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.

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