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The Art of Pleasing Sounds


It is easy to say "Biblical names are popular in the 1990s" and "Nicknames were commonly given as first names in the 1950s". It is easy to say that "Italian names are hot!" or that "Hebrew names are growing in popularity." Such statements, however, are also somewhat misleading The phenomenon is much more complicated than picking a nationality, or a certain classification.

Although some parents give their child an Italian name to honor their heritage, or a Biblical name to honor their faith, most do not. They call their daughter Gianna and their son Elijah because those particular names "sound good." They pick Gianna and Elijah because that is the trend.

It is probable that many parents do not realize they are participating in a trend. They do not sit down and say "Let's give our son an English occupational surname instead of Rodney because that's the trend these days." Most parents would be appalled at such a statement. They want their child to have a "unique" name, not a trendy one. However, although naming “experts” (like this site) love to analyze trends and make smug statements about "Biblical names being popular in the 1990s,” they often ignore other factors.

Although one might say — with perfect truth — that "Gaelic surnames are a fashionable choice for a girls' first names these days" that does not explain certain choices. Certainly Kennedy, Kelly, Cameron, and Cassidy are fashionable names of Irish surname origin, but why not O'Malley, Murphy, Flannigan, or Hogan? They are also fine examples of Irish surnames. This affects other "surnames-as-first-names" as well. Why Mackenzie and not Macdonald? Why Paige and not Knight? Why Madison and not Johnson? Why Hailey and not Jawoski?

One answer is that Cassidy simply sounds better to parents as a name than does O'Malley. Parents (usually) do not sit down and choose an Irish Gaelic surname to bestow upon their unwitting daughter; they sit down and think about what "sounds pretty.” This is euphony, Greek for "good sound" and it is often governed by the unpredictable forces of fashion. Certain sounds come in and out of fashion, and what "sounds sweet" today may not be so nice down the road. After all, people once thought the names Gertrude, Maude, Myrtle, and Blanche were very lovely.

Example #1: Kelly

A certain name becomes popular, say Kelly (which was the initial popular Gaelic-surname-for-girls, as it was the surname of film star Grace Kelly). Kelly was a very common name in the 1970s. Then inevitable backlash occurs (this happened in the U.S. in the 1980s). Parents still like the name, the syllable "k-l" is still desirable, but Kelly itself is much too common. What to do? Kelly declined, and the names Kaylee, Kayla, Kylie, and Kelsey rose to take Kelly's place.

This does not happen in a vacuum. Kelsey also happens to rhyme with the common Chelsea. Kylie is similar to the masculine name Kyle, and Kayla leads to Mikayla and Makayla.

The names Kayley and Kelsey are surnames. Surnames are currently a "popular trend" in naming. But would either have become quite so popular, if the syllable "kel" was not considered "pretty?"

Would Sierra have become a name in the 1980s if Sarah had not become popular in the 1970s? Is it a coincidence that Savannah and Samantha were used highly at the same time? Or that Cassandra, then Casey, then Cassidy, rose in the 1980s and 90s? Or that Alexis and Alexandra both became common in the 1970s and popular in the 1990s? Or that Alicia and Alison rose as Alice fell?

Witness the combined strength of Kayley, Hailey, and Bailey! Marvel at the similarities between Kayla and Taylor, and Taylor and Tyler, and Tyler and Kyler, and Kyler and Kylie, and Kylie and Kayla.

Example #2: Shirley

Let's take another example: the name Shirley

Before the 20th century, the "Sh" was not a sound often found at the beginning of English names. The French Charlotte, perhaps, being an important exception. And "Sh" could be found in Irish names, specifically Shamus and Sean. Sometimes it was found in surnames, and 19th century boys were occasionally christened with names like Sherman, or Sherwood. The name Shirley was first given to girls in the Victorian era. It was a flower name, like Rose or Lily or Violet, taken from the Shirley Poppy. When it was first used, it may have been considered exotic, and modern, with its rare "sh" sound.

Shirley peaked in the 1930s, though it remained popular in the 1940s, and only slowly declined in the 1950s. It may have been too popular. Parents who liked the sound of "Shirley" but who disliked its popularity, sought alternatives, in other names which combined the "sh" and "l" or "r."

