We can read the scrolls

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Vesuvius ChallengeOn March 15th, 2023, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge, and now they are announcing the Grand Prize winners:

Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption buried an ancient library of papyrus scrolls now known as the Herculaneum Papyri.

In the 18th century the scrolls were discovered. More than 800 of them are now stored in a library in Naples, Italy; these lumps of carbonized ash cannot be opened without severely damaging them. But how can we read them if they remain rolled up?


Scrolls from the Institut de France were imaged at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford. We released these high-resolution CT scans of the scrolls, and we offered more than $1M in prizes, put forward by many generous donors.


Our team of eminent papyrologists worked day and night to review 15 columns of text in anonymized submissions, while the technical team audited and reproduced the submitted code and methods.

There was one submission that stood out clearly from the rest. Working independently, each member of our team of papyrologists recovered more text from this submission than any other. Remarkably, the entry achieved the criteria we set when announcing the Vesuvius Challenge in March: 4 passages of 140 characters each, with at least 85% of characters recoverable. This was not a given: most of us on the organizing team assigned a less than 30% probability of success when we announced these criteria! And in addition, the submission includes another 11 (!) columns of text — more than 2000 characters total.

The results of this review were clear and unanimous: the Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize of $700,000 is awarded to a team of three for their excellent submission. Congratulations to Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger!


Scholars might call it a philosophical treatise. But it seems familiar to us, and we can’t escape the feeling that the first text we’ve uncovered is a 2000-year-old blog post about how to enjoy life.

The pot is correct when it calls the kettle black

Wednesday, December 27th, 2023

Matt Bateman recently quipped that “the pot is correct when it calls the kettle black,” and someone replied that it’s not:

The saying originates from a time when kettles were polished metal, and pots were cast iron. The pot, seeing its own reflection in the shiny tin kettle, calls the kettle black.

Naturally, I had to look this up:

The earliest appearance of the idiom is in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of the Spanish novel Don Quixote. The protagonist is growing increasingly restive under the criticisms of his servant Sancho Panza, one of which is that “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes’.”


It is identified as a proverb (refrán) in the text, functioning as a retort to the person who criticises another of the same defect that he plainly has.


An alternative modern interpretation,[8] far removed from the original intention, argues that while the pot is sooty (from being placed on a fire), the kettle is polished and shiny; hence, when the pot accuses the kettle of being black, it is the pot’s own sooty reflection that it sees: the pot accuses the kettle of a fault that only the pot has, rather than one that they share.

Many English words connected with weaving come from India

Monday, March 6th, 2023

After a number of bruising encounters with the Dutch, William Dalrymple’s explains (in The Anarchy), the East India Company left the lucrative Spice Islands and their aromatic spice trade to focus on less competitive but potentially more promising sectors of the trade of Asia: fine cotton textiles, indigo and chintzes. The source of all three of these luxuries was India:

India then had a population of 150 million — about a fifth of the world’s total — and was producing about a quarter of global manufacturing; indeed, in many ways it was the world’s industrial powerhouse and the world’s leader in manufactured textiles. Not for nothing are so many English words connected with weaving — chintz, calico, shawl, pyjamas, khaki, dungarees, cummerbund, taffetas — of Indian origin.


In comparison, England then had just 5 per cent of India’s population and was producing just under 3 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods.


A good proportion of the profits on this found its way to the Mughal exchequer in Agra, making the Mughal Emperor, with an income of around £100 million, by far the richest monarch in the world.


For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, the silk-clad Mughals, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power — a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word ‘mogul’ ever since.

He was apparently misled by “inter-”

Wednesday, March 1st, 2023

The word internecine means “of, relating to, or involving conflict within a group” — now:

Internecine comes from the Latin internecinus (“fought to the death” or “destructive”), which traces to the verb “necare” (“to kill”) and the prefix inter-. (“Inter-” usually means “between” or “mutual” in Latin, but it can also indicate the completion of an action.) Internecine meant “deadly” when it appeared in English in the early 17th century, but when Samuel Johnson entered it in his dictionary almost a century later, he was apparently misled by “inter-” and defined the word as “endeavouring mutual destruction.” Johnson’s definition was carried into later dictionaries, and before long his sense was the dominant meaning of the word. “Internecine” developed the association with internal group conflict in the 20th century, and that’s the most common sense today.

