Names and Sinister Syllables

At my former job in the enrollment department at an elementary school, I constantly had names on my mind. From the creative to unheard of, to mind-bloggling pronunciations and the just completely unfortunate, I’ve thought lots about what names mean, what they stand for, and what can make or break a name. Why do some names spike in popularity in one decade only to be deemed totally passé the next?

From my personal observations and the US Social Security center, what is super in among 21st century parents is the -aiden sound: Jaden (the alternate spellings of this name is seemingly endless), Kaden, Aiden, Brayden, Haden…some work for girls, some work for boys, some go both ways. These names, according to Laura Wattenberg, an author and blogger who mulled through thousands of baby-name forums to come up with this list, are some of the most hated baby names in America now! They are as follows:


  1. Nevaeh (“Heaven” spelled backward and one of the most divisive names around, according to Wattenberg.)
  2. Destiny (People dislike names that confer a virtue onto a child, Wattenberg said — and many felt associated this name with exotic dancers.)
  3. Madison
  4. Mackenzie
  5. McKenna
  6. Addison (An example of a masculine named turned feminine, which many people dislike, Wattenberg said)
  7. Gertrude (People said this name is “ugly.”)
  8. Kaitlyn (For its “made-up” spelling.)
  9. Makayla
  10. Bertha
  11. Hope


  1. Jayden
  2. Brayden
  3. Aiden
  4. Kaden (These rhyming names struck many as overdone, Wattenberg reported.)
  5. Hunter (Too much like a last name or “too violent.”)
  6. Hayden
  7. Bentley (People dislike brand-name names, Wattenberg found, calling them “trashy”)
  8. Tristan
  9. Michael (Too boring, according to some.)
  10. Jackson

Wattenberg also wrote that similar sounding names or ones with a certain feature (like Mc or –aiden) that explode in popularity all at the same time tend to drive people nuts. This made me think of why I can’t stand the name Sloane – although it’s not super popular and the only Sloane I can think of is Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, I don’t like it because of the Sl sound. Think about other English words you know that start with Sl: slither, slime, slip, slash, slaughter…yuck!!

The Week recently featured a great article, “Why Is The Mor In Voldemort So Evil Sounding?” While the author does note that not all words with the Mor sound evoke an evil, sinister quality (people don’t necessarily run for dear life from Maureens or Morgans, except the author did take the opportunity to take a jab at Piers Morgan, haha) and its proposed that it’s because we English-speakers associate mort and the mor sound with Latin-based words that deal with death: “For starters, the Latin “mor” root (as in moribund and mortal and French words such as morte) refers to death.” It even shows up in our Germanic half of English as “there is an old Germanic root mora for darkness, which shows up in words such as murky; our modern word murder comes from an Old English word morth for the same; and, of course, a morgue is a place where dead bodies are kept.”

And guess what? There is a term for all this! In linguistics, the part of a word that carries a connotation just by a certain association is called a phonestheme. “Words that start with “gl” often have to do with light (glow, gleam, glimmer, glitter, glisten, etc.) even though they are not all related historically; similarly, words that start with “sn” often relate to the nose (snoot, sniffle, snot, snore, sneeze, etc.)”

Well, luckily I already have my girl names picked out that don’t carry any of this phonestheme drama: Scarlett (out of love for Scarlett O’Hara) and Willoughby (yes, like the Myrtle-Willoughby station in Bed Stuy). Say what you will about Willoughby, but I think it’s adorable and there are plenty of nicknames to take out of it (Willow, Billy, Bee) if my future daughter finds it too long or complicated, which it’s not. As for boys, I like Silas.

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Just for Fun, Kids These Days, Musings, Names, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Names and Sinister Syllables

  1. Pingback: Everyday Sounds in Lots of Languages | Language and other musings

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