A Roman proverb says “Nomen est omen”; the name is a sign. What, exactly, is the sign of “eigh” names like Ryleigh, Kayleigh and Oakleigh?
In an age of individuality, parents bedazzle Charlie to Charleigh and Riley to Ryleigh and Bailey to Bayleigh. The slew of silent letters in the -eigh suffix doesn’t change a name’s pronunciation, but that doesn’t mean that “e,” “i,” “g” and “h” have no purpose. The letters, phonetically unnecessary as they may be, serve as alphabet adornments, not unlike a flair, a ruffle or a bow.
While names like Leigh and Raleigh have been popular in the US for over a century, the 1950s saw the suffix explode (eigh-xplode, if you will) with Lesleigh, Kimberleigh and Keleigh. Slate writes that “In 1965, the popularity of Leigh would give way to ‘Ashleigh,’ who would go on to be the queen of the ‘eighs,’ until her reign was ended by ‘Kayleigh’ and now ‘Ryleigh.’”
According to the US Social Security Administration’s rich database of baby names, the year 2010 saw 11 different “eigh” names in the top 1,000 female names: Ryleigh, Kayleigh, Kyleigh, Kaleigh, Haleigh, Leighton, Hayleigh, Carleigh, Bryleigh, Charleigh and Aleigha.
As the decade went on, a few others made their way into the top 1,000: Bayleigh, Everleigh, Marleigh, Hadleigh, Harleigh, Paisleigh, Brynleigh, Oakleigh. Historically, the frequency of the “eigh” variation peaks just a few years after the traditionally-spelled name does. It’s worth noting that the phenomenon is gendered, with baby girls receiving extra letters more than boys.
Beyond decoration, the silent letters act as social tagging. The “eigh” names share a cultural space with a certain type of mother: an older millennial who wears wide-brimmed hats and is vocal about her love for coffee and Christmas. She’s white, lives in the suburbs and might wear sassy mom merch (like a tee adorned with references to prayer, dry shampoo, Amazon Prime, caffeine, Target or perhaps just the phrase “Thou Shall Not Try Me: Mood 24:7.” She spends time on Pinterest and Instagram, volunteers with the PTA and names her children things like Everleigh, Emersyn or Beighleigh.
One mom that fits many of these stereotypes is “Mommy’s Little Sunshine” blogger, McKinli Hatch, the 2012 “baby name mom” who went viral for her chalkboard adorned with nonconforming nomenclatures like Taylee, McKarty, Nayvie, Maylee and Lakynn. When the internet erupted, Hatch was a good sport about the jokes, which weren’t always nice.
“Some of the memes, and even comments on the memes, are pretty funny and I can laugh along with them,” she said to Buzzfeed.
The explosive reaction to Hatch’s chalkboard shows how charged baby names can be — and how much people on the internet care about strangers’ baby name choices. One Twitter user called “eigh” names a “trajedeigh,” and after the former press secretary’s positive COVID-19 test, one tweet read “kayleigh mcaneny has tested positive for the coronaveighrus.”
A short histor-eigh
The “eigh” suffix is a trend, and naming trends haven’t always existed. At some point in the past century, baby names started to follow fashion cycles just like hemlines and denim. Take, for example, the differences in common names from 40 years ago. Olivia didn’t even crack the top 500 in 1972; many of 1972’s top 20 names, like Dawn and Tracy, don’t make this year’s top 1,000. Older names like Gertrude and Bertha still seem stuck in sepia, whereas McKenzie didn’t emerge until the 80s.
There also were fewer names in use. In the 1950s, 25% of girls had a top 10 name. In 2007, that number dropped to just 8%. Here’s another stat that shows how much we’re moving away from conformity: there were about seven times as many babies named “Mary” in 1880 as there are baby girls named “Olivia” today — and Olivia is the most popular girl name. As Philip Cohen writes in The Atlantic, “Conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality.”
Conformit-eigh vs individualit-eigh
With all this push toward creative naming, parents might feel paralyzed by all the possibilities (besides certain names that governments ban, such as obscenities, the options are literally endless). But instead of branching out too much, they opt for a common name with a weird spelling. The deliberate misspellings may give names Goldilocks quality — not too unusual but not too comfortable, phonetically normal but orthographically unusual.
