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The Name Game

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At a time when we seem to be surrounded by sameness, some parents want their children to stand out. This quest for individuality is fueling a radical evolution in baby names.

See if you get a clue about how you got your own name, or maybe you'll start thinking of changing it to something new.

When Old is New

"Strong towers decay, but a great name shall never pass away." -Park Benjamin, American Journalist (1809-64)

In search of fresh, new names, some of today's parents are searching through history for monikers, leading to a surge of interest in "antique" varieties. An "antique" goes back to at least your great-grandparents' generation. Sophia, Sebastian, and Oliver are currently popular antique names. Ancestral surnames—especially those of maternal forebears—are also making a comeback.

Recycling the names of prior generations is not new. Euro-American folk traditions suggest that attaching a family name conveys magical strength and power. The hope is that the child will develop the admirable qualities of the name he bears. Laplanders set even higher expectations: They believe that the deceased ancestor will provide earthly assistance to the one who bears his name.

There is old, and then there is ancient. In the first Book of Samuel, penned in about 500 B.C., it is written: "as his name is, so is he." That philosophy has inspired some people to change their names and so confuse evil spirits.

The Old Testament has long been a wellspring of name ideas for parents of sons, with Joshua being one of the most often chosen for years—bested only by Jacob and Michael. More recently, Noah, Caleb, and Zachary have found favor. Biblical girls' names currently in vogue include Hannah and Abigail.

Nix to Nicknames

"Nicknames stick to people, and the most ridiculous are the most adhesive." -Thomas C. Haliburton, Canadian writer (1796-1865)

A few decades ago, almost everyone had two names: a formal, given name and an abbreviated version of that—a nickname. For example, Andrew was altered to Andy, Thomas turned into Tom or Tommy, and Margaret reemerged as Marge, Margo, or Peg. Even plain Jane blossomed into the more lyrical Janie.

Today, nicknames are for naught as many parents search for names that cannot be shortened. Even those who choose a name with a traditional nickname are not using that nickname anymore.

A Return to Roots

"Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American writer (1809-94)

The melting pot of multicultural influences has long dictated naming patterns in North America. Immigrant families in the 1950s and '60s gave their children more assimilated and American names. If an Italian grandmother's name was Elisabeta, the parents might have chosen Betsy for their daughter.

Now, trends are moving in the opposite direction. Parents who like the name Elizabeth may instead choose a more ethnic version, like Elisabeta. Irish-American parents might celebrate their heritage by naming their son O'brien.

Almost Famous

"What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous." -Voltaire, French writer (1694-1778)

Although the entertainment media are often credited with making a name trendy, the name itself must both be "new" and fit in with the fashionable sounds of the times.

In some immigrant circles, the naming conventions mimic the American celebrity culture, but with native names. For example, some Indian parents are naming sons Arjun and daughters Shreya, after Bollywood film personalities. In areas of North America with large Spanish-speaking populations, classic Spanish boys' names such as Jose, Juan, and Angel rank near the top. Names from the entertainment world trump tradition, however, among Spanish-speaking parents of girls. Yesenia, a character on two popular telenovelas, and Shakira, a Colombian singer, are among those popular.

Soundalikes

"I don't care what the papers say about me, as long as they spell my name right." -attributed to "Big Tim" Sullivan, American politician (1862-1913)

Every once in a while, you hear of a family in which all of the children's names begin with the same letter. Call it cute, clever, or even corny, but it's also fairly common. Naming trends tend to follow the letter fashions of their day.

In the 1980s, "j" names like Jason and Jennifer were very popular, while "k" names like Kyle and Kayla were big in the '90s. Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Roger "Rocket" Clemens gave his four children names that start with "k": Koby, Kory, Kacy, and Kody.

Olympic gold medalist and two-time heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman may have taken the soundalike concept to an extreme when he named all five of his sons George. Foreman says he "kept it simple" so he wouldn't forget his kids' names.

Currently, there is an emphasis on names that begin or end with vowels. Therefore, we'll see more Emmas, Isabellas, Ethans, and Owens, just to start. Endings with a long "o" sound are also coming to the fore. Italian names like Leo and Enzo are of interest in the general population. If this continues, Hispanic names like Mateo and Julio may end up crossing over to other ethnic groups.

The Invention Convention

"What a deal of talking there would be in the world if we desired at all costs to change the names of things into definitions." -Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, German physicist and writer (1742-99)

In African-American communities and, to a lesser extent, Mormon communities, there has been a long-standing tradition of inventing names and creating new spellings for familiar names. Popular invented African-American names include DeJuan, DeVonte, DeMario, Tyrese, and Jamarion for boys, and Lakeisha, LaToya, Shanika, and Tanish for girls.

Some Mormon parents have adapted the blended-family concept to names. According to Cari Bilyeu Clark, co-creator of the Utah Baby Namer Web site, it's a common Mormon practice to combine two or more names into one, such as using Truman and Ann to make Truann; to insert a French-sounding prefix or suffix, such as LaDawn or Dorette; or to add the ending "en" to a familiar name to make Braden, for example. Creative spellings for conventional names, such as Kaytlan for Caitlin, are also common.

This shift toward originality in naming is still in its nascent stage but seems to be growing. The mentality among white Americans that they must "find" a name somewhere for it to be legitimate may be changing, as parents choose to mix and match endings with new names. So get creative!

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