This probably helped the rise of Sheila, (which began to rise in the 1930s, and was popular in the 1950s), and Shelly (which began to rise in the 1950s). At this same time the names Charlene, Cheryl, and Sharon (which led to Shannon) first appeared, as well as Shauna, Shelby, and Shirlene.

Sherry rose as a name in the 1950s not only because it offered an alternative similar to then declining Shirley, but because the mid-century was a bonanza for "airy" names (Barry, Carrie, Darrell, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Karen, Kerry, Larry, Mary, Perry, Terry, etc.).

And Shelly (first used in the 1950s, popular in the 1960s and 1970s) was probably ALSO used because of its similarities to the name Michelle (first used in the 1940s, popular by the 1960s) and Rochelle (first used in the 1940s, common by the 1970s).

And later on, Sheila and Shelly (which both declined in the 1970s) probably influenced the rise of Shelby (which jumped in the 1980s).

Example #3: Emily
Or consider the following, more recent example:

Emily started to become popular in the 1980s and was very popular in the 1990s. In 1990 it was the 12th most popular name in the United States; in 2000 and 2003 it was the first.

The similar name Emma was at number #132 in 1990, #17 in 2000, and #2 in 2003.

The "em" sound is also found in the (traditionally masculine) Emerson which is now sometimes given to girls as well.

The similar name Ella was #863 in 1990 and #44 in 2003.

The similar name Ellie was at number #900 in 1992 and #189 in 2003.

The similar name Eliana was at number #705 in 1991 and was #346 in 2003.

"El" and "Em" are also found in the popular masculine names Elijah, Eli, Elias, Elliot, Emmanuel, Emilio, Emiliano, and Emmett.

Hot Sounds

Eliana can be considered as the "el" sound added to the "ana" sound. "Ann" is a very popular sound at the moment. Consider the following (2003) names:

Hannah (#4)
Samantha (#10)
Brianna (#17)
Anna (#21)
Morgan (#29)
Megan (#30)
Alexandra (#38)
Savannah (#42)
Stephanie (#48)
Jordan (#49)
Amanda (#53)
Andrea (#56)
Vanessa (#70)
Angelina (#71)
Lilian (#77)
Ariana (#79)
Danielle (#84)
Arianna (#86)
Melanie (#94)

And the common/rising names: Adriana, Diana, Briana, Aña, Juliana, Julianna, Alana, Mariana, Marianna, Liliana, Lilianna, Anastasia, Tatiana, Kiana, Kianna, Eliana, Viviana, Tiana, Lana, Dayana, Ayana, Ayanna, Aiyana, Liana, Lianna, Joana, Joanna, Iliana, Johana, Johanna, Montana, Susana, Susanna, Giana, Christiana, Christianna, Iyana, Annabelle, Annabella, Annalise, Giovanna, Leanna, Aryana, Aryanna, Reanna.


Another syllable that has gained momentum for girls is the "mad" syllable. Madison (a name introduced by a 1984 movie, Splash) quickly shot up the charts, becoming #3 in the year 2000. It brought with it not only Madisyn, Maddison, and Addison, but also Madeline, Madelyn, etc.


Ash is another one, found in the names Ashley (combined with the popular syllable "lee"), Ashlyn (combined with the popular syllable "lin"), Ashton (combined with the popular syllable "ton"), Ashanti, Asha, etc.


The "Mack" found in Mackenzie, Makayla, Mikayla, McKenna, Makenna, etc. (as well as in Maxwell and Maximilian for boys).

Construction of a Euphonic Name
Two Well-Sounding Syllables

Most names, the whole world over are composed of two seperate elemnents, each with its own meaning. William, or Willa-helm, an old Germanic name, meant "Will-Helmet." Joel was a Hebrew name meaning "God is God," from Jahweh and El, both names for God. Bogumil is a Polish name meaning "God Favored." These names were created to reflect their culture's values.

Many parents today pick names based on their “value” of euphony. They often choose two (sometimes three) “elements,” or “euphonic syllables” that “sound nice.” Some are more popular than others.

