What makes you feel good about a name? Its sound? Its meaning? Its unconventional spelling?
Laura Wattenberg poses this question in a very interesting post in the Baby Name Wizard Blog, which I recommend to anyone interested in culture, linguistics, trends in family life, and the influence of the popular media on personal choices.
Wattenberg is the genius behind NameVoyager, the thoroughly addictive "interactive portrait of America's name choices." She's an astute observer of naming trends who has successfully predicted a couple of recent hot U.S. baby names (Ciara and Danica for girls), and she backs up her commentary with mind-bending statistical analysis.
In "What's Not to Like?", Wattenberg talks about the decline of "likability" as a desired quality in baby names. "Friendly"-sounding names were once prized, she says, citing William, Amy, Jeff, and Molly; but today's parents disdain likable names in favor of "distinctive" and "sophisticated" monikers (which, I would add, are often [a] surnames [b] copied from celebrities-du-jour and their offspring or [c] challenging to spell and pronounce). The recent hoo-hah about the trendy girl's name "Nevaeh" ("heaven" spelled backward), reported in the New York Times in May 2006 but first noted by Wattenburg in January 2005, is one example; one could also point to "Grayer," the young charge in The Nanny Diaries, and to the hordes of little Madisons, Coopers, and Hunters being trundled to play dates. (Are these babies or partners in a law firm?)
We all have our own name comfort zones, shaped by our own experiences and the people we've loved and loathed. But most of us share the instinct that, say, a Charlie sounds more approachable than a Sterling.
So why aren't we out hunting for niceness? The trick is that names with broad likeability generally don't sound creative or sophisticated. Most are thoroughly familiar, their rough edges worn smooth by generations of use. And most are casual, including lots of cuddly nicknames. That's not always a fashionable combination. So many parents accept a style tradeoff, sacrificing friendliness for uniqueness or savoir faire.
I'm not in the baby-naming business (although I gladly offer strong opinions), but I find these considerations equally useful and provocative when we talk about corporate and product names, where friendliness, sophistication, and the mysterious "cool factor" all come into play. A friendly product name--think Roomba--can demystify a breakthrough technology. On the other hand, a too-friendly corporate name--like United Airlines' Ted--can sound casual to the point of sloppiness, not a quality one wants to associate with air travel.