Just like capitalism breeds competition and knockoffs (Besides branding gimmicks, what are the differences between suburban stalwarts like TGI Fridays, Outback Steakhouse, Applebees and Texas Roadhouse?) names mutate into unusually-spelled copies of each other. The variations are not particularly unique, but they have the illusion of individuality, and that’s enough.
“Naming your kid MacKayleighn doesn’t make her — or you — unique,” wrote Slate. Many Americans may love the concept of unique names, but if you peek at their neighbor’s name and switch a few letters around, are you really so unique?
An orthographic nightmare
Curious how the silent “gh” came to be, I found that the “gh” spelling used to denote a sound of its own. It was once a phlegmy back-of-the-mouth fricative, like the last sound we make when we say “blech!” to express disgust. The sound still exists in the harsh-sounding language of German, yet it’s all but disappeared in English.
It hasn’t disappeared from our spelling though. Despite a number of attempts at English spelling reform in the 19th and 20th centuries, silent letters like “gh” clog our language and haunt the elementary schoolers who learn our absurd mishmash of spelling rules.
We could escape our orthographic nightmare if simple spelling movements gained traction, or if major publications started using phonetic spelling or if a billionaire made it their mission. But sometimes, English-speakers seem to relish in the ways our spelling makes no sense.
We send our best and brightest youth to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a baffling celebration of illogical spelling. We eat popcorn as preteens nervously recite the letters that make up words as esoteric as cloxacillin, thanatophidia and murraya, cheering them on from the couch like it’s a sporting match. No other language does that!
With seemingly the same zest of the spelling bee spirit, parents concoct names like Oakleigh and Kyleigh and Braxleigh out of improbable Scrabble letters, stopping at nothing to get an out-of-the-box letter combination for their beloved baby.
What’s in a name?
Baby name expert Lorilee Craker, the author of two baby name books, believes that gratuitous letters come from a desire to stand out — without standing out too much.
“Some people want to be creative, so they change the spelling,” Craker said to me over the phone. “The ultra-creative spellings are harmless, but they’re also totally needless. They serve as a flourish, but what does that add? I’m being opinionated here, but I think that unusual spellings come off as fluffy, and there are so many other ways to be creative with names that swapping off a letter.”
“That said,” she added, “I know someone whose middle name is ‘Leigh,’ and I find it prettier than ‘Lee.’ So I do understand the draw.”
To eigh or not to eigh?
I was curious how people with “eigh” names felt about the spelling, so I asked some students whose names have those four letters. And while many brought up a few gripes about common mispronunciations, most seemed to like that the nontraditional spelling made their name more unique.
Over email, LSA sophomore Kyleigh Moll told me about her experience with an “eigh” name.
“I actually hated how my name was spelled for a long time when I was younger, but now I love it,” Moll wrote. “My mom told me about a year ago that she wishes she spelled my name the ‘normal way,’ but I’ve grown to love the unique spelling of it.”
LSA sophomore Caleigh Crossman also had mixed feelings about the spelling.
“I love my name and I like how the spelling is unique, but it can be very frustrating because people always pronounce it Kayleigh and not Cali.”
Her parents chose the name as a compromise.
“My dad wanted to name me Cali because a girl in his freshman dorm was named Cali and he really liked her name. When I asked my mom where the spelling Caleigh came from she said, ‘I saw the spelling and really liked it. I wasn’t crazy about Cali, but had a friend named Leigh growing up so when I saw Caleigh (in a story in the New York Times), I knew that’s how we should spell it.’”
Paisleigh for president
Whether you like the extra letters or not, “eigh” names are here to “steigh,” at least for a while. Maybe all the “eigh” haters will be quiet when the Brynleighs and Mayleighs of the world grow up into capable adults, proving that writing a few extra letters on the top of their paper didn’t ruin their life (for all I know, there could be a president named Paisleigh in a few decades). Plus the world is full of real problems, and when parents take a whole lot of liberty with spelling, nobody gets hurt. Let them beigh!
Statement Correspondent Annie Rauwerda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.