BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 15, 2011
About 10 years ago, something terrible happened: Strangers began to get comfortable with my first name.
Throughout elementary school, I suffered mispronunciations (chole, rhymes with coal, was common) and misunderstandings (“What’s that short for?”). But what my name caused me in annoyance, it made up for in distinction. “Chloe” (or “Chloë or “Chloé”) was both classic and uncommon, I came to realize. Cookie-cutter was dull, different was daring—and yet “Chloe” was distinct without being ridiculous or made up.
Then, other people caught on. In the 1980s, “Chloe” was ranked at 586 among the most-popular baby girls’ names; in the ’90s, it crept up to 123. By 2005, it had climbed its way to 19. I began to hear my name at airports and playgrounds; mothers and fathers shouted it out at busy intersections. I suddenly knew what it was like to be a “Mike” or a “Sarah.” By 2009, “Chloe” was in ninth place. Supermarkets and shopping malls were no longer safe. Banish the thought of entering a McDonald’s with a plastic playpen area.
Then, something even worse happened: the Kardashians, especially third-sister Khloé. Reality television, as Laura Wattenberg wrote in Slate earlier this year, has had a noticeable effect on name popularity in recent years. “Maci”—the name of a main character on the MTV show “Teen Mom”—was the fastest-rising name of 2010. “Khloé”—a separately tracked, made-up variation of “Chloe”—has been the fastest-rising name of the past five years. (Khloé is a central character on “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” as well as the spin-offs “Kourtney and Khloé Take Miami” and “Khloé & Lamar.”) In 2005, as Wattenberg points out, the name was not even in the top 1000; last year it reached the 42nd slot. “Chloe” continued to rise in the rankings, but so did “Khloe,” a re-interpretation that was not even tracked by the Social Security administration before 2006. Now, it was not just the rarity of my name that was under assault; it was its integrity.
The Kardashians, as it’s very hard not to know, have turned their family into a ubiquitous commodity—or, as they would have it, a kommodity, as they grab every opportunity (even those rightfully belonging to the letter “C”) to advertise themselves. All the Kardashian daughters have names beginning with the letter “K”; the shows’ website is filled with phrases like “get to know who’s who in the krew” and invitations to view the Kardashian Kollection for Sears. Their nail polish line includes colors like Hard-Kourt Fashionista and Kendall on the Katwalk. When Kim Kardashian briefly married basketball player Kris Humphries earlier this year, there was a half-joking assumption that his first name played a major role in inspiring the short-lived union. The impetus here is clear: The family is the brand and the brand is the family. The more they can remind consumers (konsumers?) of this, the more they stand to benefit. They’re not the types to let spelling stand in their way.
Of course, the Kardashians aren’t the first to use alliteration to enhance their celebrity. Marilyn Monroe, Ozzie Osborne, and Joan Jett are just a few who ditched their birth-names for snappier single-letter combinations. But they are perhaps the first to so thoroughly embrace the single-letterness of their commercial enterprise. There are semi-scientific reasons why playing up the letter “K” may make some sense. According to some branding experts, companies and products beginning with the letter “C” are the most common, while “K” brands rank near the bottom of the list. The hard sound of “C” is appealing, studies say, but “K” variations are unusual, making “K” words ripe for brand-name cultivation.
“K” sounds are amusing, as well. Writing about the origin of the concept of “Podunk” in The New Yorker in 1948, H.L. Mencken wrote that “The letter “K” has always appealed to the oafish risibles of the American plain people.” Neil Simon worked this into his 1972 play The Sunshine Boys. (“Pickle is funny … Cup cake is funny … Tomato is not funny. Roast Beef is not funny … But cookie is funny.”) Even Mel Brooks proclaimed the inherent attraction of the eleventh letter of the alphabet: “Instead of salmon, turkey is a funnier sound," he reputedly said. Other poultry with clicky sounds also appealed to Brooks: “Chicken. There's nothing funnier than chicken,” Brooks told Entertainment Weekly in 2000.
So the “K”-shaped prism through which the Kardashians refract the world may be little more than a marketing ploy originating 30-something years ago when pregnant “momager” Kris Kardashian decided to stick to a single letter for her brood. She might not have framed it in these terms at the time, but she was cultivating a clan primed to capitalize upon an appealing but under-exploited sound, while imbuing their products (i.e., themselves) with a comic ring. We’re kooky! We’re krazy! Now go buy some klothes.
I can’t help but find this deeply annoying, and not just because they’re popularizing a version of my name that tramples on its classical roots. For the record, I’m not alone in my annoyance at overly creative K-based nomenclature. Writer Edith Zimmerman—no “c”’s or “k”’s to be found in her name—recently lost it in The New York Times magazine when faced with the “irrationally annoying (and sloppily spelled)” Internet sensation Kreayshawn: “Spell your name right! Or at least spell it shorter!” she wrote.
The Kardashian venture is objectionable not just for personal reasons but also because it subordinates coherence to catchiness, an altogether too frequent phenomenon these days. This isn’t meant to be a treatise on electronic-age eloquence—or lack thereof. (Read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story—both of which imagine not-so-distant futures in which all communication has been broken down to text-message-style fragments—if you want to be truly frightened on that front.) But the Kardashians do deserve at least a little chastisement for further dismantling language in their self-involved, money-making hustle. E-mail, texting, tweeting have chopped up and garbled our sentences and syntax; we should resist letting marketing do further damage. I may have given up on the singularity of “Chloe,” but I’m not ready to embrace “Khloé.”
Chloë Schama is a deputy editor at The New Republic.