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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Many Spellings of a Name

I had to alter the following email pretty dramatically, because there were statistical charts that were no way in heck going to fit in this post. I've put my snips in brackets so you get the gist though not the statistics themselves. Ashley writes:
Hi Swistle,

I know that you probably don't care... but I have been bothered by something on your Naming website. When you refer to the SS stats, you don't consider all spellings of a name! Take the name Madeline. Yes, it doesn't seem as popular when you look at Madeline. Now consider [the number each of babies named Madeline, Madelyn, Madelynn, Madilyn, Madeleine, Madalyn, Madalynn, Madilynn]. It is almost three times as popular when you count all the spellings! It's a Top 20 name when you adjust for multiple spellings. And names like these also add difficulty for the child in having to spell his/her name constantly. I know why the SSA does it the way they do ... it's very subjective when you start getting into pronunciations. Is "Miah" pronounced like "Mya" or like "Mia"? Who knows?

I take the Top 1000 Names and give it my best shot, though. Because I really don't want to choose one of those names that escapes notice due to a million spellings. The Top 1000 actually boils down to 649 names when you lump them together. I haven't done Boys yet for 2007. But I thought I'd share my girl list... The column on the far left sums the amounts next to the spellings.

[Here Swistle removed an ENORMOUS CHART.]

"Don't care"? Is there such a thing as "don't care" when it comes to baby names?

I know what you mean, and I do think it's a good idea for parents to take multiple spellings into account, especially if the popularity of a name is a big consideration. But I think it's too subjective to decide what's "a different spelling" and what's "a different name." Looking down your list, I disagree with many of your combinations: I think, for example, that Madelyn and Madeline are different names, and that Emily and Emmalee are different names, and that Sierra and Ciara are different names. And other people would go the opposite direction and say you should have combined more, and that Isabelle and Isabella are the same name. None of us are "right" or "wrong," we just have different opinions about what makes names "different."

Because it's so subjective, the only method that makes sense is to list every spelling separately but make the data available (it's available at the Social Security baby names site) so parents can add spellings up the way that makes sense to them---which is exactly what you did. I rarely do so on this blog, though, because in most cases the adding up makes only a fraction of a percentage point of a difference in the popularity of the name. For example, the spelling Khloe adds only .0209 percentage points to the .5085 percent Chloe population, bringing their combined total to .5294% of the baby girls born in 2007 (source: Social Security). And I'll bet if we took a vote, we wouldn't get a consensus on whether they were "the same name" or "different names."


Bebe said...

I have had the same frustrations concerning the SSA baby name list as I try to find the right name for my baby. I often wonder things like, "wouldn't 'Aiden' be closer to the top since there are 5 zillion different spellings. I know it would be a subjective list, but it would be interesting to see the rankings when you lump similar names together. Does Ashley have a blog that's she's posted her list?

Love your naming advice Swistle. I'm sure I'll be writing you in a few months for help naming my babe...

Barb @ getupandplay said...

I love hearing about other people who are a little, um, obsessed with baby names, because I totally am too!

sara b. said...

It is so subjective! I think my name 'Sara' is the same as 'Sarah' but there are other 'Sara(h)'s who get so offended if you confuse the two. My sister is a 'Rebecca' which for some reason I think is completely different from 'Rebekah.' Does that make any sense? Not at all. I agree with you Swistle. It's really only fair to consider different spellings of the "same" name seperately.

Karen said...

I do think that aggregating the spellings is helpful for some names for some people. I'd be curious to see a list of the names within the top 100 that moved about 10 or more spots due to alternate spellings in Ashleigh's, I mean Ashley's, list. Too few? Too many? Then maybe the 5 or so that moved the most. (We could put them to a vote!)

And I don't think that the aggregation needs just be about pronunciation. As an extreme example, Jean and Gene sound indistinguishable but are clearly different names.

