Saturday, February 26, 2011

An attempt at systematizing the way in which increasing numbers of North Americans name their children

Different cultures use different strategies for naming their kids. I've always found these fascinating.

Some Mediterranean traditions dictate that the firstborn son must be named after his grandfather, and the secondborn after his father. Many Venezuelans split and combine the names of mother and father to create completely novel mashup names, so that my friends Harley and Lorna might name their child "Harla." In Colombia, at least as I've been told, every woman has the first name Maria, and they all go by their middle names.

Overall, though, in the modern western world, what we've done is to use the names of ancient warriors, poets, and religious figures, many of whom we can scarcely collectively remember, and cycle through these names semi-centennially with decades of hyper-elevated popularity.

And so we have our Jasons, unconsciously named for the argonaut, and our Elijahs, in unthinking honor of the prophet.

But during the past few years, I have been fascinated with the rise of a completely different paradigm of child-naming: simply combining sonorous syllables.

While I love to speculate about what this perhaps says about our culture breaking free of its cultural moorings and asserting the value of creativity over tradition, what interests me even more is that there seem to be some unspoken rules, or at least conventions, to the creation of new names, which people seem to have tacitly acceded to.

Among the children who I've recently seen come into this world bearing new-style names; Jayden, Layton, Gage, Keelee, and many others, each name seems to follow at least the majority of the following name-invention rules:
  1. The first syllable should be accented.
  2. The first syllable should be the "long A" sound (/eɪ/)
  3. Girls' names should have two syllables, and boys' names should have one(so that Jaycee is a girl's name, and Kade is a boy's)
  4. Established phonetic spelling patterns based on Greek and Latin influences which favor "ch" over "k", "en" over "yn", and "e" over "ee", are to be replaced with more Germanic patterns (so that even if a classical name is chosen, it is often with revised spelling, "Karen" becoming "Karyn", and so on)
  5. Certain initial consonants are to be preferred. Z and L are good. W is not.
There are probably a lot more conventions, and I figure that modelling these new trends in naming could very well be the topic of a fascinating dissertation. But armed only with my humble provisional observations, I think that I have now done a decent job of making an algorithm that produces good new-style baby names: try it out.

It's not perfect, but it's served up several names I've seen in the wild.

Now for the interesting question: decades from now, will invented names still be like the ones produced by my algorithm, or will the conventions have changed?

Perhaps in twenty years, some archeologist of the internet will discover this post, and apply these rules for fun and curiosity to the task of making "old sounding names."

  Buy me a coffee to support posts like this.

  (Or, you know, a house. If you're just like a bored billionaire or something.)


  1. Interesting. I just got "Haeryn" - which, of course, is a respelling of "Heron". I wonder if there's also a trend towards using less common names that are previously extant?

    (Also "Karen" and "Karyn", would, to me, sound different. Is that sound-shift something you've noticed?)

  2. Interesting, C'nor!

    Where are you from? In the places where I have lived (all in the US), both names would be said /'kærən/

  3. I'm also in the US.

    To my ear, though, the first would be "Care-en" and the second "Ka-rin", or something similar.