In Defense of Isobel and Aiden: Ten Reasons to Embrace Variant Spellings

by appellationmountain on October 28, 2009

Head over to a baby naming website and suggest naming your baby-to-be Alivia. Or Jaxon.

Some will applaud your choice and add that Alyveah and Jaxin are cute, too. Several will sigh, and ask what’s wrong with Olivia and Jackson.

I’ll admit to a few snarky comments about Konner and Mackynzee. So maybe it sounds like hypocrisy – or blasphemy – to now write that perhaps variant spellings are not the end of the world.

The more I mull it over, the more I think that I may have been wrong to object to spelling variants – at least some of the time. Here’s why:

10. Good luck determining the original. Which came first, Catherine or Katherine?

It’s a trick question. The name – like so many – comes from the Greek. The original wasn’t just written in a different language – it was written in a different alphabet. K and C are equally valid translations. If a name predates the English language – and many do – there may not be a definitive version.

In our spellcheck world, it is difficult to remember that widespread literacy is quite new, and standardized spellings are even more recent. In 1880, Catherine, Catharine, Cathrine, Katherine, Kathryn, Katharine, Kathrine, Katheryn and Kathryne all appeared in the US Top 1000. Go back far enough and you’ll find people who spelled their own name differently in different records.

Pre-widespread literacy, the spelling didn’t matter. In the era of handwritten records, it wouldn’t have been possible to enforce a correct spelling. And now?

It’s a little late.

9. The most popular version might not be closest to the original. So if it isn’t possible to pinpoint the original, why not use the most common? It will save your child headaches, right?

Maybe so. Hailey ranked #25 in 2008 – far more popular than Haylee, Hayley, Haylie, Hailee, Hailie or Haley. But the original version of name is an English surname – making Haley the more authentic pick. Likewise, Caitlin and Aidan are Gaelic heritage choices – but Kaitlyn and Aiden outrank both.

If Jayden is far more common than Jadon, which is the variant? And will Caitlin take any comfort in wearing the “most authentic” version when she’s spelling her name for the umpteenth time?

8. Making a heritage choice can lead parents to choose an apparently unconventional spelling. Let’s say you’re of Scottish descent. Isobel might feel like the better choice, even if she’s awfully close to the chart-topping Isabella.

Our son was named after his grandfather Aleksander, born an ocean away in Poland. That leads to the next point.

7. Honoring a loved one can also encourage parents to make a different choice. Our Aleksander became Alexanderafter immigrating. That simpled up our decision. But what if he’d held onto his k-spelling?

Likewise, what if you’re naming your daughter after one of those Kathrynes from back in the day? Sure, you could update the spelling. But you can also argue that preserving the spelling is part of passing on your loved one’s appellation.

6. Does it really do any harm? I’ve often argued that Madisyn sounds just as common as Madison, so why put your child to the trouble of spelling her name every. single. time. And while I think that’s true, it is also true that Madisyn is just a tiny headache. The world is filled with people named Alison and Krista, Dillon and Stephen who have survived spelling their names.

You can, of course, go too far. Maddasihnne, for example, is an exercise in pointless excess.

5. Could it do some good? If you’re choosing an unusual name, it can seem like a kindness to try to Anglicize or modernize your pick. Zofia is a family name on my Polish husband’s side. Would we maintain the exotic, vibrant Z of Zofia? (Technically it is pronounced differently – ZAWF yah – though I’ve met Poles who use three syllables in the US – ZO fee ah.) Opt for the chart-topping Sophia? Or split the difference with Sofia?

What if you’re naming a daughter after Great Aunt Eithne? Spelling your daughter’s name Enya might save her some confusion – and still honor your beloved aunt.

4. You might honestly think a variant spelling is correct. I don’t mean this to sound snobbish. Television and movies, books and songs often pluck names out of nowhere, and their creators take some license with the spellings. So if you first hear of Damien in a movie, or Lorelai on television, why would you suspect that the name has another spelling?

Or maybe you hear the name Schuyler. That’s certainly not an intuitive spelling. The phoentic Skyler or Skylar seems more obvious. It’s easy to argue that any parent owes their kiddo enough research to know something about a name they plan to bestow. But, of course, plenty of resources online and in print would list Skylar. And Damien. And so on.

3. It could possibly minimize pronunciation issues. Parents sometimes choose Madalyn or Carolyn to emphasize that they want their daughters’ names pronounced with “lynne” at the end, rather than “line” or “leen.”