One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder

Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

When I started listening to the audiobook version of Sharpe’s Tiger, the first novel of the series that inspired the show starring Sean Bean (Boromir), I was surprised — and a bit embarrassed — to learn that “loot” was one of many words the British plundered from India. How did I not know that?

I recently read William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, which offers a nonfiction account of “The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire,” and it opens with just this fact:

One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot.

It certainly seems appropriate. Sharpe’s Tiger felt quite a bit like an old-school pulp swords-and-sorcery novel or an early Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and The Anarchy had some of that feel, too.

Powis Castle in Wales houses a treasure horde worthy of a dragon:

There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display in any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi.

The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed Badakhshan spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood, and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are tiger’s heads set with sapphires and yellow topaz; ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings embroidered with poppies and lotuses; statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour.

English-speaking researchers studying other English speakers

Friday, October 21st, 2022

The cognitive sciences have been dominated by English-speaking researchers studying other English speakers, has led to an underestimation of the centrality of language to cognition at large:

Among spoken languages, English shares some features with many languages (e.g., it does not rely on tones to distinguish between words, as around 40% of all languages do) and other features with fewer (e.g., it allows complex sequences of three or more consonants before a vowel within syllables, something that less than one-third of languages permit). Such differences in the repertoires of speech sounds are reflected in the brain, as experience with specific speech sounds affects auditory sensory memory [9.] and speech encoding [10.]. Spoken language exposure impacts musical cognition as well [11.,12.]. English speakers, for example, are particularly sensitive to rhythm and mistuning of pitch, but less so to melodic discrimination; the opposite trend is found among speakers of tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese [11.].

Biases brought by English

Speech sounds and phonetic features sometimes elicit specific percepts and meanings across languages [13.,14.], as demonstrated by the well-known preference across languages for associating the labels bouba and kiki with round and spiky shapes, respectively [15.]. However, the source of these associations remains unclear, despite the abundant supporting behavioral and linguistic evidence for such mappings [13.,16.]. For example, English speakers associate higher pitch sounds with higher altitudes, potentially reflecting an evolutionary adaptation to auditory scene statistics [17.]. However, Farsi and Turkish speakers, who do not describe pitch using a high–low metaphor, do not show robust high–low space-pitch mappings in nonlinguistic tasks [18.,19.], suggesting language itself is an important arbiter of these associations (Figure 2).

Unlike roughly 40% of the world’s languages, English has a developed writing system [4.]. English is alphabetic but only partly phonetic: a set of letters represents both vowels and consonants. By contrast, the vast majority of readers worldwide learn non-alphabetic scripts, such as abjads (where only consonants are represented, e.g., Arabic), abugidas (where consonants and vowels are represented within a single graphic unit, e.g., Hindi), or morphosyllabaries (where units stand for morphemes or syllables, e.g., Chinese [20.]). Despite this, English is massively over-represented in reading research, even in comparison with other European languages, and accounts for the vast majority of eye-tracking research [21.], even though evidence points to tight associations between script type and reading-related cognitive processes [22.].

English has been dubbed an ‘outlier’ with regard to its orthography, with rare features both quantitatively and qualitatively [23.]. Unlike other alphabetic writing systems, English generally has an irregular letter-phoneme mapping, so it is more difficult to learn and results in higher rates of diagnosed dyslexia, other things being equal [23.]. Phonological awareness – deemed essential for learning to read (from an English perspective) – is not required for other languages, where syllabic awareness is more important initially [20.]. So models of reading derived from English, and their accompanying intervention recommendations, are hampering broader progress in the field [20.].

Mastering the English writing system involves acquiring mirrored graphs (e.g., b vs. d, p vs. q), but most scripts do not require lateral mirror invariance. Tamil, for example, is expressed in an abugida script and has more complex written characters than English, but these do not have mirror relations to each other [24.]. Individuals exposed to an alphabetic system like English show a differential mirror cost in contrast to users of languages like Tamil [25.]: when asked to determine whether two shapes are the same regardless of orientation, they take longer when shapes are mirror transformed (b vs. d) than when they are strictly the same (b vs. b) (Figure 2). The symmetries present in a writing system like English influence visuospatial abilities and offer a backdoor for language to influence ostensibly nonverbal measures of intelligence, like Raven’s Progressive Matrices [26.].

