In the first grade this year, we have girls named Kaitlyn, Kayla (two of them), Kaylee, Hayley, Kylie, Riley, Callie, Chloe, Carla, Lara, Kari, and Kira. While the only duplicate name is Kayla, it’s quite easy to get the others confused, as they all sound so similar.
In fact, most names have “sound-alikes” — names similar enough in quality that one could serve as as substitute for the other. For example, if you like Sophia but want something less common, you might be drawn to Safiya, Sophronia, or Serena. If you love Olivia, you just might like Ophelia, Octavia, or Lydia. If you love Ava, a name like Eve, Ada, or Aoibhe might be to your taste.
There are a few names, though, that have a sound all their own. They feel distinctive, and no other name has quite all their qualities. While I suppose that could technically be said about any name, here are a few that feel particularly special:
- Elizabeth — She could easily be the name with the most nicknames. She’s also one of the few “th”-enders. But those aren’t the only things that make Elizabeth so distinctive. Of all four-syllable names, the vast majority are stressed on the third syllable (like Isabella, Anastasia, Arianna, Carolina, Alexandra, etc.). I could count on my fingers the number of reasonably familiar four-syllable names where the stress falls on the second syllable. (Add ones that aren’t incredibly familiar, and I might need to use a few toes.) Of those, Elizabeth and Evangeline are the only two that don’t end in the “uh” or “ee” sound. (For the curious, others with the same rhythm are Olivia, Victoria, Veronica, Demetria, Octavia, Angelica, Felicity, Serenity, Persephone, Penelope, Calliope.)
- Evangeline — She has the same rhythm as Elizabeth and co., but she’s the only other consonant ender.
- Naomi — Abby at Appellation Mountain once wrote, “Nothing sounds quite like Naomi.” It’s so true! I’m not sure if it’s the two vowel sounds blending into each other or the fact that very few three-syllable names ending in “ee” have the stress on the second syllable. Delaney and Adelie are the only others I can think of, but even then, they’re not Naomi.
- Abigail — Abigail doesn’t seem like she should be so distinctive, until you try to suggest substitutes for her. Avigail is obviously related, so that’s cheating. The closest sound neighbors I’ve come up with are Annabel and Amabel, but they don’t have the same comfortable, homey, biblical feel.
- Eleanor — She’s familar and oh-so-English, but her nor ending gives her a bit of exotic flair.
- Rosamund — A good number of names end in mund or mond. Edmond, Raymond, Esmond, Osmond, Desmond, Sigmund — but did you notice they’re all boys’ names? Rosamund is the only currently-surviving feminine name to carry that Germanic element. It means “protector,” so it’s perhaps not surprising that it survives primarily in boys’ names. Okay, I have dug up one girls’ name from medieval literature — Clerimond — but who has ever heard of that?
- Dolores — It’s pretty rare to find a three-syllable middle name ending in a consonant that’s stressed on the second syllable. Dolores is one of the reasonably familiar few S-enders to fit this pattern — a possible similar name is Damaris, though some contend it should be stressed on the first syllable, so perhaps that doesn’t even count.
- Rhiannon — Again, tons of three syllable names that are stressed on the middle syllable end in A (Vanessa, Sophia, Marissa, Amelia, etc.), but it’s rare to find ones that don’t. Rhiannon is the only N-ender that immediately comes to mind. As such, she makes quite a distinctive middle.
- Guadalupe — While tons of girl names end in vowels, very few end in the “ay” sound found at the end of Guadalupe.
- Phoebe — Chloe, Zoe, Daphne, Xanthe… but there’s something different about Phoebe. Maybe it’s the bizarre spelling, maybe it’s the fact that her two short syllables rhyme.
- Penelope — Penelope has a few sound-alikes: Persephone and Calliope are probably the most obvious. However, neither of those sounds so thoroughly Greek and at the same time so thoroughly English as Penelope. While Persephone and Calliope feel cutting edge, Penelope is familiar and could almost be seen as frumpy.
- Jennifer — No wonder so many parents in the 70’s and 80’s fell in love with this name! It’s funny to think of Jennifer as distinctive, since she was so common in my generation, but how many girls’ names end in fer? Almost all the other popular names of her decades ended in the “ee” or “uh” sounds. Jennifer sure was special… that is, until everyone used her and she began to sound very unspecial.
- Alexander — Alexander has got to be one of the most popular middle names for boys. It’s not surprising…he and Maximilian are the only two familiar English names to share his rhythm, unless you venture into the realm of Spanish/Italian names or highly biblical names. Considering the fact that so many popular boys’ names end in N, the R-ending of Alexander provides for pleasing contrast.
- Xavier — Xavier is the only male name starting in X to appear in the U.S. top 1000 (unless you count Xander, which still feels very nicknamey).
The good thing about choosing one of these names is that it is not likely to get confused with any others. Your son won’t be another Aidan/Hayden/Kaden/Jayden/Brayden. Your daughter won’t be a Kayla/Kaitlyn/Kaylee/Kylie. Teachers everywhere will thank you. We really don’t like getting our students’ names confused.
Unfortunately, if you’re in love with one of these names but feel it’s too popular (or not quite right in some other way) you may not be able to find an acceptable substitute that will appeal quite as much.
If you are looking for a similar-sounding substitute for a name you love, check out Baby Name Brainstorm. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s an innovative baby name search tool. You enter a name you like, and it creates a visual web of names that sound like your name, have a similar meaning, or have similar historical/literary connections. This tool is still in its early stages, and Lach (the creator) is working on improving its suggestive powers. Be sure to check on it again in a few weeks/months to see what he has come up with.
Just a word of caution — most of the names in this post turn up few to no sound alikes on the Brainstormer!
The names included on this list are my subjective impressions. I’m sure you feel there are some I shouldn’t have included and some that I’m crazy to have omitted. Feel free to comment if so; I’d love to hear which names sound most one-of-a-kind to your ears.
Oh, and special thanks to Noelle, Pretty Mama, Isobel, and Eva for their suggestions in compiling this list!