Don't Trust Your Baby Name Book!

Name Nerds main

Every day I get a bunch of emails saying, "My name is ____. It means 'cute little fairy princess' [or something like that], my name books said so, and your site has it wrong!"

I've got news for you. Your baby name book is probably wrong.

How can I make such a giant, all-encompassing statement? Who died and made *me* the Name Goddess, you ask? Well, nobody. It's just common sense. Think about it-- the first thing people do when they go to pick out a baby name book is look up their own name. This usually gives them a feeling about their own name--positive or negative. Who wants to see that their name means something unflattering (as the name Cameron means "crooked nose") or vague ("meaning unknown")? People are more likely to buy a book if they feel good about a name. Thus name books either do what people have been doing for centuries, and making things up based on a semi-educated guess, or just "bend the definition" a little bit. I mentioned that the name Cameron comes from Scottish gaelic words meaning "crooked nose"-- I have seen it listed in baby name books as meaning "one with distinguishing facial features," and "having a defining nose." Sure, one whose nose is crooked could have their nose be "distinguishing"... but this purely an interpretation!

Elaborating, Fancifying, and Cleaning-up

Older baby name books are particularly bad offenders of this. Check the original copyright date on your book-- a lot of publishing companies have made new editions of older baby name books (from the 60s and before), only changing the cover. I have one book where pretty much every definition is a major elaboration. Here are some name definitions I've found that are particularly amusing to me:

Bonnie: "Little, sweet, pink, angel-like, and very good." Bonnie is actually an adjective used in Scotland to mean "pretty" or "good" or other positive adjectives (as in a "bonnie lassie"). Somewhere along the line, this word turned into a name (though it wasn't used in Scotland until relatively recently in its history). However, "Little, sweet, pink, angel-like etc." is purely speculation!

Charlotte; "little and womanly" - Charlotte is a medieval French feminine form of the name Charles. Charles is derived from the germanic word ceorl, which means, simply, "man." The -ette ending is a diminutive feminine form, true. However, this doesn't make it mean "woman"-- it's just "man" with a feminine ending; kind of like "man-ette."

Gisele: "gazelle." This name stems from a Germanic word meaning "hostage." However, if you pronounce it the French way, "zhe ZEL" I guess it sounds kind of like "gazelle"!

Heath: "From a vast wasteland." Sounds poetic and romantic, doesn't it? Heath is simply what it sounds like: a heath, which Merriam Webster defines as: "an extensive area of rather level open uncultivated land usually with poor coarse soil, inferior drainage, and a surface rich in peat or peaty humus." Now THAT takes away some of the romance, doesn't it?

Olivia: "peaceful woman." William Shakespeare is responsible for coining a lot of our modern names, Olivia being one of them. He probably used it as a feminine form of Oliver, or at least stemming from the word "olive." Yes, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the olive branch is a symbol of peace, but calling Olivia a "peaceful woman" is kind of elaborating a bit. Besides, scholars think that the name Oliver is a form of the Norse name Olafr, and has nothing to do with olives or branches at all.

"Educated Guesses"

Many names in our naming pool are either so old or so new that we don't know their meanings. For example, the name Mary. It comes from the Hebrew Miriam, but where does that come from? Some scholars connect it to the Hebrew word mara, meaning "bitter." Some claim that it's related to the Indo-European root for the word "mother." Some speculate "rebellious" or "obstinate." I've seen "sea of bitterness" and "rival" as well. Basically, we just don't know what the meaning is. Over the centuries, the guesses about this name have been tainted with its connection to the biblical Mary. Thus, peoples' hypotheses about the name are skewed towards the Mary of the bible and events surrounding her. This is even more evident with the name Veronica. Her name was something more like Pheronike, a Greek name with the same roots as Berenice, meaning "victory bringer." However, when it was translated into Latin, it became "Veronica" after the words "vera icon" or "true image," based on the fact that St. Veronica was to have wiped the face of Jesus, and the cloth came away with the imprint of his face on it.