Finally, English is written from left-to-right, but Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew are written right-to-left and a handful of other written languages use both or a different cardinal axis (e.g., Mongolian is written top-to-bottom). Writing direction affects memory, learning, and attention [27.]. Learning (nonlinguistic) sequences of visual stimuli is facilitated when presented in accordance with the written system people use [28.]. Moreover, writing direction predicts reaction times when experimental participants are asked to determine if a given visual image is part of a recently observed sequence, as if individuals are going over the memorized sequence following the convention of their writing system [29.]. Additionally, writing directions influence visual aesthetic preferences [30.], including the preferred order in which agents and patients are linearly arranged: English speakers prefer events where the agent is on the left of the patient, Arabic speakers prefer events with the opposite arrangement [31.,32.], and illiterate speakers of Spanish and Yucatec Maya (Mexico) do not display any preference [31.]. In fact, studies with nonliterate communities show no clear directional biases for number, time, or events [33.,34.], despite claims of an innate preference for a left-to-right mapping (e.g., [35.,36.]). These induced biases are not confined to the visual modality; in auditory tests, speakers of left-to-right systems conceptualize time as flowing in that direction too [37.] (Figure 2).

It all goes back to a well-heeled cock

Tuesday, October 11th, 2022

I didn’t know the origin of “well-heeled,” so I looked it up:

Originally American English, from a literal use in cockfighting: a well-heeled cock was provided with sharp spurs and could inflict maximum damage. From this developed the American frontier slang sense of being well-equipped, and thence the modern sense of being well supplied with money.

Too muchee pidgin?

Monday, June 27th, 2022

I enjoyed the Shogun mini-series when it came out, and I enjoyed the novel, too, years later, so I read and enjoyed the next book in his Asian Saga soon after. Tai Pan does not take place in feudal Japan, but in Hong Kong at its founding. I recently bought and listened to the audio version and must admit that I had forgotten a lot.

One element that stands out is the pidgin spoken between the Chinese and English:

English first arrived in China in the 1630s, when English traders arrived in South China. Chinese Pidgin English was spoken first in the areas of Macao and Guangzhou (City of Canton), later spreading north to Shanghai by the 1830s.


The term “pidgin” itself is believed by some etymologists to be a corruption of the pronunciation of the English word “business” by the Chinese.


The majority of the words used in Chinese Pidgin English are derived from English, with influences from Portuguese, Cantonese, Malay, and Hindi.

catchee: fetch (English catch)
fankuei: westerner (Cantonese)
Joss: God (Portuguese deus)
pidgin: business (English)
sabbee: to know (Portuguese saber)
taipan: supercargo (Cantonese)
too muchee: extremely (English too much)


Certain expressions from Chinese English Pidgin have made their way into colloquial English, a process called calque. The following is a list of English expressions which may have been influenced by Chinese.

  • Long time no see
  • Look-see
  • No this no that
  • No go

No one’s writing such children of Shogun anymore, so enjoy the originals.

There has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion

Friday, May 20th, 2022

The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period, Marten Scheffer et al. suggest, when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning:

To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.” Interpreting this synchronous sea change in book language remains challenging. However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction. Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed. Finally, we show that word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms, supporting the idea that changes in book language do in part reflect changes in interest. All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The authors blame the change on the failure of “neo-liberalism” which seems dubious and without plausible mechanism to Alex Tabarrok:

A more plausible explanation is more female writers and the closely related feminization of culture.

They took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

Pop-punk was created in the late 1980s and early 1990s at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, an all-ages venue normally referred to as “Gilman”:

This is where Bay Area bands like Rancid, Operation Ivy, the Mr. T Experience, and, especially, Green Day all started to get attention. Bay Area pop-punk is a kinder, gentler variety than either the nihilist Londoners or the hardcore California bands like the Circle Jerks and the Dead Kennedys that preceded them. The Gilman bands obviously worshipped the Clash, whose songs showed more craft, hooky melodies, and subtlety than, say, the Sex Pistols. Some of the bands, like Rancid, were responsible for amping up the Clash’s combination of punk and reggae into what’s now called the Third Wave of ska music.

The Bay Area community was goofier, sillier, more suburban, and more inclined to make happy, poppy music than any punk community that came before it. As an ode to the Clash, a lot of their singers adopted a sort of faux-British accent. “I’m an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent,” Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone in 1994. Tim Armstrong, the (unrelated) lead singer of fellow Bay Area band Rancid, sings with an accent that varies song by song; sometimes it’s nearly featureless, other times it’s a Strummer-esque Brit inflection, other times it sounds nearly New York.

