A rose by any other name...
February 18, 2008 11:10 AM   Subscribe

What makes a good name?

I've decided to change my middle and last names, but I'm having difficulty pinpointing what makes a name "good". We all know that person with the first and last names that just flow together. But what makes a name do that and remain in your mind? Why do some names just sound better than others?

Examples of badass names are welcome, too.
posted by sephira to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you should look at the stress pattern of the names. I have a stressed syllable as the last syllable in my first name and the first syllable in my last name, and I think it doesn't flow. On the other hand, I know a woman whose first name and last name make up six syllables, and it goes stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed. Her girlfriend has a similar thing going on in her name, but her pattern is unstressed-stressed-unstressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed. It's like poetry.
posted by christinetheslp at 11:14 AM on February 18, 2008

If you're going to go ahead and change your name, go all the way and change it to an everyday word. People like Samantha Power or Larry Brilliant have easy to remember names that probably help them out. It sounds kind of silly at first but I think it works. Just like how everyone thought "Wii" was a really stupid name for the new Nintendo system at first.

Also, why not use your screen name? You could be Erin Sephira.
posted by delmoi at 11:25 AM on February 18, 2008

I like names that have different numbers of syllables in the first and last name. Three syllables followed by two, for example. Worst of all are names, like mine, that have two syllables in both the first and last name, but at least the stress pattern in mine flows decently enough.

A great name is something like "Christopher Robin" from the Winnie the Pooh. Good stress pattern, good syllabic flow and pattern. Kind of wimpy and playground beatdown-inducing, though.

Or you could go with Delmoi's suggestion and change your name to Erin Awesome. That would be, uh, awesome.
posted by Justinian at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2008

I know you framed the question as how names sound, but let me just point out: Easy To Spell Is Good. This makes regular words good choices, like delmoi suggests, or "classic" names like Miller, Johnson, or Martinez. Certainly shy away from anything that requires you to spell the name (Rodgers instead of Rogers, Smyth instead of Smith, etc).
posted by Rock Steady at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2008

One of the odd rules my parents had is that every name should have 6 syllables. I don't think it's a hard and fast rule, but it does hit some sort of sweet spot complexity-wise.

If you're taking a new last name, may as well make it something unique, the advantages of which are multiple. But not too unique or - as expressed above - hard to spell. That annoys people.
posted by outlier at 11:42 AM on February 18, 2008

I'd agree with Rock Steady, but consider this: my name is very easy to spell, but frequently misheard (as "price"). So I'd add "unambiguous sounding" to the list. This has nothing to do with how a name sounds, of course, but when you're talking on the phone to some functionary, it can save a minute of the "we have no record of you" dance.

I like short names. I like the fact that I can use my actual name as my login almost everywhere.
posted by adamrice at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2008

Most often, it sounds better to have a different number of syllables in each name. e.g. Jon Bob Smith vs. Jonathon Robert Smith.
posted by winston at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2008

I think that pairing a short first name (Erin counts, I would think) with a longer surname works out well. (Of course, as my own name is ____ ________, that's almost certainly bias speaking.)

If you want to use the rhythm met- excuse me, the stress method suggested above, this rhythmically organized list of female names might come in handy.
posted by Iridic at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, why not use your screen name? You could be Erin Sephira.

I could, but currently my middle name isn't what I could consider a 'real name' and I consider it to be a source of embarrassment. My last name is very unusual, and difficult to pronounce and spell, so something simple without any kind of confusion is what I'm aiming for. Unique is not so good, as I dislike that I'm the only "Erin MyCurrentLastName" in the world and it makes me easy to find.

I could change my name to "Erin bum-BUM" on Greg Nog's suggestion, but then I'd constantly be correcting people. "It's not Erin BUM-bum, it's Erin bum-BUM." I think I just found my sock puppet account.
posted by sephira at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2008

If anonymity's your aim, then just pick one of the more common Irish surnames. "Walsh" and "Quinn" are simple to spell and pretty on the tongue. You could even go for an easy iambic "ba-BA" in "O'Neill."

And when appended to Erin, each of these will easily net you over a 100K hits on Google.
posted by Iridic at 11:59 AM on February 18, 2008

Strangely enough, I was at an engineering expo over the weekend, and happened to notice, in passing, that most of the tech people there had names falling in either one of two categories:

Two-syllable first name, one syllable last name (Darryl Hall)
Three-syllable first name, two-syllable last name (Muhammed Rashad).
posted by misha at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2008

Seconding all the above, it's rhythm and spellability that count.

And, the last sound of one name and the first sound of the next name should not be the same.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:15 PM on February 18, 2008

There should be an element of mystery. But don't go overboard because people will think you're a porn star.

On the flipside, you don't want to pick a totally bland name because then people will think you're in the witness protection program.

Pick something which has meaning for you. That way, when people ask you about your name and you tell them you changed it, you will have the chance to reveal an interesting fact about yourself.

As for me, I rather like "Heintf". That's a solid name.
posted by Laugh_track at 12:25 PM on February 18, 2008

Unless you hate your family, or are trying to hide from something, I think you should keep your last name. It's the key to your ancestry, and even if you don't care, your (potential) children might. You also need to just go ahead and get over the having to explain/correct people bit. Even names as innocuous and Adam Smith and Bob Jones have connotations.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:27 PM on February 18, 2008

Mr Gunn, how did I know you were a Mister before I even looked?

Women routinely change their surnames upon marriage. They still have ancestral lineage, and children who are not cut off from it by virtue of a name change. In other words, people change their last names all the time, and civilization marches on just fine.


