I set out to find the creative spelling champion. I got more than I bargained for.
Which name has the most different spellings? It’s a simple question, but fiendishly hard to answer. 112,620 different names have appeared in US baby name statistics since 1880, and they don’t come with a pronunciation guide.
Finding every spelling of a name takes both patience and imagination. For instance, if you’re counting up versions of Ryan you have to think to look under W, as in Wryan. You also have to be prepared to make judgement calls, because spellings can be ambiguous. Is Kearah pronounced KEER-ə or kee-AHR-ə? Or if enough families pronounce it both ways, should it count as both names?
As totaled up spellings for my likely targets, I settled on this standard: “do I feel confident that many families who choose this name pronounce it this way?” You may not agree with every decision, but in the end I trust that the borderline cases I ruled out balanced those I ruled in.
And now, meet America’s most-spelled names.
The most-spelled classic names: Madeline* and Zachary.
Madeline tallies an impressive 75 spellings and is one of the few names with a long creative history. Even a century ago, Americans were using 20 different versions of Madeline. I’ve given the name an asterisk, though, because the twin “in” and “iyn” pronunciations of the ending give it a leg up. For boys, Zachary registers 69 spellings from Xachary to Zhakari.
The most-spelled boy’s name: Kayden.
Names rhyming with Aiden defined a generation and led to a flurry of spelling innovation. K- and C- options put Kayden at the top of the heap with 83 variations. Caaden and Kayedon, meet Kaiiden and Khyaidyn.
The runner up: Kaylee.
Kaylee pairs the flexible K sound with the even more flexible -lee suffix. This name was exceptionally tricky to count, since Callie, Kylie, Keely and Kaliyah are also popular names with multiple spellings. Give it a try: how would you pronounce these names?
I ultimately arrived at 103 Kaylee variations, and felt certain that I’d found my champion. As it turn out, I wasn’t even close.
America’s #1 most-spelled name is…
In the early 1990s, Kayla was the sound of the moment for girls. Then the tv series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman debuted, featuring Old West physician Dr. Michaela Quinn. The two names collided, sparking an explosion of mə-KAY-lə creativity.
To tally the spellings of this name, I let popularity patterns help guide my judgements. For instance, I counted 1970s names as Michelle variants, and treated uncommon pronunciations like mi-CHALL-ə as less likely. When possible, I consulted discussions and recordings of ambiguous spellings.
My final count: an incredible 135 different spellings. See the results for yourself in this portrait of America’s most malleable name. Each version below was given to at least five girls in a single year.