Here are some common names with inaccurate definitions, some of them centuries old:

Catherine: In its original Greek form, this name is Aikaterene, whose root is unknown. However, from an early time, Christians associated it with the Greek word katharos, meaning "pure." This is because of its association with the purity of St. Catherine. Really, we have no idea what it means (but that's pretty boring, isn't it?)

Anthony: Ever notice how in England, they pronounce this name Ant-ony, while in the USA, the TH is is pronounced, and it's ANTH ony? Originally, the name was Latin, and it was Antonius (probably from an unknown Etruscan word), which became Antony. Somewhere down the line, it got associated with the Greek word anthos, meaning "flower," and thus the (silent) TH was put in. Most baby name books still list it as meaning something like "flowering." However, I've also seen it as meaning "inestimable worth." I'm not sure where this comes from, if you have any ideas, let me know!

Aaron: The Biblical Aaron's name probably comes from an unknown Egyptian word. However, it's been associated with the Hebrew word har-on, meaning "mountain of strength" for centuries.

Vanessa: The Irish satirist and playwright Jonathan Swift coined this name for a friend, ESther VANHomrigh. However, it is also the genus of the The Red Admiral butterfly, which was probably actually named after the Swift character (thanks C.K. Evans for the info!). Because of this, most name books list Vanessa as meaning "butterfly."

Educated guesses don't just originate with name with ancient roots. They happen with modern names as well. There have been many names coined in the 20th century that don't have classical meanings as we know them. For example, the name Kayla. It has been proposed that Kayla is a Yiddish name coming from several different sources (form of Celia, form of Michaela etc.). However, the name came to public attention after the character in the soap opera Days Of Our Lives, whose name probably was not coined due to thousand year old Yiddish roots. Most likely, Kayla in its modern form represents a combination of Kay, a short form of Katherine and -la, a common feminine name ending (like in Darla and Marla). Most parents don't choose it because they know of its Yiddish tradition, in which was fairly uncommon at the time of its introduction. However, if your parents named you Kayla because they wanted an old Yiddish name, well that's another story.

When authors don't know the meaning of a name (usually a modern name that has just come into use), it's not unusual to make one up based on the fact that it sounds like another name or word in a different language. An example of this is tha name Danica. In Slavic languages, this name is pronounced something like /dah neet za/ and means "morning star." In one name book, though, I found it listed as being Irish. Why is this? The only thing I could come up with is the fact that in English we pronounce this name /DAN-ick-a/, which sounds something like the Irish name Donnchadh/Donnacha, which is pronounced something like /DUNN ikh a/. I'm sure that if you take any name, the sounds have a meaning in other languages. For example, the Vietnamese names Phuc and Bich-- they certainly don't sound obscene in their native language.

some more examples of this:

Arabella: many books list this as meaning "beautiful altar" in Latin. True, if you break it down, ara means "altar" in Latin, and bella means "beautiful" in Italian and Spanish. However, this origin of this name really is disputed. It is most likely a form of Annabel(la), but scholars aren't sure.

Oscar: This is an old Irish name coming from the worse os meaning "deer" and cara, "love." It was used in James MacPherson for a character for his 18th-century Ossianic Poems. Napoleon was a fan of the book, and got his godson's parents to give the name to their son, who became Oscar of Sweden. As a result, this name became fairly popular in Sweden. Since most Swedish names have germanic roots, some authors incorrectly deduced that Oscar came from the old Norse elements os meaning "god" (a common element in names such as Oswald, Osbert etc.) and gar meaning "spear" and thus is often listed as meaning "divine spear."

Alyssa: This name is most likely a fancified version of Alice, following the trend of names like Clarissa and Marissa. Somewhere down the line it got associated with the flower alyssum, which, in ancient times thought to cure rabies or madness. Because of this, the plant was named using the Greek words a "not" and lyssa meaning "insanity; madness." Thus many baby name books list Alyssa as meaning "sane; logical,"

Ailsa: I've seen this in multiple books listed as being "Scottish form of Elsa." Elsa is a form of Elizabeth used in some German and Scandinavian-speaking countries. Scottish has its own forms of Elizabeth, Ealasaid in Gaelic, and Elspeth in Scots. Ailsa comes from the place name Ailsa Craig in Scotland, which is an anglicization of the Gaelic name Creag Allasa, which means "Alfsigr's Rock" (Alfsigr is a Norse name derived from words meaning "elf; supernatural being" and "victory.")

