In some misplaced race to be different, American parents are creating more and more new names – either by inventing them from thin air or by greatly altering the spellings of tradition names.
This practice in and of itself could be considered a very modern (mainly American) naming trend; and one which is showing no signs of ending.
All I can ask is how much is too much? When does more become less? The number of baby girl names in circulation has increased by 771% since 1900. For boys, that number is 839%. When will our modern creative naming practices backfire on us? When is being too unique not a good thing? We truly respect the individual rights of parents to name their child whatever they choose. It just seems this trend to be unique has gotten out of control. Not to mention the term "unique trend" is an oxymoron. Being unique now means being like everybody else. Oh the irony!
Made up names and creative respellings are looked upon with a fair amount of derision in certain corners. I have to come clean: many of these names prompt a little eye-rolling from me, too. Yet in many circles, such names are considered super cool. Like, totally dif’rant and yooneek. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and tastes, right? That’s a philosophical belief by which I try and live. So…I thought I’d tackle at this subject from an entirely different quasi-scientific perspective. You know, the politically-correct kind. People are so easily offended these days. And the name of one’s child is an immensely personal choice.
Now that there are almost 20,000 baby girl names in circulation and 15,000 baby boy names, I started to think: how many names can we actually absorb and commit to memory – just as regular human beings? And if there’s a limit to this notion, then which names are we most likely to forget? What capacity do we have to remember non-conventional names in general?
It is difficult to ascertain exactly how many words we already have at our disposal in the English language. Words have more than one meaning (e.g., the noun “bear” vs. the verb “bear”). There are about 170,000 top-level entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Expanding that number to include several meanings per word, obsolete words, words from other languages which have become part of the English lexicon, and slang terms – that number is likely closer to half a million. However, the typical person only uses 5,000 words (usage vs. understanding). The average adult understands at least 50,000 words (super smart people with large vocabularies may understand 300,000+ words but still only use 30,000 of them in regular speech). There seems to be a general rule that English-speaking adults use about 10% of the words they actually understand. So if I use 10,000 words in my general verbal communication, then I probably truly understand the definitions of 100,000 words in the English language. And I like to think of myself as “pretty smart”. Not genius, but well-educated and well-spoken.
The human brain is unique in its ability to absorb, contextualize, retain and recall information. This information includes the names of people we meet. Yet for some odd reason, peoples’ names are one of the hardest things for us to remember. In fact, some people attend occupational seminars just to learn how to remember names. Why is this? We are visual animals, so we tend to remember what a person looks like rather than what they are named (unless we actively contextualize the name with the visual memory of that person). Not to mention the visual aspect of memory is stored in an entirely different section of the brain than the name aspect.
Many “memory” scientists believe that our capacity for memory is actually limitless. Everything we learn is stored somewhere in that mysterious organ called the brain. It’s the ability to recall that stored information that’s really the challenge. We subconsciously yet efficiently store the information we learn based on easiest recall. So that which is distracting, nonsensical and/or unfamiliar is more easily forgotten in order to free up brain-space for the information that we are more likely to recall. How we store information is how we effectively recollect it. The buried memories become harder to access whereas the familiar and rehearsed memories enjoy quicker recall. For instance, we’ve all rehearsed the name John in our minds – one of the most common masculine names in the Western World. Same goes for Mary. The recall is immediate. It’s natural. Our ability to retrieve common, traditional names is inherent because we have been practicing and rehearsing them throughout our lives.
There are probably about 2,000 male and female names (each) we have the ability to quickly recall – having been exposed to them regularly through history lessons and real life. We hear the name Kennedy and we think of the Irish surname borne by a former U.S. President. But we see the name Kenadee and we think, WTF? It sounds like a duck….but it doesn’t walk like a duck. Is it a duck? Kenadee requires us to give up more brain-space in order to accommodate her different spelling, but guess what? We’re not likely to bother with the extra effort. Kenadee is on her own. It’s her that will go through life repeating the following phrase: “My name is Kenadee. No, not Kennedy. Kenadee. Spelled K-E-N-A-D-E-E.” The person on the receiving end is more apt to quickly forget her name (due to the required extra work), or, worse, be annoyed (and remember her in a negative way). Hopefully it’s not a future perspective employer deciding upon her ability to make a living.
Ironically we think our children will stand out with a more unique name – and in many cases this is true. I had a friend in college named Eurydice (u-RID-ә-see). Weird name, but I never forgot it after learning the Greek mythological story behind Orpheus and Eurydice. The name was so different, but it was meaningful; from this perspective I thought it was such a cool name. Many of the made up names and altered spellings today feel so arbitrary and, I dare say, a little goofy. Nonsensical. And the human brain isn’t programmed to retain/recall the nonsensical. You may want your child to stand out, but he/she is more likely to be forgotten.
Just something to think about.
A perspective by Julie Hackett, Onomastics Consultant and owner/author of OhBabyNames.com
Disclaimer: I understand this is a highly complex and controversial subject, and I only speak in general terms. There are always exceptions to every rule. But if you’ve studied names as long as I have, and you see so many arbitrary respellings (e.g., Hailey, Hailee, Haleigh, Haley, Haylee, Hayleigh, Hayley, Haylie, etc. etc.) you would start to wonder “What’s the point?”, too. Trust me. I know I’m not alone in this opinion.