The pop-punk accent really became smooth and polished a little bit later, in the mid-1990s, with bands like Blink-182 and the Offspring, both hailing from Southern California. Their singers (Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge from Blink-182, Dexter Holland from the Offspring) totally abandoned any pretenses of Britishness. Instead they took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up, pushed it to new extremes. It was almost exactly what happened in London. Pop-punk singers became more Californian than the Californians.

Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford, is one of the foremost scholars examining what’s known as the “California Shift.” The California Shift is a linguistic theory covering the particular changes in dialect that affect the Pacific coast of the United States. Eckert was nice enough to humor me and listen several times to a song I chose based on its particularly egregious “pop-punk voice,” Blink-182’s “First Date.” I love the song, but am aware others may find it horribly annoying. “It really does sound like someone’s messing around,” she told me.

A key change in the California Shift is what’s called the cot/caught merger. Northeasterners and Midwesterners pronounce those words differently, giving the former an “ah” sound and the latter an “aw” sound. “Californians do not,” says Eckert, who is originally from New York. “They have no idea. That vowel is almost completely merged. Think ‘mawwm’ instead of ‘mom.’”

Vowel sounds work like those sliding puzzle games where you have to unscramble a picture by sliding one piece of it at a time. As soon as you move one piece, you’re left with an empty space behind you, which has to be filled by something else. Californians dropped the “cot” vowel sound, pronouncing it like “caught” instead. So something had to fill that space. “The California Shift is this kind of combined change in the pronunciation of short vowels,” says Kennedy. The easiest way to think about it? Look at the words kit, dress, and trap. In the California Shift, “kit” becomes “ket”, “dress” becomes “drass”, and “trap” becomes “trop”.

Linguists talk about this shift in terms of directions; to talk with a California accent is sometimes called “trap-backing,” or “trop-bocking.” Your mouth functions like a resonating chamber. You can alter the frequencies of the sounds you make by changing the size of the chamber and by moving your tongue around. Your tongue’s placement is a major factor in dialects; it can be raised, lowered, moved to the front, or moved to the back. Californians move their tongues back, hence “trop-bocking.”

But there are some more complex things going on in the pop-punk voice. Eckert walked me through the Blink-182 song word by word, pointing out places where DeLonge was playing around with accent. “When they say ‘to pick you up on our very first date,’ the interesting thing about ‘date’ is that he renders it as a monophthong ‘dehhht’ instead of ‘date,’ says Eckert. “In most American English it’s a diphthong.” A diphthong is a vowel sound with two simpler sounds in it; for most Americans, “date” is a kind of compound vowel made up of the “eh” sound and the “ee” sound. Not so much for Tom DeLonge, who eliminates all but the “eh,” making it a single sound, or a monophthong.

The monophthong “date” surprised Eckert, as she says it’s not part of the California Shift. Except! “I’ve heard that some in Chicano English, but not so much in Anglo English,” she says. Chicano English is spoken by native English speakers of Mexican descent—it’s not a Mexican accent, because Chicano English speakers are native English speakers, but sort of their own English dialect. And that goes along with one of DeLonge’s most obvious vocal tics: changing short “ih” sounds as in the work “think” to a long “ee” sound, turning it into something like “theenk.” “Chicano English raises the vowel I to ‘ee’ before nasal consonants,” says Eckert. “So ‘theenk’ is very Chicano. And you have a lot of Anglo wannabes saying that too.”

Another very distinctive element of the California accent that’s extremely present in DeLonge’s vocals is the long “oo” sound in words like “room,” which DeLonge pronounces as something more like “rehm.” That’s almost an efficiency move; the particular combination of shapes your lips have to make to move from the first consonant, R, to the last consonant, M, plus the moves your tongue has to make to form the “oo” sound, are pretty difficult. If you move your tongue closer to your front teeth, it’s a lot less work, but you’ll change the pronunciation of “room” to “rehm.” It’s called “oo-fronting.”

There are plenty more things Eckert taught me about DeLonge’s delicious accent, but one last example would be the way Californians pronounce the letter R in certain words. In a word where the stress falls on a vowel one syllable before a word ending in R, like “whatever” or “over,” most of the country, but most noticeably those in the New York/New Jersey area, stress the consonant in the second-to-last syllable extra hard. But Californians lengthen the R. So a New Yorker will say “whatevah,” but a Californian will say “whateverrrr.” “We talk about New York/New Jersey accents as being ‘R-less’ and California accents as being ‘R-ful,’” laughed Eckert. (Linguistics jokes are pretty good.)

