Features

How baby names got so weird

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

You have to pity the Welsh woman who was last week prevented by the Court of Appeal from naming her daughter ‘Cyanide’. An unusual choice, admittedly. And the mother’s defence — Cyanide is a ‘lovely, pretty name’ because it was the drug Hitler used to kill himself ‘and I consider that this was a good thing’ — didn’t help. But given some of the names being foisted on kids these days, Cyanide almost seems sensible.

Naming your child was once simple: you picked from the same handful of options everyone else used. But modern parents want exclusivity. And so boys are called Rollo, Emilio, Rafferty and Grey. Their sisters answer to Aurelia, Bartolomea, Ptarmigan or Plum. Throw in a few middle names and the average birth certificate looks like an earthquake under a Scrabble board. In the poll-tax returns for 1379, one in three men in Sheffield was called John. Now the name has dropped out of Britain’s top 100. Mary doesn’t make the girls’ top 200. More girls are christened Skylar, Luna or Zoya than Mary. Thor is more popular than Gordon. No doubt Mr Brown had an effect, but it’s still astonishing that in 2014 only ten British boys received that name.

Not that the strange new world is without rules, according to the book You’re So Mummy. Its authors Alex Manson-Smith and Sarah Thompson advise: ‘No flowers (too popular), no cities (too common)… Animals are in (Wolf, Bear, Otter) as is weather (Rainbow) and soul singers (Otis, Elwood).’ No word on cars: my partner recently heard a playground echo to the cry of: ‘Aston! Jensen!’ The boys should think themselves lucky. It could have been: ‘Skoda! Nissan!’


The trend is reaching the stage of child cruelty. Harry Wallop of the Daily Telegraph regularly delights his Twitter followers with morsels from the paper’s births column. ‘Elektra Esmeralda,’ runs a typical example, ‘a little sister for Dorothy, Wulfstan and Cleopatra.’ Or: ‘Grayson Jude Strathearn, a brother for Kester and Talia.’ John has appeared, but only as a middle name sandwiched between ‘Awbrey’ and ‘Wulfram’. Likewise Mary, tagging along behind ‘Tarka Valentine’. Wallop discusses names in his book about the tribes of modern Britain, Consumed. The internet, he says, has made a big difference. ‘The web’s culture of unique URLs and social media handles has altered the way we think about labelling ourselves. Who wants to be ChrisJones987 when you could be Zephyr Jones?’ He also documents the rise of a class he dubs the Hyphen-Leighs. ‘A hyphenated name is the easiest route to creating a genuinely unique name: Demi-Leigh, Rose-Leigh and so on.’

As well as new monikers appearing, the old ones are crossing the gender divide. Confusion has always been a possibility — Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was called Evelyn — but now things are getting out of hand. Real-life equivalents of Johnny Cash’s ‘boy named Sue’ remain rare (give it time), but girls have been christened ‘Sebastian’, ‘Quentin’, ‘Maxwell’ and — in the case of the actress Blake Lively’s daughter — James. Some names defy any classification. If you were going to meet a ‘Fortune’, would you be looking for a man or a woman? Likewise ‘Arki’, ‘Hazard’ and ‘Diggory’. Also ‘Zephy’ (I don’t think that one’s missing an ‘r’). When communication is by tweet or email rather than by phone or in person, you can conduct entire relationships without learning the other person’s sex.

Part of the explanation for all this is social climbing. Toffs have always gone in for stupid names, often in honour of previous generations. As Harry Wallop puts it: ‘They’ll tell a child, “The third earl was called Badger, and if it was good enough for him it’s good enough for you.” ’ But now the lower classes are copying them, meaning Britain’s estates as well as its estates teem with Katinkas and Lovedays, Dalbiacs and Bees. If the chavs think they’re conning anyone, they’re mistaken. They’ve forgotten about ‘eccentric sheep’ syndrome.

