound from LEE-vye. Not that nicknames can't change up the sounds or emphasis, but it's not like they're the most straightforward truncations.

I am seriously STUNNED that there were 53 little Leviticuses born last year, (and 19 Leviathans). I would have thought that they were very extreme but rare examples of a larger trend, but was sure they'd be itsy bitsy fringe phenomena, but no!

It might just be that I am exposed to a particularly monotonous and frequent quoting from Leviticus, but to me the absolute immediate first association in my mind when I hear Leviticus is its judgement of same-sex relationships... which would make it a challenging name to bear at least in some circles. Leviathan, on the other hand, makes me think of Hobbes, so it does have a more intellectual sort of ring to it... and its "sea monster" useage makes me think that it might be sort of a sibling name for, say, Gryphon. (Maybe their sister could be Seraphine?)

September 16, 2012 11:04 AM

I'm also having the technical difficulties with the site.


I think it's an interesting trend to want the nickname but have a just in case full version. I know a baby Indigo who is only ever called Indie.

September 16, 2012 12:23 PM

No firefox problems for me, but major issues when I try to access the site on my iphone (which I used to do all the time).

September 16, 2012 11:55 PM

Some pages also load weird like that for me. I'm using Safari on a Mac.

September 17, 2012 9:36 AM

My son's name is Clay, and I often get asked if it is short for Clayton. (It isn't. It is a family name.) I have never really liked nicknames anyway, so if we have more kids, I will attempt to give them names without much nickname potential.

September 17, 2012 2:10 PM

I wonder if this started first on the girls' side? Jenny and Jessie were traditional nicknames for Jane/Janet/Joanne that were given as full names like Molly and Sally for a long time, but suddenly in the 20th century parents went to Jennifer and Jessica as 'full names' for Jenny and Jess. Juniper hit the top 1000 this past year, and I'll bet it was pushed, at least in part, by the need for a 'formal' version of June.

I've also noticed that people think a nickname has to be there, as-is, in the name to be valid-- hence all the Addysons and Maddysons; the Jaxons 'so we can call him Jax' and the Izabellas 'so we can call her Izzy' (huh?). 

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, other than you'd think that with name cycles we'd be back to Anne and Helen, and while people like Annie and Nell, we have Annabelle and Eleanor (and Penelope) instead, and the need for a 'formal' name that's longer than the nickname seems to be more entrenched and spreading to the boys, rather than easing off.

As for Britain-- It's true that there are many, many more nickname-names on the popularity lists than there are in the US, but Eleanor, Annabelle, and Francesca are still far, far more popular than Helen/Ellen, Anne, and Frances.


September 19, 2012 1:00 PM

This might explain why people always seem to think that my son's name is a nickname, when it is in fact a traditional full name. His name? Luke!

I introduce him as Luke, and people start calling him Lucas, as if all Lukes are short for Lucas! It baffles me.

September 19, 2012 1:13 PM

"I know that personally, I'm going to stay clear of one-syllable and very short first names because with a four letter, one-syllable last name, it simply sounds too clipped and looks too short. I like a name to have *some* flow. "

We have the problem of too much flow. We gave our kids four names: Given first name, given middle name, spouse last name, spouse last name. My last name is three syllables and my husband's two. So that's quite a mouthful all on its own. Then, the kids have both a Hebrew and a Yiddish name on top of that, not on their birth certificate, but they're still their additional names. So my eldest is Rose Sarah Shoshana Bluma [two-syllable] [three syllable]. You can see why we went with the "clipped" Rose, rather than, say, Tatiana.



September 19, 2012 1:15 PM

We named our son Milo "Miles" on his birth certificate. I think there was some waffle-y thought in our heads about the gravitas of a name like Milo for our someday-in-the-future-adult son.

Conversely, when we named our daughter, Zel, we opted to avoid the two source names we'd been thinking of (Hazel and Zelda) for the same reason - aka some vague concept of gravitas for our someday-adult daughter.

September 21, 2012 9:40 PM

People would constantly ask me when my little guy was born what his "real" name was.  Jack.  It's JUST Jack.  It fits him and why wouldn't we name him the name we love?!

September 22, 2012 8:28 AM

I'm a currently pregnant name-nerd, and many of my favorites are short. Nina, Laura, Eve, Ann, Kara, Jane. But my husband only seems to like girls' names with three or more syllables, though he admits they're a mouthful for every day use. More elegant, more feminine, more exotic and sophisticated, he thinks. So we probably will be an example of this trend -- we'll pick one of his three or four syllable names for the birth certificate, and one of my one or two syllable names with some similar sounds as a "nickname," though really it would probably be a perfectly good independent name in its own right. 

But that is one of the other things this trend has going for it. By giving a formal name and a nickname, you make it easier for parents who have very different tastes to compromise. (That's why middle names exist at all, right?)

September 22, 2012 9:49 PM

@ mks mary: By giving a formal name and a nickname, you make it easier for parents who have very different tastes to compromise.

That's exactly what happened when my daughter and her husband named their baby girl five years ago. Daughter really liked Anna, but husband liked longer names. Their solution: Miranda called "Mira". Both parents loved their version of the name. And lucky Mira/Miranda has two versions of her name to choose from as she's growing up and into adulthood.


September 24, 2012 1:16 PM

I just started a new job at a local branch library...and met a Leviticus. Not a long version for Levi. Called Leviticus by his middle-aged, fairly hippy-ish mother (she asked me if we had any books by a favourite guru; that and the, ah, distinct miasma of hemp products on her handknit sweater-jacket are my reasons for using the term).

This is why I love names...just when you think you have things sussed out, a curveball like an 8-year-old Leviticus, son of a 40ish Canadian suburban (hippy-suburban, but this library is in the centre of archetypical SW Ontario rapid growth suburbia) mom, proves that nothing's predictable when it comes to names. I'm still astonished both by the name and the timing.

I almost had to cover my mouth to prevent myself from asking why she chose that name. Still intensely curious.

October 8, 2012 8:36 PM

Oddly I JUST tweeted you about the name Beth. It's a conundrum that I just can't figure out. Beth is one of those names that just always seemed around. But then I realized, even though I see Beths on TV all the time, I've never actually met one. So I did some digging.

Beth peaked at 65 a couple times in the 60s with over 6000 babies. In 2011 there were only 48 girls named Beth, putting it in the same as names like the "a bit too out there" Karizma and the hopelessly dated Glenda. 

I just can't figure it out. An easy answer would be this one, that people are choosing longer forms like Elizabeth and Bethany. But then I checked the popularity for other Elizabeth nicknames. I chose to exclude names that have become stand-alones like Eliza and Lisa. Betty, Libby and Betsy all have way higher numbers than Beth. Even Liz and Lizzie have an edge. The only nicknames doing worse are Bess and Bessie.

I also decided to look up other names that I consider exclusively nicknames. Some like Maggie and Kate are extremely popular. Others like Kathy and Nikki aren't popular, but still hold an edge over Beth. 

And so I give up. I just can't figure it out. Even the character on Glee didn't give it any push. So I am defering to the expert. Any theories?

October 9, 2012 4:31 AM

I'd say that Leviathan has caught on a bit due to the show Supernatural.

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