Doubtless they’re really irritated when their kiddo is called car oh line anyhow. But it is an understandable impulse.

2. It could fit a family tradition. While it can seem a bit much, some families do opt to use the same letter for all of their children’s names. Or some might pass on a pair of initials. While it can lead to oddities like the TLC mega-family’s Jinger Duggar, it can also lead to small variations, like Johnathan to honor a grandfather John, or Dianna – an anagram of my maiden name, something my husband thinks is wildly silly, but I still find appealing.

1. It has meaning. Yes, this is covered under the two related to family names. And the heritage choices. Maybe most of the other ones, too.

You can’t make a name “more unique” by changing the spelling – Ryleigh is too close to the Top 100 Riley to be distinctive on a daughter, and Aydin still sounds common on a son. Better to choose a less-often heard moniker than to monkey with a popular one.

But there are plenty of compelling reasons to opt for an unusual spelling, from heritage choices to family custom to simply falling in love with the spelling Cristina.

Just remember your reasons, and keep your cool when you receive yet another birthday card for your daughter Christina.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea Y August 4, 2014 at 1:49 AM

I used to be really bothered by variant spellings but then I spent a few years reading Nameberry daily and now I am more bothered by name snobbery than unusual spellings. I still cringe, I admit, when I see a name with a very unlikely spelling but then I remind myself that being free to name our children pretty much anything is a great gift of our generation.

Plus, my Harriet’s middle name is Franceszka and it took me awhile to get over the spelling, but I didn’t want to change it because it is how her great-grandmother spells it. Knowing my reasons make me more open to the idea that other people have their own, equally valid, reasons.

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L. December 5, 2010 at 2:20 PM

My mom chose my nn Lori and my dad insisted on a formal name more appropriate for a lawyer (which I did later become-ha). So I was named Loren. There were always other girls named Lauren and often Lori too, but almost never another Loren (all the others seem to be geriatric men). My crazy mom still insists that Lauren and Loren are completely separate names that aren’t even pronounced the same. I never felt like my version was spelled the right way, even though I prefer the streamlined look of it. The other aspect of my spelling that I appreciate is its similarity to the Spanish Lorena, because I live in Latin America and it’s just easier for people to call me that (with nn Lore, pronounced almost the same as Lori). I have seen how Spanish speakers mangle Lauryn (lah ew reen) so I am definitely glad my parents didn’t choose that!

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Meaghan December 3, 2010 at 9:11 AM

My mom named me Meaghan. She believes it was the original Gaelic spelling. I have to spell it for everybody and some people never get it right. But I’d still rather be Meaghan than Megan.

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Carolyn July 28, 2010 at 11:31 PM

I so appreciate the point about Carolyn and Caroline being different names. So many people think these names are the same. Nameberry even claims the -lyn spelling brings it downmarket!

I was named after my mom, Linda, and my aunt, Carole, so it really isn’t a phonetic spelling of Caroline. Try telling that to anyone else in the world. Oh well. I appreciate this article, that’s for sure!

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UrbanAngel February 27, 2010 at 2:38 PM

The first part of my name ends in -ie which is the traditional, feminine spelling form of my name. I had a teacher who marked my English essays for about 6 years, saw my name COUNTLESS times & spelled it -y. EVERY name can be changed

Personally, I generally prefer original spellings, though there are a few exceptions.I do think that as long as the names don’t break the linguistic phonetics of that particular name i.e Rileigh or Rylee etc,I can live with it. People will know what you are talking about & more importantly – SAY the name correctly.Some names have different pronunciations or spellings based on region or even influential languages. I once saw someone say that she couldn’t understand why her son’s kindergarten teacher spelled her son’s name Zackery as opposed to Zachary. If you think about it , -ck is a logical ending & sound that is very much the same in most of English , -ch is versatile, on the other hand.Personal exposure dictates what is ‘normal’ or ‘right’. Someone I know once said ‘Mikayla’ is elegant & classy while ‘Micheala” looks like Micheal-ah. To her, the other spelling made more sense. This person was highly educated as well

AT the end of the day, as long as the parent puts in a lot of thought as to what they want to name their children & whatever they do is for pure reasons – it doesn’t matter. Personally, I don’t think you cannot judge someone by the name they choose or how they spell it. Obviously, there are limitations with spelling, but as long as the parent is looking after their child – I couldn’t care what they named their kid or how they spelled it. I think there’s A LOT of snobbism i names & some people think they’re better than others just because they choose a certain name or spell it a certain way

.Personally, I’d rather associate with the people who spell the name Kaidyn than someone who chooses Charles & thinks they are a better person for choosing a ‘classic’ name. You show your sophistication in how you treat people.As long as people can SAY the names, it’s up to them. SOme alternative spellings might seem more logical to people than others

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UrbanAngel May 31, 2010 at 3:16 PM

Man, but I was feeling wordy that day ! Yowza! It’s actually embarrassing

Anyway, I meant that you can’t judge someone because of how their name is spelled.