This is the process, identified by social anthropologist Kate Fox in her book Watching the English, whereby something meant as ‘evidence of our eccentricity and originality’ ends up as ‘conformist, conservative rule-following’. Fox applied it to clothes, but the same thing is happening with names. In an attempt to make their children stand out, parents are only helping them to blend in. When everyone’s a Marni or an Autumn or a Sky, the rebellion has nothing to register against.

So could we go full circle? Maybe it’ll dawn on people that plunging your hand onto a qwerty keyboard and naming your baby with the collection of letters that results is naff. There’ll only be one way to really give them cachet when the school register is called: a traditional name. It won’t be any old Tom, Dick or Harry that gets to be called John.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • #toryscum

    Black women have been giving their children ‘unique’ names for a long time, seems the white middle class are finally catching up.

    • Cyril Sneer

      More like going backwards.

    • KingEric

      By “unique” you obviously mean “fecking ridiculous”.

      • #toryscum

        No comment. 😉
        There’s an essay about the black name phenomenon in one of the Freakanomics books, the first I think. Good read if you’ve got a few spare minutes (and actually quite sad). The gist of it is, when you have nothing; no job, no money, no man, no prospects, giving your baby a fancy name is the only way to distinguish yourself from everyone else.

        • Owen_Morgan

          Or the way to prove you can’t actually spell.

        • Mr Grumpy

          … and, perhaps most significantly in the present context, no social capital. By contrast we have at least one community in which naming remains solidly conservative. Especially where boys are concerned.

          • logdon

            You mean Britains most popular boys name, Mohammed?

        • Kandanada

          This creates another question.

          Why would anyone want to signal that they had “nothing” by giving their child a “fancy” name?

          • #toryscum

            That reasonable logic is evidently missed.

          • Teacher

            The ‘Freakonomics’ authors who discussed this very issue suggstep that poor mothers thought they were conveying a benefit by naming their children with titles they believed were aspirational. They did not realise that ‘Rayleen’ – or whatever – was actually a label which would identify their offspring as poor.

          • logdon

            Upward mobility 🙂

        • Alexbensky

          It is my impression…no more than that…that this is correct. I do not notice the plethora of odd names among middle class black people than I do among those of lower social position.

          On the other hand, I wonder to what extent given names reflect assimilation and the desire to assimilate. Hispanics by the second or third generation often have “regular” names…Ashley Hernandez, Kevin Gomez, and so forth. Detroit has a large Muslim population and…again, this is anecdotal and impressionistic and I offer it for no other purpose…even by the third generation, the names remain Arabic. Daoud may go by “Davy” and I know a couple of Mohammeds who are called “Mike,” but I can’t recall seeing anyone named something like Arthur Abdul.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          You can also foretell the children’s life chances from the idiocy of the name choice.

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            Or the poor spelling of the name….

        • putin

          “and actually quite sad”

          Not sad at all. Most of them are adults and therefore have a sense of agency. There are 2 things you need in life not to be poor: the ability to work hard and persistence. The one thing that almost certainly guarantees you are poor in America is to be a single mother. Of course, being a single mother in Britain is a ticket to the good life.

          • #toryscum

            There are 3 things you need, not 2;
            The ability to work hard
            Persistence
            Opportunity.
            Remove opportunity, and no amount of hard work or persistence will help you.

          • putin

            I accept your point and you are correct to some degree, but I would also argue that you make your own opportunity. For example, if you can’t get a job in your home town then you move to somewhere you can. Most people I know did this as a matter of course and yet a lot of long term unemployed don’t even consider it. I seem to remember Norman Tebbit being pilloried for his “get on your bike” speech in 1981, and never understood why this was so controversial. Coming from a small town myself, I knew that’s exactly what I should do.

          • #toryscum

            I understand your argument, but i think you’re making a grey issue black and white.
            Some people, to use the technical term, are just f1cked. Their lives are dictated by circumstances beyond their control, and there is nothing they can do (beyond some external power stepping in) to improve their lot. I think judging these people for remaining poor is not very fair.