DeLonge does some weird, non-Californian stuff, though. His pronunciation of words like “light” and “spider” come out somewhere between the vowel sound from “rye” and “roy.” “His pronunciation of it is striking, and different from Californians generally,” says Kennedy. “It may be another attempt at projecting British punk vocals, but if I recall correctly he does this in speech as well, and so it might actually be a skate/surf/punk subculture linguistic feature.”

“Climate“ does not mean what it used to mean

Saturday, January 29th, 2022

Climate“ does not mean what it used to mean:

The Greek word that we trace climate from was klima, which means “inclination,” “slope,” or “latitude” and klima can be traced further still, to the Greek klinein, “to lean”. There was a theory in antiquity that the world could be divided into seven distinct zones called climates, which were designated based on the slope or inclination of the northern celestial pole changing as one moved north from the equator. Climate was in use in English for well over a hundred years before we began to use the word in the 16th century to refer to weather conditions.

Once climate was applied to weather, it did not take very long before we began to employ the word in a figurative fashion. From the middle of the 17th century on we have considerable evidence of people using climate as a synonym of atmosphere (in the non-literal sense of that word).

Going balls out to explain etymology

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

When Elon Musk recently mentioned the (apocryphal) origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” in his interview with Dan Carlin, he also mentioned the origin of “balls to the wall” — which I also assumed I’d posted about before, but I hadn’t:

“Balls to the wall” was probably first attested to in the 1960s in the context of aviation. Aircraft have up to three controls per power-plant: throttle control; mixture control, in aircraft with reciprocating power plants; and propeller RPM control, in aircraft with a variable-pitch propeller. These controls can be either plungers that you push the ball end into the firewall for maximum power setting, or a lever with a ball top that you push upwards towards the firewall for maximum power setting. Thus, putting “balls to the wall” gives the aircraft the maximum power output for takeoff.

Cessna 172's throttle and mixture plungers

Naturally he went on to explain the origin of “balls out” — which I’m shocked I haven’t mentioned earlier, either:

The metal balls of a centrifugal governor are pushed apart to a degree depending on the speed of a rotating shaft, providing negative feedback to the throttle.


This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021

When Elon Musk recently mentioned the (apocryphal) origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” in his interview with Dan Carlin, I assumed I’d posted about myself, but I hadn’t:

The Oxford English Dictionary finds the earliest published non-idiomatic use in an 1855 Indiana newspaper article. The earliest known idiomatic use of the phrase is from 1907 in Southern Indiana. The phrase is related to the expression the whole six yards, used around the same time in Kentucky and South Carolina. Both phrases are variations on the whole ball of wax, first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as enchilada, shooting match, shebang or hog, is substituted for ball of wax. The choice of the number nine may be related to the expression “to the nines” (to perfection).

Use of the phrase became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of the interest in the phrase’s etymology can be attributed to New York Times language columnist William Safire, who wrote extensively on this question.

Since they were discussing World War 2 aircraft, Musk shared this origin story:

One explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner and geographic area. An alternative weapon is the ammunition belt for the British Vickers machine gun, invented and adopted by the British Army before World War I (1914–1918). The standard belt for this gun held 250 rounds of ammunition and was approximately twenty feet (62/3 yards) in length. However, the Vickers gun as fitted to aircraft during the First World War usually had ammunition containers capable of accommodating linked belts of 350-400 rounds, the average length of such a belt being about nine yards, and it was thought that this may be the origin of the phrase. This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I.

Plundering words from India

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

As I mentioned, I’ve been enjoying the audiobook version of Sharpe’s Tiger, and I was surprised to learn that the word loot was borrowed from Hindi. It’s included in this list of words English owes to India:

A – atoll, avatar
B – bandana, bangle, bazaar, Blighty, bungalow
C – cashmere, catamaran, char, cheroot, cheetah, chintz, chit, chokey, chutney, cot, cummerbund, curry
D – dinghy, doolally, dungarees
G – guru, gymkhana
H – hullabaloo
J – jodhpur, jungle, juggernaut, jute
K – khaki, kedgeree
L – loot
N – nirvana
P – pariah, pashmina, polo, pukka, pundit, purdah, pyjamas
S – sari, shampoo, shawl, swastika
T – teak, thug, toddy, typhoon
V – veranda
Y – yoga

Most of those are clearly Indian, but plenty surprised me — bandana, catamaran, cheetah, cot, cummerbund, dinghy, jungle, and pundit.