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appellationmountain October 29, 2009 at 5:22 PM

Thanks, Marilyn!

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Marilyn October 29, 2009 at 4:25 PM

What I like so much about this post is that it is sympathetic towards other peoples’ choices—instead of snobby. Most of us here don’t like the “creative” spellings, which is fine and we don’t have to use them, but I think it’s important to remember that our preferences don’t make us better/smarter/cooler than people who choose differently. Which is exactly what this post did such a great job of saying. So, thank you!

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bevin October 29, 2009 at 9:26 AM

Doesn’t matter what your name is, it can go wrong. I get Bevan more often than I get Bevin even though Bevan is the boy spelling and my fiance gets Johnny more than Jonny, also Johnathon more than Jonathan. What can you do? :)

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Smismar October 29, 2009 at 12:40 AM

I grew up with this (sort of). My name is Toni and I constantly have to correct people,” With an ‘i’!” In general, unique spellings drive me nuts, but I’m an offender myself, I suppose. My daughter’s middle name is Caron, pronounced the same as Karen. Why did I pick that? Well, my mother is Carol and MIL is Sharon – viola: Caron! I suppose I could have gone with Karen, and I might have if this was her first name, but then it wouldn’t really have been after our mothers. Also, before I finally settled on it, I was pleased to find out that Caron is a legitimate Welsh name not even related to Karen (it’s a variant of Carys – another name I love.)

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engloutie October 28, 2009 at 11:15 PM

It bothers me some that so-called kre8tif spellers don’t say much in any of the naming discussions on any of the websites I follow. Instead there’s a lot of preaching to the choir amongst dedicated name nerds, who also *seem* to be a rather homogeneous group (not that it’s easy to tell on the internet!). While I find the argument for practicality universally compelling, a lot of other reasons for going with an accepted spelling just seem to dance around the fact that unusual spellings are often associated (accurately or inaccurately) with being poor or non-white, and some people then start applying (pervasive, systemic, culturally transmitted) stereotypes to the parents/babies. I’d be lying if I said I never saw a name like “Kyleah” and didn’t automatically think: mom got pregnant as a teenager and never finished high school, and I’ll be surprised if her kids do much better. OUCH! What a horrible train of thought from just a name! But I bet I’m not alone! My point is not that Kyleah’s mom should know that other well-educated, middle-class people like myself will judge her daughter based on her name, or that we name nerds are a bunch of racists; instead my point is that we need to keep an eye on what assumptions we make when we see these unusual choices, and do some reflecting on why they actually bother us.

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appellationmountain October 29, 2009 at 5:39 PM

Thanks, Engloutie. It’s a nice point. I also suspect that many, many of the posters in name forums are young themselves – not parents, but teenagers imagining what their someday children MIGHT be called.

In my case, if I’d had a child at the age of 15 or so? There’s a very good chance I’d have named her Mystina.

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UrbanAngel February 27, 2010 at 2:42 PM

Most of the people in those forums are young girls. They are just trying to find out what they like & who they are as ‘nameists”.Also, what I find ironic is how often name nerds say name is trendy or unacceptable or it won’t age well – yet, these names are in the top 100 & so the majority of the population who are ADULTS disagree- they’re using them!Many times, it’s the adults as well, who are changing the names in terms of spelling. I think the teenage theory only goes so far. Much depends on your environment & what you are exposed to

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Ashley SP October 28, 2009 at 10:26 PM

This is interesting. We chose a variant spelling for our youngest son and I don’t think it will adversely affect him (his name is Calum Alasdhair.) My husband disliked the extra l in “Callum” and I admit that now that he is named, the extra L looks wrong to me as well. Alasdhair was for a Scottish friend and obviously we weren’t going to change the spelling even if it isn’t as common as Alistair.