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            I seem to remember Norman Tebbit being pilloried for his “get on your bike” speech in 1981, and never understood why this was so controversial.

            Because it’s not always easy for unemployed people to move to a new town. Moving takes money.

          • logdon

            ‘Moving takes money.’

            Not stopped a million and a half of Muslims moving to Germany.

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            I believe a few of them paid people smugglers and the like. Or did you think they got on their bikes and cycled to Germany?

          • logdon

            That was my point. Or did it go over your head?

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            Oh, you had a point? I thought you were just posting some knee-jerk “humour” about those bloody gimmigrants.

          • logdon

            Yes that was a point.

            And no, I rarely joke about vermin.

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            No, you don’t do humour, do you?

          • logdon

            So which is it to be ‘nee-jerk humour’ or ‘you don’t do humour’?

            Come on keep up, especially with yourself. Or is that too much to ask?

          • Teacher

            Opportunity is endless and offers itself constantly and in many ways. You just have be able to recognise it for what it is and to to grab it when it turns up. This requires a degree of intelligence and independence of thought. I don’t think it is easy to raise your status without being smart however hardworking or persistent you are. Apart from anything else you need to know how to keep what you have earned when you have got it.

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            And luck. Don’t forget luck. If it hadn’t been for pure, blind luck I’d probably still be grubbing along on £25K.

          • Cap’n Questionable

            God, I’d kill to be grubbing along on £25K.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            You think £25K is hard times??

          • Old Lawyer

            Please add to your list “employability skills.” That is vocation education argot for: getting to work everyday and on time, bathing regularly, taking care of your hair, wearing clean clothes, and showing respect to your superiors and co-workers.

          • #toryscum

            I’d consider the items you mention covered under ‘hard work’. So yes, agree they’re important. The amount of people (normally younger tbh) I come across at work who think it’s acceptable to rock up late, or call in sick, in the first few days of their new job is unreal.

          • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            One can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Some people are just not very employable. Perhaps we could dispatch them to work camps? Break them up for their organs? Make them into soap?

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            I’m afraid the rot has gone further than that. The QAA, the unaccountable quango that makes up its own rules and can withdraw approval from university degrees, expects employability skills to form part of the student ‘experience.’ Employability is the special focus topic that unis have to address if they are being inspected this year.

          • Dr. Heath

            A much better life than a lot of grafters enjoy, many of my hard-pressed, hard-working colleagues and neighbours have long ago noticed. Fourbyfour World is very cushty, their view is.

            Perhaps, one day, British voters who’ve decided to find regular jobs will rebel and elect a government with conservative leanings and something might be done to tackle this racket before, say, the treasury runs up a crippling national debt of many hundreds of billions of pounds.

          • The problem is, less than half the country are taxpayers, and of those quite a lot work for the govt. so are also in a sense dependents of the state. That leaves you with about 30% of the population actually independent tax payers. Things have to get really bad before the majority will vote to reduce state handouts in all their forms, as I discussed here:

            https://chaunceytinker.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/universal-suffrage-was-a-mistake/

            The next chance the right get, they need to reverse the left’s gerrymandering by taking the vote away from those on welfare, at the very minimum:

            https://chaunceytinker.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/universal-suffrage-alternatives/

        • Teacher

          The authors of the book suggested that, in their ignorance, the mothers thought they were giving their children aspirational names.

      • Ned Costello

        Couldn’t agree more, all those “Trayvons” “Shaquilles” and “Lavondras” (for God’s sake!)
        Ridiculous.

        • Dr. Heath

          I reckon “Quaid” is almost as ridiculous as any of your fine examples. It could, of course, be an ageing hippy parent’s attempt at “Quaalude”.

