Baby Names Backwards and Inside Out

July 2, 2015 Katherine Morna Towne

By Kate at Sancta Nomina (Katherine Morna Towne)

I enjoy fun and unusual ways to come up with names. I’ve recently been loving the idea of turning initials into names a la Edie (E.D.), Vienne (V.N.), Essie (S.E.), and Cece (C.C.). I could see it totally working to name a little girl Ivy after Grandpa Isaac Victor (I.V.).

And anagram names! By which I mean the mixing up of the letters of one name to get a different name. Examples include Jason and Sonja, Aaron and Anora, Byron and Robyn, Neil and Elin. I personally love this idea, and think it can sometimes be just the right way to figure out an honor name. Revealingly, the number of hits one gets when googling “anagram names” — both examples and anagram generators — is pretty remarkable (this list is amazing).

But in my experience, one technique for coming up with new names seems to get overlooked, and regarding one particular example of it, obliterated with criticism: backwards naming, specifically the name Nevaeh.

As you know, Nevaeh is “heaven” backwards, and as Linda Rosenkrantz noted in a 2008 post,

Its surge was spurred by one singular event, the announcement by Christian rock star Sonny Sandoval of his baby’s name on MTV in 2000, when he explained that it was “Heaven spelled backwards.”  Sandoval didn’t invent the name–in the previous year there had been eight other baby girls called Nevaeh, but there can be no doubt that his public announcement was what triggered the explosion. By 2001, it had leaped up to #226 on the popularity list, and four years later it entered the Top 100.  On [2007]’s list, it reached #31, obviously striking a chord

I can certainly see its appeal — it’s got a pretty sound, and it’s sort of clever that a good and holy word spelled backwards can make a feasible given name. (In the same vein, I’ve also seen Traeh [“heart” backwards].) But it’s a polarizing name—it seems people either love it or loathe it. I have read some truly hateful things said about the name and anyone who would bestow it on their daughter.

Commentary on Nevaeh, professional and otherwise, almost always includes references to it being “trendy” and “date-stamped,” and while the name itself may be those things, the practice of backward naming is not. I was thinking recently about baseball player Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar is actually his middle name (his first is Anthony), and it’s his father’s name, Ramon, spelled backward. I’ve never once seen any negative commentary about Nomar’s name. That same post by Linda referenced above discussed Leahcim Semaj, a “Jamaican activist, psychologist and radio host whose birth name was Michael James,” and the resulting use of the name “Semaj (James spelled backwards) among Rastafarians.” So there is some precedent for a “backwards name” to be okay, and it’s not an entirely new trend (Garciaparra was born in 1973, and Dr. Semaj in 1951.)

I tried to think of other names that are backwards versions of “normal” names or words, and I remembered one I’d read in The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by E.G. Withycombe: Senga.

Its entry for Senga says, “[T]his name, common in parts of Scotland, is said to be simply a variant of Agnes … obtained by spelling it backwards.” This book was first published in 1945. The Nameberry entry concurs with Withycombe; The Behind the Name entry nods to this traditional understanding of the name, though then says that it’s “more likely derived from Gaelic seang ‘slender.’” But then a commenter on that entry noted, “Whenever I look this up it is only listed as Agnes spelled backwards, it started in Scotland.”

Isn’t all that interesting? I particularly noticed it because, though Agnes is such a traditional, saintly name, until recently it didn’t really sing to modern ears (it’s on its way up! Actors Elisabeth Shue and Jennifer Connelly both named their daughters Agnes, in 2006 and 2011 respectively). Pre-celeb baby Agnes-es, I could totally see parents with a certain taste in names wanting to honor beloved Grandma Agnes but not loving the name Agnes, and then rejoicing when they figured out Senga.

When I brought this up on my blog, the resulting conversation yielded other ideas for or experiences with backwards names—Nella after Mom’s maiden name, for example (love that!), or Harris after the sound of Mom Sarah’s name backwards.

What do you think of the idea of backwards naming? Do Nomar, Leahcim, Semaj, Senga, Nella, and Harris (Haras) seem more doable than Nevaeh, and if so, why? Have you heard of any other names that are names or words spelled backwards?



About the author

Katherine Morna Towne

Katherine Morna Towne is a writer, Catholic baby name blogger and consultant at Sanctanomina, and author of Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018). She lives in the northeast with her husband and seven sons (ages 1 to 15).

View all of Katherine Morna Towne's articles


17 Responses to “Baby Names Backwards and Inside Out”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.