Sephira, you might want to check out this fun name tool, just for kicks.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:49 PM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Three-syllable first name, two-syllable last name (Muhammed Rashad).

Whoa! My name is like that and I work in a tech field. I didn't realize it was destiny.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:55 PM on February 18, 2008

All I can suggest is that "Danger" would make an excellent middle name. (I've been trying to get one of the couples that I work with who are due to have a kid in a month to seriously consider this as an option.)
posted by quin at 2:07 PM on February 18, 2008

i changed my first name—actually, let me restate that. i didn't have a middle name so i added one and use that name instead of my first name. it's not that i dislike my first name but that due to the way my parents spelled it, people think it's a lot harder to pronounce than it actually is (it's actually quite simple) so they get tripped up on it. my last name, however, is a short, simple one syllable word.

i chose a name that is slightly unusual, both as a name and in spelling, but not so difficult that people are put off by it. as a result, everybody always remembers my name. i also recommend that you choose a first name with a different number of syllables as your last name.
posted by violetk at 2:09 PM on February 18, 2008

i'd also add that, should i ever have any kids, i'd use the same rules: something unusual enough so that there won't be another in his/her class at school, but not so weird they'd get beat up for it.
posted by violetk at 2:11 PM on February 18, 2008

I believe it was Douglas Adams who suggested that a short last name preceded by a longer first name was perfect for authors; it allows the last name to be in nice large print, with the longer first name in small text above. A good example would be, uh, himself.

Only useful if you're an author, I guess.
posted by mhz at 2:19 PM on February 18, 2008

I agree about the rhythm being important. Seems like longer names are more difficult to get right - and if you're a Joyce reader, you'll want to avoid a double dactyl like Malachi Mulligan :)
posted by Chris4d at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2008

Badass name: I used to know a guy in school whose last name was Commander. Paired with his one-syllable, no nonsense first name (which I won't put since it was pretty unique as well) he was right on the line between badass and a little...over the top. (It was his real name though.) You could be, for example, Sephira Rae Commander. Flows well too.
posted by frobozz at 2:27 PM on February 18, 2008

... apparently mhz and myself missed the memo about how you're keeping your first name, and so neither of our answers are much help. Sorry, carry on.
posted by Chris4d at 2:34 PM on February 18, 2008

I knew a guy whose last name was Justice, which I always thought was pretty bad-ass.
posted by hazelshade at 3:16 PM on February 18, 2008

Rhythm is important in people remembering names. My name used to be just two syllables (first name/last name) and people had a hard time remembering it. I kept my ex-husband's name when we divorced because it 'scans' much better.

1-2-3-4 names or 1-2-3-4-5 names are the easiest ones for people to remember. An example of a 1-2-3-4 name is Johnny Carson. A 1-2-3-4-5 name is Eleanor Rigby.
posted by essexjan at 5:07 PM on February 18, 2008

I would definitely pick a month for your last name. Then instead of having to spell it, you could say "August, like the month." I can't think of many other things that most literate people can spell. I guess a day of the week would also be good for that purpose. Then you could wake up every Tuesday and be like "Damn, my day again! I predict things will be great."

I get compliments on my first name, Simone, all the time. I highly recommend it for you as well as any daughters you might have. I think I have only ever complimented one or two people on their first names ever in my life (the names that spring immediately to mind are Dipti and Annick, both names I just adore), so I have to assume these compliments are pretty rare. I love my name too, so when I meet people who do, it really brightens my day.
posted by crinklebat at 5:20 PM on February 18, 2008

Pick a personal hero, and use their first name or last name as your new last name.

As for what makes a good name, it should be something conventional and snappy at the same time. Anglo-Saxon occupation last names are excellent choices, like "Baker" or "Miller" or "Cooper." As for your middle name, nobody ever uses it, just pick what you would call yourself had you free reign.
posted by Electrius at 5:56 PM on February 18, 2008

What you want is:


In other words, a trochee followed by an amphibrach and an iamb.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:23 AM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: To clear things up, I am not hiding from anyone, and I don't hate my family. I do hate my name though. My middle name is a constant source of embarrassment for me, and I have a lot of personal issues that go into my hatred for it, and frankly if I don't have to be straddled to it the rest of my life I'm not going to. My last name is long, it is difficult to pronounce and spell, and generally a pain. It is not "the key to my ancestry", and let's not overcomplicate the issue. In the unlikely event I ever have children they could, oh I dunno, ask me about it and I would tell them. In the meantime I'd rather not have the bank clerk stumble through my name, or the DMV misspell my name again or miss having my name called aloud because it gets butchered so badly.

I thought about using my screen name, but honestly there's no point. I chose the name for Geocities circa 1995, but now it's an Irish band, a perfume, some guy's last name, etc etc etc. It's not as unique as it once was, even though most people wouldn't know anything about it. Sephira is on the internet, Erin is in real life.

As far as a middle name, I'd never considered the name before, and I'm not entirely sure I like it on it's own, but Erin Elise has been stuck in my mind. Does alliteration help in making a good name, or should it be avoided?

I wish my parents had put this much thought into naming their children.
posted by sephira at 6:13 AM on February 19, 2008

Another thing to avoid is common letters/sounds at the end of the first name and beginning of the last name (e.g. Erin Noggin sounds like Erin Oggin). If I were in your shoes, I'd pick a last name like Derrida, Wittgenstein, or Heidegger. Maybe "Onion" or "Scotch" as a middle name. Matthew Onion Derrida. No shit.
posted by mattbucher at 10:09 AM on February 19, 2008

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