    • Alexbensky

      Some years ago a black woman with whom I worked had a baby. She was quite militant and when she named the child “William” I said, only half-jokingly, that I thought she’d have named him “Kill Whitey”or “Shaka” or something. And she said that was precisely why she had not. Her surname was something common, let’s say “Jones,” and she said no one was ever going to be in the back of the classroom,or the courtroom, or the doctor’s lounge and start snickering when her son gave his name.

      Years ago my mother was social services director at an orthopedic clinic in the Detroit area and she…a very truthful woman…insisted she’d had a patient named LaTrina.

    • logdon

      Sign of the times when the First Lady is called LaVaughn.

      Still, mustn’t grumble, it could have been LaToyah or Shekemalia.

      Come to think of it, one of the daughters is Malia. Obviously, for decorum’s sake they missed out the Sheke bit.

      • #toryscum

        check out ‘top 60 ghetto names’ on YouTube.

  • Cyril Sneer

    Chav names are embarrassing.

    If you’ve got any class then traditional names are the way to go.

  • Ade

    I blame Frank Zappa.

    • Mr Creosote

      And his kids dweezil and moon unit.

  • Nuahs87

    If your children are named John, Sarah and Stewart they will be judged on their personality and appearance. If you call them Rhubarb, Precipitation and Dracula you are subjecting them to a degree of prejudice for no reason.

    • Cim Thayne

      I quite agree – it really does seem to be a 21st century version of the “U and Non-U” phenomenon.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    We are very strict on first names in Germany. A name must be “real”, so you can’t call your child Anakin, for example. Because it is made up by George Lucas for Star Wars. On the other hand “Jihad” as a first name is totally acceptable. Because it’s not made up. It’s obvious a legitimate name and a personal statement. It means peace – or something.

    That btw is not satire, but true. Also ok is “conqueror of the new land”, as long as it’s the Turkish word for it. Gotta love those green-left-weirdos at the public registry office!

    • mattghg

      I was at university with a bloke named “Mohammed Jihad [his last name]”. We used to joke “Jihad is his middle name … literally”.

    • Shinsei1967

      Jihad means struggle.

      • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

        So does “Kampf” 😉

      • plainsdrifter

        The good news is that jihadis are quite happy slaughtering each other.

    • logdon

      So you didn’t name your child Count Yore?

  • Graham

    Excellent article. I’ve always remembered Wayne and Waynetta slob (Harry Enfield and Chums) naming their daughter Frogmella. At the time it was considered satire but it now seems more and more true to today’s life.

    • Chris Lewis

      ….and who could forget little Spudulika?

  • Highwaylass

    Do you need to revisit your statistics? According to the ONS, 10 boys in England and Wales were called Gordon. Another 12 Gordons were christened in Scotland in 2014, so that’s at least 22 British Gordons.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Well that’s a tonic. I thought it was on the rocks.

  • Sean L

    Go to Kenya or Uganda mate where you’ll find Florence and Mildred and Mabel and Enid and Edith and Victoria and Winnie and Hilda and Maureen and Daphne and Grace and Violet – and that’s just a few contacts from my phone. And over there they have shillings, and at least in Kenya still refer to them as “bob”, though five bob won’t get you much, given 100 bob is about 80p. Which in turn is equivalent to about 4,000 Ugandan shillings. But it’s the only place in the world where you can say “50 bob” and it still means something, as far as I’m aware. Though 50 bob here in England was equivalent to what we’d now call £2.50 – a pound being 20 bob. Pathetic, but you can’t help being nostalgic over the loss our own currency, and the now extinct language and culture that went with it..

    • sfin

      The old system did wonders for the average person’s mental arithmetic as well, with 12 pence (d) to a shilling, 240d to the pound,thrupenny bits half-pennys, farthings (1/4d), crowns (5 shillings) and half-crowns (2 and 6). Most people could make instant calculations in bases other than 10.

      I always thought that decimalisation was dumbing down.

