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Naming the Name of the Year

The annual college-basketball tournament known as March Madness ended on March 25 in victory for Villanova. But the thrill of bracketology lives on: April Foolishness is in full swing, thanks to the long-running, much-anticipated Name of the Year (NOTY) contest.

Name of the Year began in the autumn of 1982, when some students at Penn – one of whom was Stefan Fatsis, who went on to write Word Freak and other books – tacked "a few funny names from the world of sports" to a dorm-room door and invited votes. The winner that year was the boxer Héctor Luís Camacho, known by his nickname, "Macho" Camacho.

The years rolled by, the college friends graduated, and the internet brought NOTY to a far-flung audience. And with only a few hiccups –a couple of missing years, a few names invalidated as fake – the "tournament" grew and thrived. In 1998, the contest adopted its current bracketed format. In 2012, when Stefan "ran out of energy" and didn't post a bracket, Sam Gutelle and some friends of his at Northwestern University who'd been "obsessed" with NOTY posted their own. The original creators got in touch and soon teamed up with the newcomers.

Since 2013, the contest has partnered with the sports blog Deadspin, but it remains independent and volunteer-run. And its mission remains unchanged: "to discover, verify, nominate, elect, and disseminate great names." The names must be real, and "no malice is intended."

Malice – never! But some wonderment is only natural.

The NOTY names are gleaned from myriad sources: local politics, crime blotters, medical offices, high school sports teams. "We try to stick to names that have appeared in public (no Facebook searching)," Stefan Fatsis told me in an email. Some of the names are newsworthy; others are noteworthy for their sound, significance, spelling, or some combination of the three. Each one tells a little story about naming styles, trends, history, and geography. "There really is something lovely / moving / curious / mysterious / hilarious about names and how and why people get them," Stefan said.

To help me decipher those stories, I turned to Laura Wattenberg, author of the excellent Baby Name Wizard blog. Laura has been observing and analyzing naming trends for about 15 years; she has an M.S. in psychology from Stanford and is respected for her impartial, analytical approach to naming trends – which is exactly what she brought to our conversation.

"A good [NOTY] name generally has it going both ways," Laura told me. "That is, the given name and surname both have distinctive qualities. A good name should be unexpected. A good name can be ironic."

Using those criteria, I'd say the 2018 bracket isn't quite as rich as last year's, which included Marmaduke Trebilcock, YourMajesty Lumpkins, Mythzard Thelisma, Aphrodite Bodycomb, and Waylain September. (The overall winner was Kobe Buffalomeat.)

Moreover, Laura said, several of this year's names may strike us as unusual only because they're rare in North America. Babucarr, for example, "is an extremely common first name in parts of Africa," as is the surname Fatty, which is seen frequently in The Gambia. Tuna is a common Turkish given name and surname that means "Danube" – a reminder of the Ottoman Empire's vast reach in the 19th century. Even Forbes Thor Kiddoo is less unusual than it seems: surnames-as-first-names have been popular for centuries and are enjoying a resurgence now, especially when they end in S; and Kiddoo is simply a truncation of the Scottish surname McAdoo.

The 1985 winner, Godfrey Sithole, was a member of the Zimbabwean parliament; his surname eventually became attached to a NOTY "region." "Sithole" is a common Zulu surname that, by the way, is pronounced sih-TOE-lay. (An unrelated Sithole, Fortunate, made the 2017 ballot.)

Among this year's seeds, Laura Wattenberg quickly spotted examples of several current naming trends:

Virtue names. Miracle Crimes certainly has an unusual name combination (although "Crimes" may have been a long-ago mis-hearing or mis-reading of "Grimes"). But "Miracle" has been in the top 1,000 baby names in the U.S. for more than 20 years. "Sometimes Miracle is given to a baby to express triumph over adversity such as infertility or miscarriage," Laura said. In general, "It used to be that positive meaning names for girls were focused on restraint – Prudence, Chastity – whereas today's are more a celebration of the child, like Destiny and Miracle." American virtue names are almost always nouns, said Laura – Justice, Amity, and Blessing are currently trending – "and anytime you step away from nouns it's an aggressive move." The exception, she added: English-speaking Africa, where adjective and even salutation names like Mosthigh are not uncommon.

It's worth considering, too, that while we blink at names like YourMajesty (the NOTY 2017 bracket) or Miraculous (2015), we overlook the literal meanings of many more-familiar names: Dorothy, Theodore, and Jonathan mean "God's gift" in their respective languages of origin (Greek, Greek, Hebrew); William meant "resolute protector" in Old Norman French.

Science fiction and fantasy. Hobbit? Darthvader? Gandalf? All of those first names fit into a trend Laura calls “names from other worlds.” “Anakin – the birth name of Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga – is a top-1,000 name in the U.S.,” said Laura. Villainy, she added, is no deterrent; it may even add to a name’s appeal, as long as it’s a boy being named: Kylo – a villain in 2015’s The Force Awakens – was the fastest-rising name for boys in 2016. “By and large, though, you’re not seeing a lot of Tolkien influences” in baby-naming, Laura said, which is what makes Hobbit and Gandalf stand out.

Unusual biblical names. Armagedon, Habakkuk, and Hallelujah are "definitely part of a trend," Laura said. "In the last 15 years or so, the desire to create new and creative biblical names has led parents to worry less about who they're naming after. They're looking for that biblical sound, not the story, which is why we've seeing baby names like Leviathan and Jezebel" – or Psalm, from the 2015 NOTY ballot.

Mock-Latin endings. Quindarious and Phlandrous exemplify a trend that Laura said began in the 1980s with the rise of Darius and Demetrius among African American families. Quindarious, she said, is "actually very common in the U.S." – no surprise, since it combines the still-popular Darius with also-popular Quin(n). The 2017 ballot included Quindarious Monday, and previous ballots have included the Latin-ish Shuntavyious, Census, Brodarious, Kurtulus, Jeravicious, Flavious, Shitavious, and Tertius. Even Mingus (2014) – presumably in honor of the jazz musician Charles Mingus – fits the pattern.

Any predictions for 2018? "Judging from past results, sex sells," Laura said, pointing to Tokyo Sexwale (2001), Vanilla Dong (2007), and Tanqueray Beavers (2005). For that reason, she said, "I wouldn't bet against Narwhals Mating or Makenlove Petit-Fard."

My own preference skews more poetic: for imagery, rhythmic balance, and alliteration, I'd pick Mahogany Loggins of Minneapolis, whose middle name, I learned from a little digging, is Essence. Ms. Loggins's life has not been a bowl of cherries so far; maybe a NOTY win will help turn things around.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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