Playing Games With Names

Here’s another Off-Topic Tuesday post. Many years ago, my job at a publishing company required me to read 30,000 (no exaggeration) essays submitted by students in grades 3 through 8. Some of these kids possessed the most extraordinary first names, so I started collecting them. A longer version of this piece has been in my files since at least 2003. I suppose it might offend some parents amongst the readership, but that’s the way it goes.

There was a time when people tended to name their children from the same small pool. That pool started to grow with the mass media age. In the late 40s, for example, the name Linda surged in popularity thanks to a hit song by that name. In the 80s, Ashley and Jenna, the names of characters on the TV show Dallas, began to move up the baby-name hit parade.

Starting in the 90s, when we started growing used to an enormous smorgasbord of choice in everything, the pool of potential baby names began expanding to what are now infinite proportions. An added factor in the name game is our consumer society, where unique brand names are desperately important. And that could be why we find parents choosing a name for their kid like they were choosing a brand name for a product.

Sometimes, that means fidding with the spelling, as so many popular brands do. Take the girls’ names Brittany, Caitlin, Brianna (and its close cousin, Brianne), and Courtney. All of the following variations have been employed somewhere: Brittany, Britany, Britney, Brittney, Brittaney, Brittiny,  Britany, Britnee, Brittani, Brittni, Caitlin, Caitlyn, Katelyn, Kaitlyn, Katlin, Kaitlinn, Katelin, Kaitlynn, Brianna, Breana, Breanna, Briana, Brianda, Breaunna, Brianne, BreAnne, BreAnn, Breanne, Courtney, Courtnay, Courtnye, Kourtney, and Kortnee.

Perhaps you can see the pattern, which lots of other names are also susceptible to—replacing one letter with another that sometimes has the same sound, such as y to i or ee, or k to c, and adding or subtracting consonants such as n or t. Sometimes, this can end up all right, as in Toni or Jessi, but not all such changes are created equal. Emili and Ashli look like typographical errors, and Brittni is positively hideous. And ee variations, such as Kortnee, don’t sweeten the deal, either.

Boys get the creative spelling treatment less often than girls do, but it happens to them, too. As a collector of names, I once came across Tymme (for Tim, presumably), which is just cruel. Another increasingly common variation on a boy’s name is to spell Kyle with a C, making it “Cyle.” Now, the K in Kathy or Karen can be altered to a C without doing too much violence to good sense. But since you ride a bicycle and not a bi-kickle, it should be clear to you that Cyle would be pronounced “sile.” The C should be pronounced like the S in “silly” or “stupid.”

That leads us to another category of creative names—the ones given by parents who don’t know how to spell. This is how people end up named Micheal instead of Michael. Phonetic spellings are the likely explanation for Chastidy instead of Chastity, Kathirne instead of Katherine, and Dezmund instead of Desmond. At least you can understand what those parents were going for, though. It’s harder to fathom the process that turns Chastity into Chadisty (dyslexia, maybe?) or Jacqueline into Jaccalyinne.

(Jaccalyinne could have been worse. There’s no k or q in it, which is a mystery, since it has every other letter that remotely sounds like it might belong. In the end, little Jaccalyinne might just as well have been named Myparentsareclueless.)

One cultural group in particular is responsible for some of the most ridiculous names foisted upon children nowadays: upwardly mobile white people. First names such as Carrington, Bryson, Roisin, Dune, Gage, and Asbie conjure up visions of gated-community suburbanites for whom names such as Steven or Susan would be much too plebeian. Along similar lines, too much college (or too much Tolkien) could be probably responsible for names like Alyss, Rhian, and Kayerin, although the rage for creative spelling can’t be ruled out, either.

Parents sometimes say they choose such names because they want their kid to be unique amidst the flood of Emmas and Noahs at preschool. Or they want their kid to be “memorable” because they think it might help him later in life, somehow. That’s admirable, but naming a kid Bocephus or Juvent is likely to render him just unique enough to get the crap beaten out of him every day at school. Maybe it’s better to hope your kid’s accomplishments and personality make him memorable, instead of relying on the random Welsh noun you named him with.

One thing about the trend to more elaborate and creative names—if it keeps going at the current rate, the day will come when names like John and Mary, the most popular baby names for decades, will seem positively exotic. Or James. James is a really good name.

7 responses

  1. My wife and I took a baby-name book out of the library when we were expecting our first kid.
    We came up with the idea of taking the weirdest names in the book and captioning them with checkmarks, underlines, or “oooooh!”s.
    So whoever took the book out next would think the previous reader was some maniac who named their kid Sabbathday.

    Only our long-ingrained respect for library books (you *never* write in a library book) kept us from putting this plan into action.

  2. I taught school for over a decade, and then worked in a library for another (where I would see patron names when running their card). I kept a list for a while which was topped by Quavis.

  3. OTOH, I did try to convince my wife that our first daughter (Lindsay) should be named Lin-Z, so what do I know?

  4. During my reporting days, I frequently covered high school sports, and making sure I spelled the kids’ names correctly was a frequent problem.Back then, the spellings of boys’ names were not quite as exotic, although I certainly had to check those at the start of each season. But it was much harder with the girls: Teri, Terri, Terry or Terrie? And more than once, I’d print a story with a girl’s name as, say, “Lacey” only to have the coach tell me, “Oh, she spells her name ‘Laci’ now.” As to orthographically challenged parents, I’m not sure anything can top a tale I saw in the newspaper once about a woman who named her child “La—a ,” which of course would be pronounced “Ladasha.”

  5. There are plenty of interesting, underused names out there without resorting to putting the alphabet in a blender.

  6. I work in a hospital so we deal with names. A lot. As a word geek I’m fascinated by all the odd names these days (and in the old days). But really, if you put “Ricky” on your child’s birth certificate and he’s now 60 something, there’s a good chance he’ll be in the ER with a fight injury over the weekend. Not scientific…..

  7. […] one of the few pieces of fiction I’ve written that wasn’t terrible. A nonfiction piece, Playing Games With Names, seemed worthy of purchase by somebody, although no one would, so I gave it to you for […]

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