FAST-US-7 'Names' in U.S. Popular Culture
Spellbound by the New Names
Natalie Angier, New York Times
FAST-US-7 (TRENAK15) United States Popular Culture (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

Remember the old subway ads for stenography school? "If u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb" Let's play a variant on the task, and translate the following baby names into their conventional spellings. All were culled from recent state records, birth announcements and Web sites for parents: Jesyca, Traiscey, Aireol, Exevior, Imajine, Any, Kaytlinne.

The first few are a brieze. Jesyca and, Traiscey are obviously Jessica and Tracy. Aireol is Ariel, always a better name for a dryad than a child, but so be it. My guess is that Exevior is Xavier. My hope is that Imajine is Imogene, rather than a rendering of Imagine.

Edward Callary, a linguist at Northem Illinois University who found the Any example in a local newspaper, hazards that it is a variant on Annie, though it could instead be a novel, feminine form of Enni, the Scottish nickname for Angus. Last on our quiz, Kaytlinne is but a particularly chewy spelling of Caitlin, one of today's most popular and polymorphous girls' names, which also goes by Katelin, Katelynn, Caitlinn, Caitlynn, Caitland, Kaitlind . . . Do you want me to stop yet?

Variats on name spellings are nothing new, of course. It has long been perfectly acceptable to bisect Stephen with either a "ph" or "v," and to end the name eric with a "c," a "k" or both, if you must. When my husband and I decided two years ago to name our daughter Katherine, we discussed the pluses and minuses of the various spellings that we considered "legitimate," including Catherine, Katharine and Kathryn, What we didn't consider was inventing an entirely new spelling - like, say, Khathrhynne. And that's where our boomer-age fustiness peeks through.

These days, the practice of creative name spelling is exploding. It is an art form, an industry.

Names now mutate faster than Staphylococcus, and the trendier the name, the more aerobic the pace at which new strains arise. And so we see Brittany, Brittini, Britanee, Brytanni, and Aaron, Aron, Aren, Arryn. Yet even the staples of the'50s and'60s are subject to lexical whimsy. Susan becomes Suzin, Sharon becomes Scharron and Elizabeth edges closer to its phonetic truth in Alizabeth.

Not only don't parents necessarily care whether they get their baby's name spelled "right,: they often seek to get it wrong. In so doing, they hope to bestow a fillip of uniqueness on their child.

"Individuality is the issue," Mr. Callary says. "Parents try to give their kids a leg up by giving them a memorable name. At the same time, they don't want the name to be so different as to be ridiculous. Of course, some of these spellings are pretty ridiculous."

As a rule, girls' names are subject to a greater variance in spelling than are boys' names, and the names of white children are likely to be more conventionally rendered than those of black children. No group, however, is immune to the trend of perpetual reinvention. Combing through state records for white boys borm last year in Florida, Cleveland Kent Evans, an onomastician at Bellevue University in Nebraska, found 11 different ways to spell Cameron, 15 different ways to spell Caleb, and 18 ways to spell Jonathan.

Nouvelle spelling is part of a larger phenomenon of creative nomenclature generally. In this era of world music and global marketeering, parents feel free to trawl the planet for exotic names, never feeling a flicker of concem that it might sound pretentious to name their pale American children Assad, Elena or Natasha.

They invent names by merging parts of other names, as one contributor to a parents' website explained Jaylee: "My husband and I made it up by combining our names, Lisa and Jason."

Last names become first names: Parker, Cooper, Maguire. Place names become face names: Savannah, Richmond, Albany, Madison (or Madisen, Madyson, Maddison, Madisein).

"The percentage of children being given the Top 10 names has drastically. fallen in the last 15 to 20 years," says Evans. "Michael is the No. I name for boys today, as it has been for years and years. But 20 years ago, 16 percent of all boys were named Michael. Now it's down to 2 percent."

Yet it is one thing to concoct a name from scratch or to discover something melodious in an old Hungarian church ledger. It is another to simply vary the spelling of a name that will, when spoken, sound thuddingly familiar. "What difference does it make how you spell Brianna," says Evans, "if 17 kids come running when you yell it out on the playground? And that means you, Briana, Breanna, Briona, Breona and Breanne.

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Last Updated 27 April 2010