By Any Other Name

8th June 2012

From Corleone to Cougar… As nameberry.com (run by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz, jointly credited with having revolutionised baby naming in the USA) reveals its latest list of unusual names currently being bestowed on American offspring, Clare Finney investigates what your name says about you.

What’s in a name? That is the question, first asked by Shakespeare’s Juliet in 16th century Verona, and repeated by every pair of expectant parents ever since. Of course, Juliet wasn’t pregnant – or not in the versions I’ve read, anyway – but the essence of the conundrum is the same. What’s the meaning behind your moniker? Does it even mean anything at all? And if it doesn’t, and a rose really would smell as sweet if it were referred to as a hogsbottom, why on earth is there such a furore about what you call your baby?

Because boy, oh boy, is there. A hell of a furore; far more than I even realised when I began to write this. Google ‘baby names’ and you’ll find ten articles in the past 24 hours alone, ranging from ‘Governments crack down on offbeat baby names’ to ‘Beyoncé names baby girl using Numerology’. You don’t have to be a professor of either Numerology or Neimology (the science of interpreting a name to know how someone person thinks, feels or behaves; yes, there really is such a thing) to sense that the two things are related. When Beyoncé dubbed her child Blue Ivy in the same week that New Zealand released a list of prohibited names the news was media manna. Yet even before this uproar there was an fascination with nomenclature that should make less ill-fated woman than Juliet lose their heads.

Take the former director of the RSPB, Mark Avery, or the footballer Mark de Man. Each time the public eye falls on them, letter bags fill with helpful insights as to the aptness of the poor fellows’ names. Old favourites are dug up once more – Dr De’Ath, Lord Judge – together with multiple theories as to how name and job came to be so suited. Even Karl Jung admitted to finding himself ‘in something of a quandary when it comes to making up our minds about… the ‘compulsion of the name’.’ Was it just ‘grotesque coincidence’, as he eventually concluded? Or the age-old tradition of linking names and occupation working subconsciously? Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t be the only one to disagree.

Nevertheless the prevalence of dentists called Dennis and Denise was enough to warrant an investigation into the trend in 2002. The paper, snappily titled Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions, concluded that the phenomenon (also known as Nominative Determinism) occurs because people ‘prefer things that are connected to the self’, like the meaning or the letter in their own name. It sparked a host of articles uncovering comical examples of where the theory did and didn’t stand up, but little more. As John Hoyland of the New Scientist concluded, ‘there’s something going on here. Or maybe there isn’t.’ Yet if it’s that all, why are we still obsessed with name etymology?

Go into most gift shops and you’ll find keyrings describing just about every name from Ada to Zac. We all know what our own means by now – mine is ‘clear, bright, famous’, if you’re wondering – but that doesn’t stop us from looking again. Like horoscopes and folklore we remain cynical until the point when a strange theory becomes relevant to ourselves, then wonder, for example, ‘perhaps I really am brighter than I think’. Laugh as we must at the neimologists, though, our name-related prejudices run much deeper than we’re prepared to admit.

Take Tarquin for example, a byword for pretentiousness (with apologies to any reading this). Comedian David Mitchell recently cited it as an example of a name about which everyone has preconceived ideas. ‘It must act as a millstone around the neck of every Tarquin who isn’t like that’, he rants in his podcast on baby naming – and to test his theory, I asked some employers if they would consider hiring one. Only one in five would consider even interviewing. The rest would bin his application. So much, then, for Juliet’s smell-as-sweet theory.

But where did such a name come from? And why is it now hated? To answer that we must go back to 6th century Rome, where Sextus Tarquinius (son of the tyrannical king Tarquin the Proud, descended from a man who came from the city of Tarquinii) raped a virtuous aristocrat called Lucretia, causing an uprising which led to the loss of Rome and blackened the name of Tarquin for evermore.

Of course, today, the connotations have changed – and while no one likes to be thought of as snobbish, it is infinitely better than undertones of rape. Nevertheless this story raises some important points. Firstly, the name’s origin: a place, then a family figure whose name was inherited – two factors which bear strong influences on names today. From made-in-Brooklyn Beckham to Sydneys everywhere, the practice of naming people after places is as alive as it was when we called people Heath because they lived there. As for inherited names, it’s easier to count who hasn’t got one – either first or sandwiched in the middle – than those who have.

Yet what Tarquin’s story also warns is just how many factors must be considered when naming your child. I’m called Clare because my grandfather went to that college in Cambridge, because both my parents like it, and because my mum’s first choice, Cordelia, was deemed to posh. Literally translated, as I said, it is latin for ‘clear’. But what the keyring doesn’t tell us is that, like Anne, Matthew, Matilda, Luke, Sarah and many others, the advantage of Clare has over Cordelia is that it’s safe.

Safe to be known as, safe to make friends as, safe to put at the top of all CVs… As David Mitchell points out, people have to introduce themselves again and again at every stage of their lives: ‘Why give or make up a name which will ensure everyone who meets them will have strong preconceptions about them when there are so many names to choose from with little or no baggage?’ Dull as it sounds, a tradition name has precisely the pressure-relieving colourlessness that Mitchell advocates; and with such a wealth of nicknames and variants available, it’s easy for your darling Michael to make a seamless transition to ‘Mickey’ later on. “Good names are customisable,” a self-styled Haz tells me. “You might start as one in six thousand Harrys, but it’s your nickname that you go by and that defines you.”

Whereas your given name reflects who your parents hoped you’d be when you were just a wee blank slate, your nickname reflects the scribbles. Yet for 60,000 people in this country last year this was not enough. The rise in Deed of Change of Name applications, or Deed Poll, has been unprecedented since the service was launched online – and the more applications there are, the more ridiculous the names have become. Michael Jackson accounted for 30 of the changes last year and Wayne

Rooney for 15. Other memorable new names were Dr Pasty-Smasher Omelette and Miss Jelly Tots. Yet while it might seem fatuous, for every beer-induced pub dare there’s a thousand serious motives that make you long for the tough naming laws found abroad.

In New Zealand, for example, the Department of Internal Affairs will reject any names that deemed to be offensive, too long (maximum 100 characters), or with religious references – a clause that outlaws Jesus and Mohammed, both very popular elsewhere. In Germany, names must indicate gender and must not be an object, while in Denmark there are a mere seven thousand ‘pre-approved’ names. To apply for a new one you must get permission first from the local church, then from government officials who are known to reject around 20% of such names each year.

You could argue that such laws are anti-democratic, and many in those countries do. But take a look at some of the names…

New Zealand-born Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii made world news when she sought to change her name to something more ordinary at the age of nine. One set of parents had Yeah Detroit refused, and, mercifully, Sex Fruit was also disallowed. In Denmark, two children were spared Money and Anus, while in Sweden parents protesting against the stringent naming laws proposed Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 (pronounced Albin) – and failed.

I could go on. The list of such unusual names is long and quite disturbing, not least in the UK, where naming laws are the most liberal in the world. Providing it’s pronounceable, not offensive and (tellingly) doesn’t promote drug abuse, the act of nomenclature is lawless. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth some serious thought. If nothing else our name reflects the choice of those who made us and whom we most resemble – and as Juliet discovers, that can be significant indeed.

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