We also do not live in the UK where these names are much more popular–I’m pretty sure that Callum or Calum haven’t even made the top 1000 here in the US. The biggest problem is pronunciation but we already have an Isla so we deal with that on a daily basis anyways. Heck, my family (southern in heritage) cannot even pronounce my oldest son’s name correctly (Liam.) They say LY-am.

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Bewildertrix October 28, 2009 at 11:19 PM

That is my preferred spelling of Calum by FAR. The simpler the better.

I have an Isla too and ‘suffer’ for dropping the extra T in the second part of her first name, Scarlet, and also an N in my son’s name Conor, frequently. Still, wouldn’t have it any other way. Conor is the traditional way to anglicise Conchobar in Ireland and that’s just fine with me, “You spelt it wrong” naysayers can jump.

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appellationmountain October 29, 2009 at 5:21 PM

You’re right, Ashley – in the US, you’d have to spell Callum anyhow …

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Charlotte Vera October 28, 2009 at 8:57 PM

When we decided to name our daughter after my husband’s mother we also decided to retain the way her name was spelt, Roseanna instead of Rosanna. I realise that she’ll go through her life having to spell it out for people (or say, “like ‘rose’ and ‘anna’ smushed together”), but to my husband that way is the right way. Personally, I think I prefer the way Roseanna looks to Rosanna, although I don’t know if I would have gone with a variant spelling were it not for the reasons we chose the name in the first place.

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Sebastiane October 28, 2009 at 8:23 PM

I agree that phonetic spellings and authentic foreign variants are just not comparable. I have no issues with Isobel or Izabela, Anne or Ann, Catherine or Katherine, it is completely different when parents start spelling them out phonetically because they think it looks cute. Its sad that Makayla is more popular than the beautiful Michaela. Alivia just does not look right to me.

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Kayt October 30, 2009 at 6:52 AM

I’m a Katherine, and I had a lady write down my name as Kathyreinne once. I corrected her, and she told me her daughter was Kathyreinne, and she thought it just looked so pretty and sophisticated, and that Katherine looked so plain and boring. Blah!

I still want to hear a real reason for the -xs combo so popular in Jaxsyn/Jaxson. What is the point of that s?

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iris1973 August 3, 2011 at 2:59 PM

I’m a Katheryn. I feel your pain.

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photoquilty October 28, 2009 at 6:01 PM

Phonetic spellings annoy the crap out of me. Jaxon? Makayla? Yuck. Authentic foreign variants are another story. I like the name Anja, but understand that here in the US that might give some less aware people a hard time. However, Anya looks off to me. That would be a case in which I might go with the less common, stranger looking, yet authentic spelling. I think each name presents a separate problem and solution. My mother’s name is Stacey. We both agree that this is the right way to spell it. When I come across a Stacy I cringe, and Stacie and Staci make me want to cry. Which is right? She often has to spell her name for people. It’s a nuisance. the same goes for my nickname. Spelled one way, it’s a boy’s name. Spelled another, it’s a girl’s name. But many girls spell it differently. I faor the KISS rule and keep it simple – which is not the same as phonetic.

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appellationmountain October 29, 2009 at 5:21 PM

Ah, and see … I love Anya and find Anja extreme! Interesting about your Stacey/Stacy/Stacie/Staci experience. With the exception of Naomi, I have a particular dislike of names that end in -i. As does my sister, poor thing, who wears the name Teri.

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Kayt October 30, 2009 at 6:50 AM

Out of curiousity, how do you feel about Sonya vs. Sonja? Personally, I lean towards Sonya, just because there’s this angry, bitter old lady at work named Sonja who just ruined the name for me.

I also work with an Ila, which drives me nuts. I always write her name Isla first, then have to correct it.

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Bewildertrix October 31, 2009 at 8:25 PM

I love the Ila spelling although with the surge in Isla awareness now it has the potential to be very confusing. My great great grandparents used Illa on my great grandmother (said EYE la, yes, I know!) as they didn’t have a clue how to spell it. I suppose that happened a lot back then. Both Ila and Isla along with many variations pop up during the 19th century.

I considered Ila for my daughter (more like her great great grandmother’s name) and then Ile (the Gaelic name for Islay) but copped out and stuck with safer Isla.

Loads of Ilas in the cemetery here although you have to wonder how many went by EYE la. Some may well have been EE la.

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Katie M March 7, 2013 at 7:11 PM

I have several family members named Sonja, so for me this has always been the traditional spelling. To me it feels slightly ethnic, and reminds me of that side of my family’s heritage.

Sonya doesn’t bother me, but Sonia…Urgh!