Intent plays a part in naming as well. What do I mean by intent? The name Mira means "devotee of God" in Sanskrit. However, Mira is also used (albeit infrequently) in English, possibly as a form of Miriam, or Myra. It is used in Slavic countries as a short form of names beginning with Mir- meaning "peace" (Miroslava, Mirna). In Spanish, "mira" means "he [or she] looks" and is not a name, simply a verb. So, what does "Mira" mean? If you are named Mira, and your family is Indian, it is likely that the Sanskrit meaning is the one your parents intended. One could always give all of the meanings in a book, but most baby name books just give one of the many definitions. it's possible that Mira means different things in other languages, but to list them all in one book would be tedious and not necessary. Most people pick names because they sound nice. There are reasons that a name comes into popular naming pool, usually because of a character, famous person, or the like.

Ethnic Names

Since the 1970s, baby name books have tried to include names from diverse cultures. This is noble, however, the names aren't always accurate. For example, be wary of anything listed as being Native American or American Indian. The names listed are iffy at best. Here is what one reader has to say on the matter:

I thought I would inform you that the name "AIYANA" is not Native American nor does it mean "eternal bloom". As a Native American, I do not want people to be misled concerning this or disappointed when discovering that their name isn't what it is thought to be. The same principle applies to the following so-called Native American Indian names: Chenoa does not mean "white dove" in Cherokee, Kaya does not mean "little sister" in Hopi. Nadie does not mean "wise" in Algonquin.

Generally, if it is Native American, there should be a distinction as to which tribe/clan it comes from. If you want a traditional Native American name, you will need to speak to an elder or religious leader in the tribal community you are associated with. Every Native American tribe has slightly different naming traditions. In many, a true name is not given until after a baby is born, not until the child reaches puberty in some cases. In other tribes babies must be given names from their parents' own family or clan. Traditional American Indian names are often spiritually divined, unique to each individual, and/or related to an accomplishment, rite of passage, dream, or life event. Obviously, this is not something you are going to be able to replicate online, in a baby book, or from strangers. There is no way to get a traditional Indian name other than from an older family member, tribal religious leader, or an elder who has met you and probably your child in person.

However, if you are looking for an American-style secular baby name inspired by your Native American heritage, you do have two simpler options available to you:

1. Use a Native American variant of a Hebrew or Christian name, for example, Kateri (Catherine) or Etian (Stephen). This is the Native American equivalent of Spanish names like Catalina (Catherine) and Esteban (Stephen).
2. Use or adapt a word from a Native American language. This is the Native American equivalent of Irish names like Colleen or Shannon (neither of which is traditional as a person's name, but they are inspired by Irish Gaelic words).

Native American-inspired names such as these are not traditional ones, nor will they be truly unique to your child (any more than Colleen or Catalina would be), but they may be interesting or attractive to you, and they may help your child make a pleasing connection with your heritage. And any time Native American languages get positive exposure in our culture, I consider that a good thing.

Also be wary of anything claiming to be "African." Africa is a huge, diverse continent with tons of different countries, languages and cultures. If a book doesn't know which one of them a name comes from, there's a good chance it doesn't know what the real meaning is either.

Be wary of books that simply list names, origins and meanings. For example, a common entry may look like this:

VANESSA (Greek) Butterfly
variants: Van, Nessa, Nessie, Essie

If a book doesn't explain a name's origins in a paragraph or two, it probably isn't very accurate. Also, I don't know about you, but I always find the 'variant forms' totally unhelpful-- they're usually weird nicknames I could have come up with myself, or they give very little information about foreign forms of the names etc.

Names claiming to be Irish, Gaelic, Celtic, or Scottish can be misleading as well. Irish-oid names were en vogue for a while (i.e., Shannon, Erin, Colleen etc.), so lots of baby name books started listing things as being "Celtic" or "Gaelic." For clarification on what these words actually refer to, see this page. Here are a few names I've found listed as being "Irish," "Celtic," "Gaelic" etc.

