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.
I was surprised to find on the NameGrapher that “Ceilidh” has not yet registered on the charts as a “Kaylee” spelling.
I know of a couple of Caeli’s, and they’re all pronounced chay-lee. It’s currently trending among Catholics, and used in reference to the Latin word for Heaven, as in the prayer/Marian title Regina Caeli.
It may well also be used as an alternate spelling for Kaylee, but I thought I’d throw out that bit of personal context. This is definitely a hard task!
My first thought when I saw the post title was Aaliyah. Every time I’ve encountered the name, it’s been with a different spelling – to the point that it seems to be part of the name’s very appeal. You have A vs AA vs E vs AH vs AAH, L vs LL, I vs E vs IY vs EE vs Y vs EIGH vs IYY, A vs AH vs AA vs AAH. I would be interested to know how many variants that comes out to, although it would definitely get deep into “Which pronunciation is this…?”
As a tangential anecdote, I recently watched a video with participants named Alaiyah and Eliah (both given in writing but not spoken). It took me a while to realize that they were nearly the same name (possibly the same, but I think they’re most likely a-lay-a and a-lie-a), because the visual effect is so completely different.
Yes, Aaliyah is a big one! I counted 94 different spellings.
I guessed Kaylee 😊. I have a distant cousin called Kali (pronounced Kaylee) born in 1965.
What’s really impressive about Kaylee is making so many spellings out of just four sounds!
They all start with M! Are there no other letters that this name could start with and still have the same pronunciation? Hmkayla?
Thanks for this exhausting and exhaustive search! I can’t even imagine how many times you must have lost count and had to start over.
Elizabeth, I went into this project assuming that a name with a variable first letter would come out on top! I hadn’t factored in the “Ma/Mi/Mc” flexibility.
When I saw the headline I mentally guessed the winner would be Riley or Caitlin. Michaela surprised me!
My immediate thought was “Jayden,” so I was close! But if I had thought about it, I’d have realized that Kayden would have more spellings, since there are more options for the ‘k’ sound.
I always assumed that Zhakari was pronounced “ja-KAHR-ee” – but I don’t know anyone with that name. Has anyone here ever met a Zhakari, and if so, how was it pronounced?