For a lot of people, just seeing the top 1000 listed alphabetically would be useful. That way you can avoid a name that people are "messing with." For example, I do like the name Madeleine/Madeline but the Madelyns/Madilynns etc... ruin it for me. But Jaclyn doesn't ruin Jacqueline for me. Of course, there could be alternate spellings of the first letter ....

Verity said...

I did (one possible version of) the math on the girls' 2007 list - it's on my site:

And I have to agree with Swistle - it is incredibly difficult to figure out whether or not Myah and Mia are the same name. I'm still fussing with the boys' list for this very reason.

It seems like this is most frustrating for parents who choose a name like Caitlin or Madeleine/Madeline, thinking that they're using the original and only possible spelling, only to discover all of the variants out there.

The other trick is that some names are truly unusual - like our daughter-to-be's name, Clio. But it's harder to figure out if it will sound like other names out there. For fun, check out - it will point out that Clio is awfully close to Chloe, and might *feel* more popular than her unranked status implies.

Fine For Now said...

I have thought of this too, but you are RIGHT (!) it is only a fraction of a difference! And I never thought of it as objective. You mean someone may think it is different that what I think, ho ha. Yeah.

Allyson said...

My name, Allyson, is a great example of this, because it's one of those names with four popular spellings (and some very unusual ones) - Allison, Alison, Allyson, and Alyson. Allison is the most popular with .2589...but add in the other spellings and it goes up to .4025, which is a pretty significant jump.

Oh, and I decided long ago that my kids' names will be spelled the most popular way, since having to spell your name every time gets old fast. I really wish my name was spelled Allison...

Arwen said...

Can you post the chart, like, as a file for downloading or something? (I know Typepad lets you do that but I'm not sure if Blogger does.) I'd be super-interested in seeing it.

This topic interests me because when I read the name list when it comes out (and I do, every year) I'm sometimes surprised that names don't appear to be as popular as I expected. Aiden, for instance, was only #27 last year, and Aidan was #54. However, if you consider them the same name and add their percentages, the name Aiden/Aidan is #3, which is much more what I expected. So it would greatly interest me to see Ashley's chart, even if I don't agree with her on every set of names she equates.

Swistle said...

Arwen- I could forward you the email, if you email me (swistle at gmail dot com) and if that's okay with Ashley. The formatting came through REALLY SCREWY in Gmail, but I could still read it with a lot of scrolling.

leslie said...

For fun, here's a website that has combined spellings of names and given their new rankings according to those combinations. It also lists which spellings it is combining and the numbers for each spelling.

For girls:

For boys:

Ashley said...

Howdy Swistle!

I totally see your point and agree that it is subjective. Totally subjective. I still think the sound of a name is more important than the spelling. We write our names a LOT ... but our social interaction comes from hearing Ashley/Ashleigh/Ashlee/Ashly called out to us every day!

To answer Karen's question... I'd have to check. In addition to Madeline, a few big ones come to mind: Katelynn, Hailey, and Jasmine.

I'd be happy to email my Excel file to anyone who wants it. Write me at ashley underscore broom @ hotmail dot com. That way, you can play around with your own interpretation of "what makes a name".


Caitlin said...

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I just had to chime in because you've given me so much food for thought.

I understand why the SSA lists them separately, and agree that parents must take this into consideration when really trying to ascertain the popularity of a name. And as Swistle has said many times before, sometimes you can't predict WHEN something will become popular, or just how many Henry's and Jack's and Aidan's there will be in your first grade class.

Back when my parents named me Caitlin, NO ONE was named Caitlin (at least not in the US). People hadn't heard it, couldn't say it, spell it, pronounce it. Even now, I often get comments on it (mostly from older generations). But here's the thing. Spelled my way, it's the Gaelic word for pure, and for Kathleen.

"Katelynn" "Kaitlin" "Katelynne" "Kaitlyn" and all the other spellings, to me, are really not quite the same. There's not the same etymology, and those seem to be the more trendy versions of the name, rather than having the Irish connection/root (yes, I'm quite Irish by descent). While of course the *word* is pronounced the same, it's just....different.