      • Sean L

        Yes you’re spot on. But there’s also a more pervasive dumbing-down at work here. Decimalisation is a “top-down” rationalist system. Whereas our historical currency, along with the imperial measurement system, emerged from people’s everyday concerns, *organically*, so to speak, by an invisible hand, to borrow Adam Smith’s metaphor for the operations of the market. Thus the coins you mention are each divisible; we ask for “a pint” because a pint is a unit of measurement that feels right for us. No one’s pre-ordained it: it’s arisen spontaneously from our daily commerce with each other. When we say “it’s miles away…” we know what a mile *means* The other factor is that the coins themselves *meant* something: I still recall as a small child marvelling at the odd blackened penny you’d get bearing the head of Queen Victoria. You’d never catch me parting with one of those! The idea was that the decimal system would make transactional processing easier. But for whose benefit? Government and big business primarily, another aspect of top down and the primacy of economic and technological thinking. Thus humans exist to serve the economy and technological progress, as opposed to their being at our service. You could make a comparable case for the Common Law… a similar bottom up logic operating there also.

  • MummyofPrudence

    While gardening yesterday I stopped to consider whether Euphorbia would would make a nice name. She could be a sister for Spurge (male).

  • Nicholas Bennett

    When I was a teacher one only he to look at the class register to note who would be the trouble makers. Back in the 1970s the Garys, Waynes and Sharons were names to look out for. Nomanitive determinism.

    • Yorkieeye

      Later on a teacher friend reported anything Celtic had a warning flag

  • greencoat

    An allied phenomenon is the habit of deliberately mis-spelling otherwise familiar girls’ names: Jayne instead of Jane, Rebekkah instead of Rebecca and so on.

  • Ingrid

    Not to worry – the middle classes remain true. In my son’s independent boy’s prep ALL of the white children had names from the Bible or of English kings, the non-white children had what I assume were very traditional names in their ancestral cultures. In his rugby squad, we have very few outliers to this rule. To afford a divorce, I enrolled him in the local church school where he’s the only boy with a traditional name.

  • John Carins

    I do hope that after we regain our independence on 24th June that the name “Brexit” is used throughout the land.

  • PetaJ

    When I went to my second high school at the age of 16, much longer ago than I care to remember, the truly formidable headmistress fixed me with a steely gaze and demanded to know my name. “Peta?” she barked,”Sensible parents do not give their daughters boys’ names. What is your second name?” Resigned to being called Ann for the next two years, I told her. “Then I will call you Peta-Ann” which she always did. She must be turning in her grave! .

  • Badger

    I might change my username to LeBadger or DeBadger just because I love the black american names.

  • Teacher

    The middle classes still go for kings and queens, the bible, Austen and the Brontes ( authors and characters)’ and Shakespeare. Flowers and other Victorian names are still OK so Alice and Lily live on. When my child graduated from Exeter about ninety nine per cent of the names in her cohort were from the above list. There were five Jessicas as I counted the names as a game to see me through the ceremony.

    When I was teaching the top sets were packed with the middle class name list with a few Shivas and Kurtis thrown in and the bottom were packed with made up names, celebrity names, misspelled English names and more than a few Mohammeds, the latter spelt in a seemingly endless number of ways. My least favourite ‘naughty ‘ name was Kai as I never met a well behaved child with that name.

  • Dr. Heath

    Often, if an intellectually challenged parent bestows a ridiculous name on a child, it’s that person’s hope that the ridiculous name will increase the child’s chances of being famous and successful, if only because millions of the world’s idiots are deemed more likely to be wowed by a Kayleeisha than by a Jane.

    Years ago, I met a child whose friends called her ‘Nat’. “What’s that short for? Natalie?” I asked.

    “No. Natchurel. Natchurel Mystique.” I’ve remained alert ever since for any sign that Nat has hit the big time as a girl rapper or a Britain’s Got Talent finalist. No sign yet, but how much longer can it take before someone called Natchurel Mystique Collyer is noticed and propelled, as her Mum intended, into the stratosphere that’s populated by Britain’s deserving rich and famous?

