19 July 2011

There's more to a novel name than meets the eye and ear

In calling their daughter 'Harper 7', David and Victoria Beckham are at the extreme end of a worrying trend that's been growing apace for at least a generation, namely the search for obscure names to inflict on unsuspecting new-born babies.

It's a practice that arguably has more to do with parental attempts to demonstrate their own startling originality than with the long-term comfort and well-being of their children.

Some friends of ours were recently getting very neurotic about the birth of a forthcoming grandchild because, had it been a girl, the parents were threatening to call her 'Nettle'. Luckily for everyone concerned, it was a boy, now safely registered as 'Edward'.

And by 'everyone' concerned, I include - at very the top of the list - the innocent victims who'll have to live with an unusual name for the rest of their lives.

Younger members of my family brand me as a 'name-fascist' when I advocate a statutory list of permitted names, along the lines of what used to apply in France. But they, of course, are too young to realise that it's only during their life-time that 'Max' has risen from nowhere to make it into the top twenty in some current lists of most popular boy's name - so it strikes them as being perfectly normal.

But, as I keep telling them, there's method in my madness that comes from experience.

MAX - a suitable name for cats, dogs, gangsters and cab-drivers
Apart from my maternal great-grandfather and grandfather (on whose birthday I was born, thereby giving my parents little choice in the matter), it was 36 years until I met anyone else called 'Max' - and he was an Australian.

Before that, it was a name exclusively reserved for cats, dogs and hamsters. The only partial exception to this was 'Maxie', who made occasional appearances being bumped off in the second reel of American gangster movies. Readers of the early Beano may also remember, though not as vividly as I do, that it featured a comic strip about a cab-driver called 'Maxy's Taxi'.

Do you really want your child to be singled out?
Apart from the slight irritation of being nick-named after a cartoon character, my name didn't bother me too much until I was shipped off to a prep school from ages 8-13. The headmaster called all the other 119 of the 120 boys by their surnames. He never explained to me (or anyone else, as far as I kow) why I was the only one in the school to be called by his first name, and can only assume that it must have been because I happened to be the only one there with such an unusual name.

I've no idea whether or not it did me any long-term damage, but I do know that I didn't much like being the only one who was singled out from the crowd in this way.

Do you really want your child to feel excluded?
Throughout my childhood, the thing that really bugged me about my name was its total and complete absence from the racks of monogrammed pencils, combs, mugs and other seaside souvenirs at Filey and Scarborough. Think what it feels like when you're the only child on the promenade with nothing whatsoever to choose from - I'd even have settled for 'Maxie', but that was never there either - while everyone else could chose pretty much anything they liked with 'David', 'Michael' or 'Richard' printed on it.

Times have changed
Today, of course, I'd have no problem in buying a pencil or comb with 'Max' on it - but the new problem is that grandparents are finding it more and more difficult to find souvenirs with their grandchildren's names on them.

In response to my grumpy old man's rants on the subject, the younger generation of parents tell me that obscure names have become so common as to be the new norm, which means that no one will notice them as being unusual any more.

For the sake of the new generations of children with novelty names, I just hope they're right.

As for those in the business of producing monogrammed novelties, the development of print-on-demand technology has presumably made it possible for them to cater for any imaginable combination of letters - and even, in the case of the new Beckham baby, numbers - that may be required.


David said...

I think there is also a number of parents who find it fashionable to use different spellings of existing names, but keeping the same pronunciation.

My wife worked in a UK secondary school where one of the pupils was called Marcus. Well, although it was pronounced Marcus, his parent's had decided to spell it on the birth register as Marquis.

Of course, it could be they thought that was the correct spelling.

Max Atkinson said...

David - good point about eccentric spelling - and very topical to given that 'Rebekah' Brooks is in the news at the moment.

In the USA, it also extends to eccentric spelling of common English surnames. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the New York Port Authority used to employ semi-literate immigration officials at the time when migrants from Ireland and Britain were arriving by the boat load. They apparently used to take down the names of new arrivals by dictation and not bother to get them check the spelling.

outsider said...

Sorry that you found your name embarrassing; it seems a great one to me. But I note that you still choose to use it.

If children dislike their names they usually just use another one. Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley was Tom and Harold Philby Kim. Only after her death did we discover that my grandmother Jean was christened Sarah Jane.

Apart from avoiding the obvious pitfalls, parents do their children a favour if they give them a choice. My own brother has an unusual first name followed by William and Edward, which happened to be his grandfathers' names but, on my count, gave him a choice of 14 without straying beyond his birth certificate. Similarly, if a girl is given additional names such as Elizabeth or Margaret, she will be spoilt for choice to express her own self-image, whatever cringe-worthy first name her parents foist on her.

Max Atkinson said...

Outsider - The main embarrassment came to an end at 13, when I moved to another much bigger school, where the headmaster would have had to look at his records to find out what my first names were.

And you are , of course, right that I chose to use it - for two good reasons. One was that I certainly couldn't have ditched a long-running family name so long as my grandfather Max was still alive, and he didn't die until I was 26, by which time I'd passed it on, much to his delight, as the second name of one of his great-grandchildren - since when, it's reappeared as one of the names of his great-great grandson, taking Maxwell into at least the 6th generation.

Another reason I didn't change it was that, to appease my paternal grandfather, my parent's had called me John Maxwell. And the trouble with John was exactly the opposite: there were far too many of them in our generation - evidenced by the fact that, at an old school boy's lunch for which six of us get together once a year, there are four Johns (including me), one David and one Peter.

Anonymous said...

You will love this one, I still dunno what the flip his parents were thinking, but I swear this is real.

I am Spanish and in Spain, a normal name as you all know is Juan (John), so far so good, but it turns out that it could also be a family name..which made my school mate be Juan Juan, (first name Juan, family name Juan), as if this was not enough, for some random reason, and as you may know as well, in Spain you get the first surname from your father and the second one from your mother...and guess what was the surname of the mother?? indeed Juan as well.

so this poor chap (now 40 yo) has spent most of his life explaining around that his Juan Juan Juan was not a joke but a random coincidence of parenthood stupidity (to be nice to them)...imagine being stopped at police control and being asked to tell your name, family name and second family name...chances are he ended up in jail more often that he really deserved to...

Max Atkinson said...

I did indeed love it, Anonimo!

It reminds me of a store in Leeds in the 1950s, presumably founded or owned by a someone from Wales called 'Owen Owen' - and, more recently, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations.

But 3 Juans is really pushing it beyond all reason!