Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Names That Stand Out - First Letter

I was reflecting on what makes names stand out, or seem different, and if there are particular patterns that can be followed to consciously make a name stand out.

What I have begun with (if this will become a series, I don't seem to be especially good at keeping them up) is the idea of choosing an unusual first letter can elevate a more 'popular' name to standing out a little, and lower an unusual name if it begins with a popular letter.

When thinking about this, I was reminded of the experiment in Cambridge which found that as long as words began and ended with the expected letters, it didn't matter what order the middle letters took. Or it fuond taht as lnog as wrdos bgean and edend wtih the etepcexd lrttees, it dnid't mtetar waht oerdr the mldide lrtetes took. So in terms of immediate perception, it seems that the first letter of the name is important, and if that letter is one that lots of names begin with, the immediate perception may be that a certain name is more popular than it actually is.

So I used the 2008 girl's rankings for England and Wales to examine this idea. This data includes every name given to 3 or more girls born in 2008.

This is what I found.

The most popular letter was A, and the least popular was X.
Here are the results, with ranks in the first column, number of births in the second and finally the letter in the third:
1 37661 A
2 34005 E
3 31436 M
4 29769 L
5 26177 S
6 18589 C
7 14939 K
8 14141 I
9 14161 R
10 12454 J
11 11774 H
12 9537 G
13 8240 T
14 8422 F
15 8096 N
16 7597 P
17 5319 D
18 6600 O
19 6430 B
20 4163 Z
21 1863 V
22 1013 Y
23 860 W
24 317 U
25 152 Q
26 79 X

I also decided to look at the top 100 and see if the results were similar, or if certain letters' position was improved by having lots of marginal names.

This list has rank, then number of births, then number of names in top 100 then letter.

1 23913 13 E
2 17589 12 L
3 17465 13 A
4 16928 12 M
5 13370 8 S
6 10462 6 I
7 9455 4 C
8 7106 3 G
9 7033 3 J
10 6915 3 R
11 6038 4 H
12 5317 1 O
13 5148 3 P
14 3609 2 K
15 3329 3 F
16 2627 2 B
17 2127 1 D
18 1741 2 N
19 1683 2 Z
20 1596 2 T
21 0 0 Q
22 0 0 U
23 0 0 V
24 0 0 W
25 0 0 X
26 0 0 Y

A is at the top of the total list, but E is at the top of the top 100 list. This is because E has several names in the top end of the top 100 - Emily, Ella and Evie in particular. Only Amelia and Ava from A are at the higher end of the top 100, but A does have lots of more 'marginal' Arabic names such as Aaliyah and Amina, as well as several names with an unclear main spelling such as Alicia, Ashley and Abigail. E lacks lots of Arabic names - which through transliteration can have multiple 'legitimate' spellings but does have quite a few hyphenated names such as Ellie-name, Eva-name and Ella-name.

G is boosted in the top 100 list by the high popularity of Grace, O is also much higher due to Olivia being the #1 name in England and Wales in 2008, and the standing of O is solely due to Olivia, as it is the only O name in the top 100 - the next O name - Orla is at #211. K performs worse on the top 100 than on the complete list - only two K names are found on the top 100, and though both of them (Katie and Keira) are in the top 50, the lack of presence of other names means that it slides down the list. Like A, I think K suffers from the problem of a lack of clarity about the 'legitimate' spelling of a name - so there are lots of Kay-sees sound-wise, but 18 different spellings in the K section alone by my count.

So, enough picking out of statistics, which letters should you choose if you want your name to stand out?

The obvious is not A, E, M, L and S - as these all sit in the top 5 of both lists. In particular, when looking at these letters, then not Al, An, Am, Em, El, Ev, Li (with the ih sound found in Lily and Libby), Lu, Mad, Mar and So. Alastríona or Angharad may look wonderfully exotic, but they still contain familiar and popular sounds that people can catch onto (which is perhaps part of their appeal).

The end of the alphabet has always been the traditional home of unusual names - U, V, W, X and Y - but not Z, are sure to raise eyebrows. Of course, with limited usage you also get limited ideas. As a child, I was convinced that Xavier and Xanthe were the only X names that you could use, because they were the only X names in my Collins Book of Baby Names.

But I would warn that some more unusual letters still have expected beginning sounds. O is a great example of that - Onisim, Ovadia, and Obed still sound fairly exotic as there are few other names that begin with 'On', 'Ov' or 'Ob'. But Olwen, Olaf and Oleg have the familiar 'Ol' sound found in the exceedingly popular Oliver and Olivia, and so sound much less exotic.

I would say the same with 'Kay' names - there are numerous various names that involve the 'Kay' sound - Kayleigh, Casey, Kaylynn, Katie, Kate, Katelyn, Kayla etc. But there are much fewer names that begin with the 'Keh' sound - so Kester, Keturah and Keziah sound fresher, and even fewer names with the 'Kih' sound so Kimberley, Kit and Cillian are positively unusual in their sound.

But, you cry, I love names that begin with 'A'. Will I have to abandon that lovely symmetrical letter just because lots of names begin with that letter? Fear not! I have searched and found some names with unusual opening sounds that still exist under the popular letters:
A - 'Ac' names - Acacia, Acantha, 'Aj' - Ajit, 'Ap' - Apollonia, April, 'Aq' - Aqila, 'Aw' - Awiti, 'Ax' - Axel
E - 'Ec' - Echo, Eckhart, 'Eh' - Eha, Ehud, 'Eo' - Eowyn, Eoforwine, 'Ew' - Ewald, Ewan, 'Ey' - Eydís, Eysteinn, Eyvindr
L - consonant names are more difficult, as it rests on changing vowel sounds rather than a different consonant as second letter. 'Leh' rather than 'Lee' - Lech, Lemuel, Leonard, Lesley, Letitia, 'Ll' - Lleu, Llewelyn, Llinos, Llyr, 'Luh' rather than 'Loo' - Lux
M - 'May' rather than 'Mah' - Mabel, Macy, May, Maeve, Maya, 'Mee' rather than 'Meh' - Meena, Mina, 'Mn' - Mneme, Mnemosyne
S - 'Sk' - Skandar, Skye, 'Sl' - Slavomir, Slobodan, Sloane, 'Sm' - Smadar, Smiljana, 'Sn' - Snorri, Snezhana

And some popular letter combinations or names for unusual letters:
Y - 'Yah' as in Yasmin, Yaroslav
X - 'Xan' as in Xanthe, Xander
W - 'Wil' as in William, Wilfred
V - 'Vi' as in Violet, 'Ver' as in Vera, Verity and Veronica
U - 'Un' as in Unity, Una
Q - 'Qui' as in Quincy, Quinn, Quirina


Pamela Redmond said...

Such a fascinating study. We'd love to reprint this on nameberry with all due credit and links, of course. May we? Please get in touch with me at Love your blog!