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Linguistics Explains Why Some Names Capture One's 'Essence'

What’s in a name?

Key points

  • We spend a lot of time coming up with the "right" names.
  • Sound symbolism explores the idea that some sounds have intrinsic meaning.
  • Certain sounds can make names better "fit" what or who they describe.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I decided to keep her name a secret until she was born. Why? Because every Tom, Dick, and Jane had an opinion about the names we were considering. But we also struggled to come up with one that both of us felt would serve her well. Sloane? Nice but maybe too serious-sounding. Madison? Too likely to become a nickname like Mads. Clarice? Nope, ruined by association with Hannibal Lector. For a while, it looked like she was going to remain nameless until she was a teen.

Our difficulty coming up with a baby’s name is far from unique. Many people have strong negative or positive associations with certain names. But why?

Sounds and symbols

Chris Hardy/Unsplash
What do sounds mean to you?
Source: Chris Hardy/Unsplash

Turns out the question "What’s in a name?" has occupied thinkers for centuries, in addition to every prospective parent. In fact, the sense that some names just feel right, while others don’t quite fit, like calling a Great Dane "Fifi," can be traced all the way back to antiquity. In Plato’s Cratylus, for example, Socrates debated how to come up with the correct names for people and objects and whether they reflected the natural essence of the things they defined.

This hypothesizing that words, and especially the sounds in words, somehow carry some intrinsic associated meaning was furthered by Charles Darwin as part of his theory of evolution. He proposed that the origin of human speech was the imitation of sounds heard in nature and from associations that developed with humans' early emotional cries in what is referred to as the musical protolanguage model.

For instance, sounds of despair or pain Ah! Aowwww!) became parts of the words we use to express such emotions (e.g., "Stop" contains "ah" and "ouch" contains "aw"). So, under this protolanguage hypothesis, such sound-meaning links are not arbitrary but tied to early exclamations of happiness, excitement, sadness, anger, or other emotions.

From sound to symbol

While Darwin’s protolanguage theory fizzled out at the time, in the 1920s, this topic, referred to as sound iconicity or sound symbolism, was picked up with renewed interest by linguists and psychologists alike. Research based on such theories discovered a link between certain sounds and subjects’ perception of attributes of objects, like their size or shape (and, in another line of research, emotional states).

This relationship between sound and size and shape has been found both in terms of descriptive words experimenters had people make up and, to some degree, in the existing vocabulary of languages. This area of research has also explored whether there is a fixed meaning to individual sounds.

But what’s in it for me, with an "ee"?

Beyond just being an interesting aspect of our speech capabilities, sound iconicity can also have some applied benefit. For instance, when sounds match aspects of the objects they describe, such as "oh" in names of larger items, people seem to have better recall of those items than when they involve non-iconic sounds.

Also, in creating names for "big-sized" products, people tend to prefer names with more back vowels like "ah" or "oh" (think Tonka trucks). Likewise, smaller objects get named words containing "ee" sounds—something we see echoed in words like mini and bitty baby. This not only seems to make products more memorable but also seems to encourage people to buy more of them when the sound "fits" with object size and shape.

Looking more specifically at social aspects of sound symbolism, recent work in sociolinguistics suggests these types of size-sound correlations translate further into associations such as "sweetness" or "lightness" with front vowels and more negative associations with "larger" sounding vowels. So, the vowels we use in words might influence how they are construed—explaining perhaps the Australian tendency to add "ee" to things that are associated with fun, like "choccy" for chocolate and "barbie" for barbeque.

The bottom line? Whether you’re naming a first-born baby or a new product, there is much more than meets the ear behind the question of what’s in a name. If you are aiming to make them memorable, pay a bit more attention to which vowels capture their essence. Turns out, to quote a famous Johnny Cash song, a boy named "Sue" might have had a fighting chance on the playground after all, but calling him "Susie" might have invited a bit more trouble.


Darwin, C. 1871. The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. John Murray.

Eckert, Penelope. 2010. Affect, Sound Symbolism, and Variation. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Vol. 15 : Iss. 2 , Article 9.

Köhler, W. 1929. Gestalt psychology. New York: H. Liveright.

Nuckolls, J. B. 1999. The case for sound symbolism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 28, 225–252.

Sapir, E. 1929. A study in phonetic symbolism. J. Exp. Psychol. 12, 225–239.

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