Thursday, 16 August 2007

What's in a name?

My son (17 years old) mentioned to me today that there’s a boy in his class called Shiraz.

That’s not even subtle. We live in the winelands, and specifically in Shiraz country. It’s like naming a child born in Obs in the ’80s Acid Flashback.

My birth name (which isn’t Muriel, I am sure you will be amazed to know) doesn’t thrill me. It’s a short, sharp, nasty abbreviation of a lovely old saint name: Theresa.

Why? My parents managed to name my siblings sufficiently elegantly: one after an African river, one after a French writer, one unusual enough to be timeless. So why give me an appellation more commonly ascribed to slaggy lower-working-class teenage Brits? It doesn’t seem fair.

But then, I gave my own children names that, in the years they were born (1990 and 1991), hadn’t been heard of for scores of years, and were considered hopelessly old-fashioned at the time. ‘Are you sure?’ people asked their father and me, when we told them what we planned to label our offspring.

Within 10 years every curly-haired creature turning up at crèche was an Isabella and every second lad a Daniel. By 2002 – barely 10 years after my kids’ births – Daniel was the ninth most popular boy’s name and Isabella the 14th most popular girl’s given to newborns. (I comfort my children by reminding them that they are at least a decade older than any other child going by the same name.)

I did a bit of research into this recently and wasn’t astonished to find that the biggest reason for not choosing a name is overpopularity. (Equally unsurprising, the biggest reason for choosing a name is uniqueness.) But it’s also true that a fad name becomes trendy because a famous person has it (oh, pity all those Britneys, and the welter of ‘unique’ spellings that name has spawned).

Also, women given ‘cute’ names (like, eeugh, mine) tend to name their daughters more ‘seriously’ (like I did): a Nancy born in the 1950s might have named her daughter, born in the 1970s, Erica; a Patti would have called her daughter Christine; a Debbie’s daughter would have been Denise. (Nancy, Patti and Debbie were all top-10 name in the 1950s; Erica, Christine and Denise were all top-10 names in the 1970s).

And there’s also the notion that some names are ‘adult’. I can’t imagine, for instance, calling a baby boy Arthur or Harry; but then, Hannah, Jacob and Max were all considered ‘old people’s names’ not so long ago.

And then there’s bridging the gender gap. Boys called Tracey, girls called Michael, and the names Madison, Jordan, Taylor or Kendall being up for grabs for either.

And what about place names: India, Sierra, Ireland (Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger’s daughter) and Brooklyn (the Beckhams’ son).

And now that celebrities have come up, goodness me, do they need to be slapped for what they land on their children: Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter), Sailor (Christie Brinkley’s daughter), Daisy Boo and Poppy Honey (Jamie Oliver’s kids), China (daughter of Grace Slick, who was also known, for a time, as ‘god’ – small ‘g’ for, apparently, humility), Moon Unit (daughter of Frank Zappa), Fixi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Pixie and their half-sister Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (Bob Geldof and Paula Yates’s offspring), and Elijah Bob Patricius Guggi Q Hewson. I’m not telling who this last’s child is. Answers on a postcard…

But not all is lost. Zowie Bowie, David’s son, wasted no time in changing his name to Joe and later to Duncan.

In Africa, names traditionally have less to do with trends and more with family status (Tazara – railway line), the hopes of the ancestors, celestial events (Baba - born on Thursday) and current occurrences (Nafuna – delivered feet-first). Which is why you may end up being called Amandla (power), Jabulani (happy) or Palesa (flower); but equally likely Issay (hairy), Kaprea (this child, too, will die) or Wasaki (the enemy).

So maybe Tracey isn’t so bad after all.

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meggie said...

This is a very interesting post. I was named an Irish name, my mother as really fond of it. I loathed it. And my middle name is just as hideous, though there were 2 girls in my class at the time, who had it as a first name, poor things.
We named our son a name no one had - and he was on the crest of a wave because by the following year it was one of the top names.

Juno said...

Exactly the same thing happened with my kids' names: there I was, thinking they were so original (funky, but with a bit of gravitas) and ten years later there were hundreds of little namesakes running around.

Other strange celeb baby names:

-Jermajesty (son of Jermaine Jackson)
-Speck Wildhorse (son of John Mellencamp)
-Dagwood (son of Roger Waters)
-Hopper (son of Sean Penn)
-Dandelion (daughter of Keith Richards)
-Pilot Inspektor (son of Jason Lee)

angel said...

so you have siblings named nile, balzac & hope...?
as for thinking i was clever when i named my son (back in 1991 it caused quite a stir)... sheesh, now there are so many damien's there's ALWAYS more than one in his class!
at one stage when he was little, he asked that we call him "coke-tin" and when he started primary school asked me several times to change his name to "michael"...
and i'll never forget the sabc3 "interface" presenter who's teenage daughter is named "costa rica"!!!?!???!!!!

angel said...

did you know "llewellyn" was originally an irish girls name?

Sarah Britten said...

There were three Sarahs in my high school class, all of them with names beginning with B. That did not stop the headmaster from calling me "Sarah B".

Soon enough, school teachers will be assigning code names to all the Hannahs to try and distinguish the little buggers from on another.