Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sea of names, beautiful names

Ruby blogs about Baby Name Wizard's NameVoyager, the java application that shows you interactively when your name (or anybody's) peaked and waned in the last 100 years. I'd been thinking about blogging it but it wasn't working for me (in Firefox). Then I got a clue (tried Netscape). It's cool. It'll also show you a kind of psychedelic bar graph of the relative popularity of all names, male and female, across the century. Well, it looks like a sand painting. "Mary" has a huge swath, being no. 1 for girls for about half a century.

It's fun to think up "case studies"--try "Tammy" and think "Tammy's in Love." Try "Jennifer" and think "Love Story." An entry on a blog connected to this site suggests others (like the fall of German names around 1940). Another entry predicts future hits!

Baby Name Wizard is associated with a book of the same name, yet another baby name book. Such a big thing to name a baby--expectant parents need all the help they can get. One writes, "We want a name like Caroline, but not exactly Caroline, you know?" I think I might know. I have a theory about what makes a word beautiful.* (Why girl's names need to be beautiful is a whole different question.) The theory is that words that have an alternating sequence of "sonorants" (the four consonants that are singable, hummable: l, r, m, n) are considered beautiful by English speakers.

Examples? "Maria" from "West Side Story" ("the most beautiful sound I have ever heard"). Elizabeth Spencer, in an introduction to a set of stories about her character "Marilee Summerall," writes, "I had just been thinking about Mississippi towns, some of which I'd never been to, which were just pretty names, like Laurel, Hazelhurst and Crystal Springs." In Ferris Beach, Jill McCorkle has a character who wishes her name were Arabella because of its sex appeal. Going back a ways, Edmund Spenser in the Shepherd's Calendar calls Rosalinde a "wel ordered" name.

Then there are words that might as well be names: Eudora Welty in The Golden Apples writes, "Citronella, like a girl's name." There's an old joke about a woman naming her baby "Placenta" because it was the first word she heard after delivery. Elizabeth Bishop, in a poem, calls Florida "[t]he state with the prettiest name."

William Styron told an interviewer he used the word "columbine" in The Confessions of Nat Turner because "[i]t had such a nice sound." Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire: "What can be more resounding, more resplendent, more suggestive of choral and sculpted beauty, than the word 'coramen'?" Leopold Bloom in Ulysses on "The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Caramel": "Sweet name too: caramel."

The baby name book I used for this research project was Barbara Kay Turner's Name That Baby. She has a list of "ultra-feminine names," among them Alanna, Alessandra, Allison . . . Charlene, Emily, Ladonna, Merilee, Sherilyn, Yolanda.

All of these are "like Caroline" but not exactly.

* Sally Greene, "Dissimilation of Noncontiguous Consonants in English," SECOL Review (1992) 16: 41-70.

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