Amazon put us on a collision course. Not that we couldn’t see it coming—Apple’s Siri had sent early-warning signals years before. With Amazon’s “virtual assistant” Alexa, though, there was no escape. Human names and virtual names met head on, and the human names blinked. Alexa was America’s fastest-falling baby name of 2018.
Alexa is hardly the first baby name to do double duty as a product name. Fashion and marketing both march to the beat of the times, so crossovers are inevitable. Try searching for any popular girl’s name at a shoe seller like Zappos.com and you’ll find a wide array of shoe choices with that model name. Product names are always scattered through the baby name stats, too, from luxury labels to the likes of Velveeta and Charmin. Sometimes the brand names and baby names emerge naturally in tandem. Automakers and parents were drawn to names like Sierra and Dakota around the same time.
What you won’t often find is a brand name killing off a baby name. Alexa is different because it occupies a brand-new intermediate space: products you converse with. With 100 million Alexa devices already sold, the name has been assigned not merely to a product, but to a role in social interaction. It’s the name that gets ordered around.
At the most basic level, that’s a recipe for confusion. Imagine being a woman named Alexa, visiting a household where people are constantly saying things like “Hey Alexa, what time is it?” It’s also fodder for endless jokes at any Alexa’s expense. More subtly, we don’t know the psychological effect of the established digital lackey role on both a person named Alexa and those who meet her. It’s not surprising that parents backed away from the name.
Siri didn’t suffer the same fate because it was little-known as a name outside of Scandinavia. That was part of the name’s appeal as a brand, at a time when a virtual assistant was a novel concept. When I chose Siri as my 2011 Name of the Year, I wrote:
“To English speakers, it comes across as classic Danish design: clean, spare, elegant in its simplicity. It feels namelike but isn’t overly familiar or tied to any time period. It’s approachable but not in your face. It says that technology is a stylish accessory, and that you, as its owner, are stylishly confident.”
Alexa is more rooted in current American style. So much so, in fact, that the flight from the name is rubbing off on other similar names like Alexis. (Their cyclical downturn has apparently been accelerated.) Compared to Siri, Alexa is also more random as a brand choice. Before you give too much thought to the reasons behind Amazon’s choice of Alexa, you should know that the corporation already owned the name.
Alexa Internet was a web traffic tracking company founded in the mid-’90s. It was granted a trademark for the name Alexa in the astonishingly broad realm of “providing a wide range of information via global computer network.” Amazon acquired the company in 1999. When the time came to name their virtual assistant, they had in hand a simple, stylish, bold girl’s name for which trademark competition had been minimized for decades. Why look further?
Perhaps that element of randomness can be a comfort to human Alexas who feel like their name is under attack. No, there’s nothing inherently servile about the name. On the contrary, its sound and style project confidence. But the ubiquitous virtual Alexas aren’t leaving their human counterparts much name space.
Alexa the baby name makes history as the first to fall to a virtual competitor. It’s unlikely to be the last.