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April Fool! Fun and games with baby names

March 31, 2016 nicknamer

By Nick Turner

It’s April Fools’ Day — a perfect time to explore the subject of baby-name riddles and other mischief. These April baby names are certainly playful.

For some parents, choosing a name is an opportunity for wordplay. They favor palindromes (words that are spelled the same way forward and backward) or try to pick sets of sibling names that are anagrams (meaning they contain the same letters).

My general philosophy with baby names is you should try to have fun but not too much fun. And that applies to riddles as well. Having twin girls named Isla and Lisa (anagrams) is playful without being too outrageous. Naming your kids Geneva and Avenge, meanwhile, would be harder to pull off.

Let’s start with my favorite naming trick: palindromes. This is a low-key way to add a little zip to your child’s name, and there are more than a dozen options to choose from.

A hundred years ago, the most common palindrome name was Anna, followed by Ada and Otto. These days, the reigning queen of the palindromes is Ava.

Number of U.S. babies given palindrome names in 1914

  1. Anna: 11,865
  2. Ada: 1,494
  3. Otto: 598
  4. Hannah: 443
  5. Bob: 217
  6. Ava: 156
  7. Eve: 130
  8. Nan: 74
  9. Asa: 73
  10. Ara: 40
  11. Alla: 11

Number of U.S. babies given palindrome names in 2014

  1. Ava: 15,586
  2. Hannah: 6,512
  3. Anna: 5,639
  4. Ada: 847
  5. Elle: 818
  6. Eve: 688
  7. Asa: 531
  8. Otto: 416
  9. Aviva: 94
  10. Renner: 31
  11. Ara: 49
  12. Alla: 12
  13. Nan: 7
  14. Bob: 6

Palindrome names tend to skew female, and the rare male options (Bob) have generally lost ground over the past 100 years. (Today’s parents aren’t fond of putting nickname-sounding choices like Bob on birth certificates.)

One exception to the shift away from male palindromes is Renner, a name that didn’t exist a century ago. There were 31 baby Renners in 2014 (the most recent year with Social Security data available). That was up from 30 in 2013 and 26 the year before — a trend no doubt inspired in part by actor Jeremy Renner.

Palindrome names have beautiful symmetry, and many of them are never-go-out-of-style classics. (It’s hard to argue with the bible’s first woman, Eve.)

But if you’re looking for a bigger challenge, you may want to explore anagrams and backward spellings.

Anagrams are probably most popular for parents of twins, but you could use the same approach for a sibling set of various ages. The idea is to pick a name, and then figure out how to create a second (or third) name with the same letters. That creates a bind between all the siblings. (You also could honor a relative by creating an anagram of his or her name and giving it to your child.)

You would be surprised how many anagram sets there are out there. But let’s be honest: Most of them don’t really work.

If you name your sons Flor and Rolf, you might congratulate yourself on how clever you are. But Flor is probably not going to love the joke later in life (Rolf might not appreciate it too much either).

Anagram names often don’t match. Perhaps one is a common name, and the other is not — say, Alan and Nala. Or they don’t have the same aesthetic. Do Moore and Romeo feel like they belong in the same family?

The kid with the weirder name is going to be resentful. Even the benign IslaLisa case I mentioned above feels mismatched. Isla is trendy right now; Lisa is in purgatory.

In other instances, the names are just too similar to be desirable. Elias and Elisa are both strong picks, but you’d probably suffer a lifetime of jumbling them up. Ditto for Carla and Clara.

That said, there are a few anagram sets that I think are passable:

Aidan/Nadia

Amy/May

Ari/Ira

Anil/Lina

Blaise/Isabel

Ellen/Nelle

Erika/Keira

Hera/Rhea

Iris/Siri

Jason/Sonja

Leon/Noel

Mary/Myra

And if you have four boys: Arnold/Landor/Roland/Ronald

At least with the list above, no kid is going to feel like he or she was given a horrible name for some contrived reason. (Well, a Siri might have a little trouble.)

Hera and Rhea might be my favorite pairing above. Rhea was Hera‘s mother in Greek mythology, so you can’t argue the names don’t belong together. And neither of them is currently in the top 1,000, so both kids would have names that are relatively obscure.

Now, let’s discuss what’s perhaps the most controversial area here: backward spelling.

One example is the name Semaj, a mirror image of James that climbed the charts in the past decade.

Nevaeh, though, is the most famous of the backward names. “Heaven” in reverse, Nevaeh has been given to tens of thousands of girls in recent years. The choice caught fire after singer Sonny Sandoval used it, sending it as high as No. 25 in 2010. (It has since slipped to 65th place.)

Nevaeh has strong appeal, but it’s also caused trouble for adoptees. It’s not clear how it’s pronounced — a problem that has led some parents to spell it Neveah (since that seems closer to how most people actually say it). There were 261 Neveahs born in 2014.

But if the point of Nevaeh was to flip around heaven, does Neveah even make sense? Perhaps it’s good enough to have an anagram of heaven — rather than a straight-up backward spelling. In that case, Vaneeh might work too.

If you like the idea of Nevaeh, I wonder if a backward spelling of haven might be an alternative. It produces a word (Nevah) that’s a little easier to pronounce.

In the end, wordplay works best when it’s an added bonus to the name. Someone named Ava might enjoy her palindrome status, but it’s certainly not going to define her. Backward names go a step further, and perhaps a step too far.

There’s a fine line between clever and too clever, and it may be your child who ends up having to learn the difference.

About the author

Nick

Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.

View all of Nick's articles

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