The action-name trend for boys is a backlash

Friday, January 24th, 2020

Parents tend to be more conservative about naming baby boys, Isabelle Kohn says, but when they do get creative, they turn them into throat-ripping action heroes:

Recently, there’s been a surge in female babies being named things like Echo, Victory and Ireland, and the girls’ names coming out of Hollywood are even more flamboyant. We all know Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy, but have you met Hilary Duff’s spawn Banks Violet Bair, Cardi B’s Kulture Kiari Cephus or Kylie Jenner’s mononymous child accessory Stormi?

Whereas it’s rare to see boys with more expressive names that set them apart, it’s normal — expected, even — to see girls with names or spellings that make them stand out (lookin’ at you, Maddisyn). Laura Wattenberg, a naming expert and self-proclaimed “Baby Name Wizard” who combs through annals of Social Security Administration (SSA) data to suss out naming trends, says the most popular “unique” girls’ names in recent years have been Genesis, Serenity, Heavenly, Promise, Legacy, Treasure and Egypt. Basically, she says, if it’s a word, it can — and will be — a girl’s name.

By contrast, expressive naming practices don’t seem to apply to baby boys at all. According to research from the SSA, parents are three times more likely to give girls “unusual” names than they are boys, a phenomenon often referred to by naming experts as the “originality gap.” The result of this gap is hordes of boys named Andrew. And Greg, and Michael, and Matt, Sam, Mark, Chris and Ryan — humble, simple and inoffensive names that convey neither the expressiveness nor poetry of feminine monikers like Eden, Phoenix or Diva Muffin, the label Frank Zappa so kindly applied to his daughter.

“For most of recent history, Western boys have been given drab, biblically informed names like Brian, John or Nicholas,” says Matthew Hahn, a professor of biology and informatics at the University of Indiana who co-authored a 2003 study comparing baby name trends to evolutionary models. “In general, they’ve been nowhere near as ‘creative.’” They’ve also been extremely patriarchal — it’s an honor to be named after the (male) head honcho of your family, and first-born boys are particularly prone to being gifted with grandpa’s nominative legacy.


According Wattenberg, a new breed of rugged, hyper-macho and blatantly “action-oriented” names for boys has exploded in popularity in recent years, and their inventiveness is starting to match the creativity and expressiveness that girls names have always enjoyed. Combing through pages of recent Social Security Administration data, she found that the usage of “doer” names like Racer, Trooper and Charger have risen more than 1,000 percent between 1980 and 2000, and have increased exponentially ever since.

In a recent Namerology article on the topic, she lists several of the burlier, more aggressive names that have been picking up steam: Angler, Camper, Tracker, Trapper, Catcher, Driver, Fielder, Racer, Sailor, Striker, Wheeler — deep breath — Breaker, Roper, Trotter, Wrangler — still going — Lancer, Shooter, Slayer, Soldier, Tracer, Trooper — wait, “Slayer”? — Blazer, Brewer, Charger, Dodger, Laker, Pacer, Packer, Raider, Ranger, Steeler, Warrior — kill me — Dreamer, Jester and — wait for it — Rocker.


For today’s parents, it seems the more aggressive and bloodthirsty the name, the better. Wattenberg’s research found that 47 boys were named “Raider” in 2018, and “Hunter” tops the brawny baby charts as the country’s most popular hypermasculine name. According to Hahn, names like these give parents a way to be creative without breaking the masculinity mold. They’re expressive, vivid and undeniably unique, but they’re also pulsating with testosterone and so certifiably burly that he suspects some parents are using them as anti-bullying shields. “Who’s going to make fun of Striker?” he says. By the same token, names like “Shooter,” “Gunner” or “Slayer” seem particularly resistant to playground taunting.


It’s also possible, he says, that the action-name trend for boys is a backlash to the evolving definition of masculinity. As the concept of masculinity evolves into something more dynamic, personal and sensitive than the John Wayne stereotype of the past, groups of conservationist parents are staking a claim on the increasingly endangered species of traditional manhood by naming their children after the most stereotypically masculine things possible. “It could be a backlash to changing norms around what it means to be a man, and a staking of a position about masculinity and traditional values,” he suggests.