Saturday, 23 November 2013

Would a Lily, by another name ...

Names are strange and wonderful things.

Name the Devil, and he will appear. Find out someone's True Name and you will have power over them.

Name a baby and you turn sound into an identity. Something that was an apostle, a flower, your friend from primary school's brother or a weather system transforms to become, indelibly, a new person.

The name becomes the child and the child becomes the name.


You sift through names when you discover a baby is coming, trying out their sounds, their meanings, their associations. What about Sebastian? Too posh. What about Michael? We know too many. What about Aisha? Muhammad's child bride.

Amotai could have been a Jack, or an Oliver. He could have been an Alexander, but now that's two different children friends have had. Amotai's well, Amotai.

Lauren's going to do an entry about Lily's name. I'm going to write about a topic I find fascinating and have been meaning to write about for a while - the different types of names children have.

We've met a lot of kids in the last few years, as more and more of our friends and family have them and as we join circles of parents through creche and Lauren's antenatal group. When I think about the names all these children have, I think they can be roughly divided into four types.

1) Common names. New names do rise up the lists, but unlike in earlier centuries where generation after generation would have the same name, nowadays the 'classic' names (like the Biblical ones) seem to have cycles of fashion. These are often negatively influenced by what names were popular when the parents were born, as many people are reluctant to give their kids names associated with people they know. For example, people Lauren's and my age know legions of Sarahs and Rachels - but we know no children with those names. The Downton Abbey era names - for example Daisy, Cora or Edith - considered appallingly dowdy by most baby boomers, are in vogue now. Lily belongs with these names.

Interestingly, the most common names are becoming less common. 100 years ago the most popular names (the likes of William, Jack and John) would have been a far higher percentage of all names than they are now. I guess that the sign of a more multicultural and less conformist society.

2) Unusual traditional names. I think these are often influenced by cultural reasons - as with Amotai or his peer, Scottish-descended Montrose. Of course, as I suspect is the case with another peer, Phineus, it may be the parents just liked the name in itself.

3) Traditional surnames as first names. Amotai's been at creche with two Coopers. This is an increasingly popular trend that seems to be something that's spread from America, home to the likes of Harrison Ford or Hunter Mahan.

4) Atypical names. These can be unconventional spellings of traditional names, such as Kaytlyn, or unusual choices of names. For example, I know of a Princess who has a brother called Rhino. It is very easy to sneer at these (particularly if you're a traditionalist or a spelling pedant) - but all names, when you think about their meanings, are a bit weird. Hi, Beloved of God Jones! How's your wife Spiky Vine That Produces Pretty Flowers?

Being critical about what someone has chosen to name their child is one of the things that's most likely to get a parent's hackles up, and rightly so. It's a deeply personal decision and as long as it's not going to actively harm the child by opening them up to a life of ridicule (see Zowie Bowie), people should respect the choices others make.

Still, it is a fascinating topic. I'd be interested in reading about the influence on social groups on choosing names. People choose names because they like the meaning, sound or associations - or a combination of the three. But there can be other factors that influence the choice of name.

For example, there's a perception that unusual names are more common among hippies, celebrities (see North West) or working class people. Is this true? And if so, why? Do less educated people tend to be less hung up about 'correct' spelling? Do people on the lower rungs or the margins of society want to give their children unique names, to mark them as being special? Do the likes of Frank Zappa sneer at social conventions,while the middle classes feel strange names would hinder their children's prospects?

I'm sure some kind of study's been done. If you know of something, please let me know.

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