The syllable "nat," familiar to parents through Nathan and Nathaniel, when combined with the popular feminine ending "lee" yields nat-lee, or Natalie, an old French name that suddenly leapt up the charts in the 1990s.

The syllable "rye" when combined with the popular feminine ending "lee" yields "Riley" now becoming a common girls' name. "Rye" combined with "Ann" becomes Ryan, a masculine name to be sure, but one that is also increasingly being given to girls!

Hot syllables for girls include:

For the first, or second syllable:

For the suffix (end):

Push two euphonic sounds together, then pick a name (surname, place name, traditional name, whatever) that that resembles them and there you go:

(these are all real names that appear on the top 1000 lists of the U.S. in recent years)

All-Lyn - Alanna
All-Lee - Allie, Ally
All-Son - Alison
Ay-Lyn - Kailyn, Caitlyn
Ay-Lee - Kayley, Bailey, Hailey
Ay-See - Macey, Lacey, Kacie, Grace, Gracie, Stacey
Ay-Ton - Payton, Peyton
Ay-Anna - Ayanna, Ayana, Dayana, Arianna, Adriana
Ay-Ah - Kaya, Chaya, Taya
Mad-Lyn - Madelyn
Mad-See - Madisyn
Mad-Son - Madison, Addison
Ell-Lyn - Ellen
Ell-Lee - Ellie
Ell-See - Elsie
Ell-Son - Ellison
Ell-Ana - Eliana, Elena
Ell-Ah - Ella
Em-Lyn - Emelyn
Em-Lee - Emily, Amelia, Emilia
Em-Son - Emerson
Em-Ah - Emma
Ken-See - Kenzie, Mackenzie, Kinsey
Ken-Ah - Kendra,
Kel-Lee - Kelly
Kel-See - Kelsey

Coining New Names
Allisee, Alsey, Allianna, Chayson, Shayson, Kayson, Dayson, Madilee, Madianna, Mayda, Emisee, Emianna, Kenlyn, Kenlie, Kennison, Keniana, Kellyn, Kellison, Keliana, Kellah - All guaranteed to be a hit!

Euphonics in Masculine Names

This article concentrated on feminine names because they are the ones most affected by fashion, trend, and whim. Masculine names are bound much more by tradition. Parents are more name their sons based on tradition or ethnicity than their daughters. Parents are more likely to name their three daughters Kayley, Bailey, and Hailey than they are to name their three sons Hunter, Hudson, and Hubert. In any case, euphony plays a much smaller role in boys name.

There are two suffixes, however, that are "hot" at the moment, and both are based on that ubiquitous schwa sound ("uh").

One is the "ur" most often found in the English occupation surnames of Cooper, Sawyer, Tyler, Hunter, Carter, Tanner, Parker, Spencer, Chandler, Tucker, Walker, Porter, Ryder, Dexter, and Fletcher, but also found in Alexander, Christopher Connor, Cameron, Xavier, Oscar, Hector, Skyler, Oliver, Roger, Jasper, Gunner, Elmer, and Trevor.

The other is the "un" sound found in the "son" of Jason, Mason, but also the patronymic surnames of Addison, Anderson, Branson, Bronson, Bryson, Carson, Dawson, Emerson, Garrison, Grayson, Harrison, Hudson, Jackson, Jamison, Jaxson, Jefferson, Karson, Lawson, Nelson, Samson, Tyson, and Wilson.

Not t mention the "don/ton" in Brandon, Braydon, Brendon, Jaydon, Landon, London, Gordon, Jordon, Sheldon, and in Alton, Anton, Ashton, Braxton, Brenton, Britton, Carlton, Colton, Clayton, Clifton, Clinton, Dalton, Dayton, Easton, Elton, Houston, Keaton, Kelton, Kenton, Kolton, Milton, Paxton, Payton, Preston, Quinton, Remington, Shelton, Trenton, Weston, and Winston.

And also in lazy pronunciation of names like Jordan, Brendan, Aidan/Adan, Keenan, Kenyon, Devin, Jaden, and Tristan, or Triston, or Dylan, or Colin.

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