The Game of the Name
The list of the UK’s most popular baby names is out. Rather like Ant and Dec at an awards ceremony, or the Brownlee brothers at a triathlon, the front runners are predictable. This year Oliver and Olivia are the winners, with Harry and George, Amelia and Emily, taking the silvers and bronzes.
There will be the usual tutting and adjusting of lorgnettes over the appearance, lower down the list, of names from fiction or celebrity. Khaleesi and Tyrion from Game of Thrones, Kylo and Rey from Star Wars. Harper is moving up the rankings, possibly not because of a revival of interest in To Kill A Mockingbird. But of course we’ve always called our children after celebrities and fictional characters. Lorna, Pamela, Wendy, Vanessa, all made up by writers looking for something to make their characters distinctive. The mighty Olivia itself was invented by Shakespeare. Victoria and Florence increased greatly in popularity as tributes to Her Majesty and Miss Nightingale. My grandfather, a working class lad, was given the imposing two names Hector MacDonald, after a distinguished Victorian major general. The curse of celebrity names was felt a year or two later when the major general was disgraced for episodes involving little boys
Traditionally, ‘made up’ names have been given to girls rather than boys. It’s as if a girl’s name was seen as something a bit more frivolous, that you could play around with, while a boy’s name should be more serious and solid. Sir Walter Scott made up Cedric, although he may just have got the spelling of the old name Cerdic wrong. Like Shakespeare and Imogen, which should have been the ancient name Innogen. These days, though, parents seem more adventurous with boys’ names too. David hasn’t made a comeback over the last year or so, but Bowie has been given to a number of babies, including some girls. I’m still looking for a Lemmy.
I like the fact the UK is quite relaxed about what people call their children. In Iceland, the name has to conjugate in Icelandic, so you can’t have anything foreign that doesn’t. Lots of countries have approved lists of names, and you must get special permission to have anything else. New Zealand, for example, declined Sex Fruit and Satan, but was happy with Number 16 Bus Shelter. Why on earth you would want to call your child…oh. I see. Moving swiftly on…
Last names are a whole other question, provoking another clashing of lorgnettes. My children’s father and I were not married, and we decided not only to give our first child both surnames, but to put mine last. Thirty years ago this was seen as a bold feminist statement. In fact it was because, put the other way round, our son sounded like a railway station. It was a compromise, though, because I wanted to be creative and give him a totally different surname. It seemed to me that having spent days deciding on a first name, worrying whether various candidates would suit him, whether they would result in teasing, whether they had unfortunate connotations in other countries, whether they would upset one side of the family or the other – after all that, he would get his last name more or less by accident. Their dad, however, felt that he was entitled to a break from social insurrection, having weathered the family storms about no marriage, a double barrelled name, and a naming ceremony rather than a christening. And when I got to meet my baby, I really didn’t care what his last name was going to be.
I never have given a stuff about my children’s surname (we just went the same route with our daughter), because I had nothing to do with it. When they were little and asked me why they had that name (double barrelleds weren’t as common as they are now) I told them that both Mummy and Daddy made them, and that’s why they had both names. They regarded that as perfectly logical. When other people (still) ask me, ‘But what if they do the same, and their partner also has a double barrel, and your grandchildren end up with four surnames?’, I reply, ‘If my kids and their partners haven’t got the nouse to work this out for themselves, and come up with a suitable name for their own children, they shouldn’t be damn well breeding in the first place.’
I’ve known several parents who did choose different surnames for their children, without noticeably catastrophic results for the kids. It can be the answer to parents’ prayers, if you really really want a particular first name but you worry about the combination with your own surname. Holly Bush, for example, or Autumn Leeves (both real examples, reluctantly abandoned by parents). Why should you discard the name you love and that completely suits your child, because of an accident of history? Find a surname that you love just as much, and that suits your new cherub as much as that cherished first name.
Pick your own. Do it yourself. In Britain, it’s perfectly legal to pick another last name for your child, just as it’s perfectly legal for them to call themselves anything they like after they’re sixteen (as long as it’s not obscene or otherwise anti-social). And if, ten years on, they decide that, honestly, it wasn’t such a good plan, they can always change it back. Or change it forwards, to yet another inspired, personal, do-it-yourself moniker.