Oriane: Probably comes from Latin meaning "sunrise" or from old French meaning "golden." How it became "Celtic" is beyond me.

Megan: This is a WELSH pet form of Margaret. No matter what spelling you use (people have tried to "irishize" it by spelling it Meaghan, Meghan, Meagan etc.), it still is a Welsh form of a Greek name.

McKayla: There are a few books that list this name as being "the Irish form of Mikayla/Michaela." This is SO WRONG! Adding Mc- in front of a name doesn't automatically make it Irish! McKayla is another U-neeq spelling of Michaela (there are tons: here are the variations found by the Social Security administration in the year 2000 (in order of popularity):
Makayla, Mikayla, Michaela, Mikaela, Mckayla , Micaela, Mikala, Makala, Mykayla, Makaila, Micayla, Macayla, Makaela, Mikaila, Mickayla, Makaylah, Mykala, Michaella/Mekayla, Michayla, Michala/Mackayla , Mykaela, Michela, Micheala, Mikaylah, Mikela/Makalah, Mikhayla/Mkayla/Mykaila, Machaela/Mickaela, Mikhaila/Mikalah/Mychaela, Mikhaela, Mckaylah/Makailah, Mikeala/Miquela, Micalah/Macala/Makela/Mikaelah,

Cedric: This name was invented by the 19th century author Sir Walter Scott for his novel Ivanhoe. Scott most likely based Cedric on the Saxon name Cerdic.

Gilda: my name book says it means "servant of God" in "Celtic." While it's true that in the middle ages in Ireland and Scotland, the names of saints were considered too sacred to give to people, and thus named children "servant names" like Giolla Iosa (servant of Jesus) and Giolla Iain (servant of St. John), Gilda is not one of these names. It was an obscure Italian nickname for the germanic name Eormanhild which was brought to public light by a character in Verdi's opera Rigoletto. Rita Haywood also starred in a movie with the same name.

So there you have it, reasons why your baby name book probably sucks. If you like the meaning of a name, check other sources to see if they back the definition up. If you find that a name has a different meaning depending on what book you check, chances are the meaning is unknown. If you are browsing through name books at the bookstore, trying to decide which one to buy, try some test names. Look up Vanessa, Megan, Anthony, Mary, or Catherine. See what the book says! If it fudges up those origins, it most likely will not be that accurate.

Quality, Not Quantity

When deciding between baby name books, which would you pick? one with 5000 names, or one with 10,000 names? You'd probably pick the 10,000 name book, because it has seemingly more to choose from... or DOES it?

Many of the name books list variant spellings of already-existing names that can be pretty outlandish!

For example, one book I have lists the name CAPRI with these variants: Capra, Capre, Capria, Kapre, Kapri. First of all, Capri is a pretty unusual name for a human, (although my dad drove one in the 70s!), second of all: Kapre? Different. Unusual. OK-- I guess it's an idea.The name CAROL has 89 variants. ELIZABETH has about as many, including some oddballs like Helsa, Lusa, Ysbell, Lib, and 5 different spellings of "Libby."

If you really want a different spelling of the name Libby, chances are you can think one up yourself. However, adding in all of these contributes to the "10,000" or "100,000" names or whatever your book boasts.

How about some of those weird names? Ring, Rodmann, Dutch... instead of giving ideas for unusual names, many books list everything they can think of. It makes it a monumental task to have to wade through all the weird and outdated names to get to the ones that sound good today. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about unusual names, but throwing oddities like "Eochaidh" (an Irish Gaelic name which most English speakers can't even pronounce), "Tree" (ok, maybe some hippies might like this one, but I've never known anyone with that name!), "Gaily" (seriously, folks) etc. I find, is just distracting. For more weird names culled from baby name books, visit our It Came From the Baby Name Book page.

However, accuracy may not be your thing. If you don't care what names mean, then name books can be a lot of fun!

However, I still have a list of Recommended Name Books for you to peruse.