There’s a new letter in town, and it’s just for show. Allow me to introduce the “ornamental H,” an alphabetic flourish that’s adding a stylistic—not phonetic—note to names like Whyatt, Khadence and Ameliah. The story behind the style is a cultural ride that takes us everywhere from the Bible to Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
H is the shape-shifter of the English alphabet. It can take center stage, as in the names Henry and Harper. It can combine with other letters to create something new, as in Charlotte and Theodore. It can vanish from our hearing, as in Noah and Rhonda. It can even help other letters to go silent, as in Dwight and Hugh.
The silent roles in particular have caught the attention of parents in the past generation of creative naming. Take a look at the popularity of names ending in a silent H over the last century:
The intriguing little 1950s spike is simply the name Deborah. The huge growth over the past 30 years is much more. It includes the rise of suffixes like -leigh; Old Testament names like Elijah; and Arabic names like Aliyah. But that’s not all. The growth of those styles permeated a generation’s fashion sense, leading to an explosion of “biblicized” spellings like Lilah, Arabic-influenced inventions like Janiyah, and just plain extra h’s like Jeremyh, Malaysiah, and Josiahh.
And endings were just the beginning. The next frontier for the ornamental H was the second position, right after an initial consonant.
Silent H’s in that position have been familiar in names like Whitney and Rhett, but a breakthrough to broader use started in the 1990s. One key factor was a Living Single sitcom character called Khadijah, with the initial Kh- pronounced like a hard K rather than the traditional softer, throatier sound. That planted a seed for the use of H for appearance rather than sound, which started to spread. And then came Khloe Kardashian.
All the girls of Kardashian family received K names, even if that required adapting a name’s standard spelling. The name Khloe, though, was a special case because it created a whole new consonant cluster. (“Khl” simply doesn’t exist in English). In the process, it shifted America’s H expectations.
After the reality tv series Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered in 2007, Khloe quickly became the most visible and most popular Kh name in American history. In fact, it was the country’s fastest-rising name over a five-year period. The constant flow of Kardashian media coverage established the hard K pronunciation of Kh as routine, and inspired parents to personalize more names with an ornamental H after the first letter.
I’ve tallied up every name used in the past century with an extra second-letter H. I only counted cases where the H is not traditional and does not affect pronunciation, and where an established non-H version was more common. I also ruled out names like Khloe and Khris in which a Kh replaced a standard Ch. Even with these restrictions, the trend and timing are unmistakable. Everything to the right of the red line is the Kardashian era.
Last year, 200 different names fit the bill including Rhemington and Rhyan, Jhordan and Jhenesis, Zhayden and Zhoe, Kharson and Khing. Notably, the numbers of girls and boys were almost exactly the same; this is an equal-opportunity phenomenon. Put it together with the extra-h ending names and we have a new entry to the creative spelling pantheon. C-to-K and I-to-Y, meet your new colleague the ornamental H.
I love this post. Such a cool way of highlighting this trend in name data.
A couple quibbles:
– The “Jh” may not be strictly ornamental — I think it’s commonly used by Spanish speakers to indicate that the J is supposed to be pronounced like an English J rather than like a Y sound. For an older example, you’ll find that the spelling Jhonny is most often used in a Spanish context.
– An even more minor nitpick: I wouldn’t characterize the H in Jeremyh as “just plain extra.” My hunch is it’s an alternative spelling of Jeremih, a singer, whose name is pronounced like Jeremiah without the A, rather than like Jeremy.
I agree on the Spanish Jh, and I made some attempt to account for it. (E.g. the name Jhonny isn’t included in the graph.) Unfortunately it’s impossible to determine, for example, what percentage of Jhaydens are the clarifying type of H, so there’s doubtless some overcounting of the silent version there. There is likely also undercounting in some areas, for instance in the decision to rule out names like Khristen.
Ah, thank you for clarifying, that makes sense!
I’ve wondered about the Jhonny spelling for years. Thanks for the explanation.
Could some of the Zh- names be trying for an alveopalatal fricative rather than an alveolar pronunciation, as in Zsa Zsa?
It’s certainly possible that some are, and impossible to disprove via spelling stats! To minimize the likelihood, I restricted the list to names that are much more common without the H like Z(h)ander and Z(h)ion. Also, the fricative ʒ isn’t particularly fashionable right now and Zs- names aren’t rising, so it seems likeliest the h’s are meant to be silent.
Whyatt is the spelling of Wyatt used for the main character in the kid’s show “Super Why!” He becomes a super-reader superhero so the added H leads to his superhero name. I caught this while watching with my toddler and subtitles on. The “unnecessary” H bothered me a touch until I realized the creative reason for the show.