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Katie M March 7, 2013 at 7:08 PM

I was going to say the same thing, especially about Makayla. My BFF’s daughter is a Makayla, and often she’ll get gifts and cards for “Michaela”, at which point this 8 year old child will either breakout in a hurricane fit of epic proportions, or make fun of the person who spelled her name wrong. I always want to correct her, and let her know that she’s the one spelling her name wrong!

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Kayt October 28, 2009 at 4:51 PM

I think there is a huge difference between using a researched, well thought out variant spelling and uniquing up a spelling for giggles. I think names like Isobel, Emilia, Zofia, etc. are all fine, but I just don’t understand the point of names like Jaxen or Cyndi. In my mind, they aren’t commonly accepted variations, and they probably aren’t honoring a family member. They’re just to be ‘unique’, and it drives me insane.

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Bewildertrix October 28, 2009 at 7:21 PM

Word.

A pet peeve, the ubiquitous Jorja/Jorjah for Georgia here in NZ and in Australia. There’s NOTHING redeeming or flattering about it. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to see in many local forums, overwhelming support for Jorja over Georgia ’cause it’s “cooL” and “unique”.

And you won’t stop me from saying this HOR hah either.

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Kayt October 30, 2009 at 6:48 AM

I can’t lie, the first time I saw Jorjah Fox, I assumed her name was said “HOR-hah”, like Jorge.

My son is James, and when I was pregnant, one of the other ladies at the OB’s office asked me how I was going to spell it. I just gave her a o_0 face. How the heck else are you supposed to spell James? Then again, she had it down to Hart or Jadon for her son, and she hadn’t decided how to spell Jadon yet.

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appellationmountain October 29, 2009 at 5:19 PM

You’re right – but I once heard of an Alicyn named after an Alfred (or Albert?) and Cynthia – her grandparents, maybe? I’m forgetting the exact details. That one always charmed me …

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Kayt October 30, 2009 at 6:45 AM

I can get behind the theory of Alicyn, but it’s almost a Nevaeh problem. If your name, or the spelling of your name, has a permanent asterisk of “it’s spelled this way for my grandparents Alfred and Cynthia”, you become “Alicyn spelled this way for my grandparents Alfred and Cynthia”, not “Alison”. I think this is the perfect sort of name for the middle name. It’s a super out-there spelling, but you don’t have to explain the whole reason every time because it’s in the middle.

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rockingfetal October 28, 2009 at 4:07 PM

My niece is Rebekah, which I find miles nicer than Rebecca. :)

I’ve said this before, but at this point I plan on using Isobel as a middle name if I’m pregnant with a girl. I’ve always favored that spelling, and when I saw it in a family tree book, it sealed the deal. I don’t think I would be attracted to the name if it were Isabelle or even Isabel. A less common spelling doesn’t give me pause in the middle name spot.

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Bek October 28, 2009 at 3:30 PM

I grew up with this problem – my name is Rebekah, but I have always ALWAYS had to spell it out for people. My version is actually closer to the Hebrew version (and used more frequently in English Biblical translations), but has obviously become the less popular version. It’s something I live with now, but I can tell you it IS tiring to constantly spell out your name for everyone, especially when they try to “correct” it for you. Oi. And now I’ve gone and married a guy with a last name that has several variations on spelling. What was I thinking? haha :)

So that’s just my two cents. Guess it just comes down to the fact that you can’t really win. Ever. haha.

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Kelly October 28, 2009 at 2:19 PM

Actually Damien is a “legit” variation; it’s the French form as seen at this link: http://www.behindthename.com/name/damien

With a lot of the names that we are more familiar with the -an ending forms the -en forms are the French variations (e.g. Adrian/Adrian, Lucian/Lucien*, Sebastian/Sebastien). *Lucian/Lucien was a name I suggested for Name of the Day, and it’s coming up next week.

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Kelly October 28, 2009 at 2:19 PM

I meant Adrian/Adrien for that one (not the -an twice). My mistake!

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appellationmountain October 29, 2009 at 5:18 PM

You’re right, of course, Kelly! I’m a huge fan of Julien, despite the fact that it would look misspelled to many, and Julian is far, far, far more common.

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SarahinJune October 28, 2009 at 1:52 PM

I’ve always liked Isobel best, and at one point was guilty of loving the name Sofija. I feel like there is a major difference between Kr8tyv spelling and going with an international varient of a name.

I think this article is right on point. Thank You!

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