  • Mack

    Don’t forget the random sprinklings of apostrophes and hyphens.

  • plainsdrifter

    We are drowning in silliness and trivia.

  • Suriani

    Paganism, superstition, and trailer trash American ‘culture’.

  • Luminare

    I always thought this was an attempt at clawing their way out of mediocrity.

    “I know my son/daughter isn’t going to do anything worthwhile with their life, so I’m going to give them a name that will at least make them stand out.”

    Who knows, maybe it is a good thing, or maybe it makes it harder for them to find employment and furthers the downward spiral towards the drain.

  • ugly_fish

    I remember somewhere reading that “Muhammad” was now the most popular name for new-born males in the UK…?

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      The idea that Mo was top came from a voluntary site that parents report their children’s names to; for some reason, muslims were overrepresented. Mohamed in all its spellings is only the 4th most popular name according to ONS data; about 7200 a year, or 1 in 50 boys. The only other muslim name in the top 100 is Ibrahim, with 90 births. Muslims have a smaller palette of names to choose from and tend to name boys after the early califs like Omar and Ali, and people named in the koran. The top three names are Jack/Jake/Jacob (if we treat the variants as one name), Henry/Harry, and Oliver/Ollie. Fifth is Thomas/tommie, followed by Charles/Charlie. It is quite striking how many parents choose abbreviated names – others I noticed in the top 20 are Freddy, Archie, Alfie. There’s a sprinkling of names that surprised me – I’ve never knowingly met a Noah (#11) or a Logan (#23). Jayden (#43) is a horrid name to my ears.

      • ossiebee

        I find it odd that Jack should be conflated with Jacob & variants – if anything it should be put with John, for which it is the traditional diminutive.

        Diggory is earlier than Victorian – one appears as a (half-witted rural) character in the play ‘She Stoops to Conquer’, which Goldsmith finished writing in 1771.

        EDIT: Actually I’ve just been checking, and it’s far older than that. It was quite a common baptism name in parts of Cornwall in the mid C16th – usually in the form ‘Degory’ (or its Latin version ‘Degorius’), particularly among relatives of Degory Grenville, a younger son of the eminent house of that name, later created Earls of Bath. He is mentioned in official records of the 1520s, and was born in the first few years of the century. Being stricter with its form, a ‘Digorius Russell’ was baptised in Cornwall in March 1540/1, while the first phonetically identical one I can find is ‘Dygorye Whitlocke’ christened in Dec 1562.

        However even these, it turns out, were later appearances of the name. A distinguished soldier of the 100 Years’ War, Sir Digory Say(s), is mentioned (as ‘Monsir Degary Seys’) in a 1376 Parliament Roll of Edward III as one of several leading men-at-arms captured by the French who did not have the resources to pay their ransoms. King Edward apparently obliged.

    • Zaba

      Pretty weird name considering what he’s famous for……

  • Jeffrey Vernon

    A standup comedian mocking the parents who flee the capital for the sake of their children’s education did a sketch like this – I’ve substituted my own choice of ridiculous names. ‘Clepsydra and Torvill have to leave London, because Akhenaten and Nefertiti are starting school in September. ‘ The real-world examples given by Mark Mason above come close to this – though Diggory, which he seems puzzled by, is a perfectly good Victorian boys’ name, and it turns up in two of CS Lewis’ Narnia books. I once taught a student called Ciona; I got used to her name, but I’d come across it before only as a zoologist studying a bag-like invertebrate commonly called the sea squirt. Its full Latin name means ‘column of intestines.’

  • siphil

    There’s a “Diggory” in Thomas Hardy.

    • Andy C

      and in Thomas Love Peacock

  • davidofkent

    It stems from celebrities thinking that they are special.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    test

    • Ed  

      Fail.

  • H982 FKL

    My son lives and works in Michigan. The wife of a colleague teaches at a school in Detroit. A girl in her class has her name pronounced as Ladasha. Spelt La-a.

Close