Tuesday, 13 August 2013

What's in a Name?


One day when I was in hospital last March following the birth of my daughter, a tea-lady came into my room and while she was pouring me a cuppa, she asked me a few run-of-the-mill questions you'd ask a woman who'd just had a baby:

"Is this your first?" she asked.

"No", I replied ,"I've got a son too".

"And what have you called this one?" she inquired.

"Annalisa", I told her.

She made a noise that can best be described as a grunt.

"What's your little boy's name?" she continued.

"Ben" replied.

"Oh I like that name", she said, suddenly chirpy again."I like all those traditional type names".

Is that so? I felt like saying to her. Well next time I have a child I'll make sure I consult you then before naming it, shall I?

I had thought that I had given my daughter a fairly normal, easy-to-pronounce, easy-to-spell kind of name. My partner is Italian and we wanted her to have an Italian name to connect her to her paternal roots but without it being too Italian. By too Italian I mean names like Concetta, pronounced 'Conchetta', and Stefania, pronounced Stef-an-yar, both beautiful names but both, you know, tricky for Aussies. It seems my son sides more with the tea-lady on this one though.

"Why couldn't you just give her a normal name?" he asked me not long after she was born.

"What's a normal name?" I asked him back, and he rattled off half a dozen of the current most popular female names in English-speaking countries, most of which I think are lovely and a couple of which I'd even considered for him if he had been a girl.

It did make me start to think about the popularity of names though. I wondered, for instance, what tea-ladies would have said to mothers postpartum back in my grandmother's day if they had chosen to call their daughters Madison, Isla, Sienna, Ava, Mackenzie, Scarlett, Chloe or Taylor. When my grandmother was born, in 1911, among the top 40 most popular names for girls were Dorothy, Florence, Ethel, Edna, Edith, Gladys, Thelma, Beatrice, Bertha, Gertrude and Martha. Yes, laugh by all means. Just not at the last one; that's my middle name. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone born in the twenty-first century sporting any of these as first names though.

The most anticipated baby naming announcement so far in this century was of course that of the third in line to the British throne, little Prince George. There were no surprises there though, with all betting agencies allocating that time-honoured moniker a top spot in the stakes. Wouldn't it have been delicious, mind you, if the Duchess had gone out on a limb and named her son something a little less predictable like, I don't know, Dwayne?


Image source

In Italy, tabloids immediately began referring to the little Prince as Giorgio, Italianising his name as they did with his grandfather, Principe Carlo, and his great-grandmother, Regina Elisabetta, before him. In my partner's home town in Sicily, the most popular names for boys are Giuseppe, Antonio, Salvatore and Sebastiano, while the most popular girls names are Maria, Giuseppina, Sebastiana, Francesca, Paola and Carmela. But that's not to say that Italians do not embrace English names: in the early '90s, when the American soap opera The Bold and The Beautiful (known in Italy simply as Beautiful) took the whole world by storm, several babies from his town returned home from hospital named Brooke, Stephen and Ridge. The pronunciation of these names from the point of view of the infants' grandparents was understandably challenging, considering that in Italian every letter of a word is articulated. Undoubtedly, a great many of the older generation grumbled at the time that there should be a law put in place against such frivolity.

In fact, some countries do have quite interesting naming laws in place. I have a friend who is a midwife and who practiced for some time in Finland. There, she told me, names are regulated and you cannot simply call your child whatever you so please. There are two ways that a name can be approved:  if you want your child to enter the church, a minister has to approve the child's name before the christening. If you do not wish for your child to enter the church, they must be enrolled on the national census. The national census has a committee which must approve the child's name before they can be registered. The committee has the power to veto a name that is considered too strange and to reject the registration of a name if it violates any of the following conditions:

1. A name should be gender specific, that is, boy's names should not be used for girls and vice versa. Bad luck Cameron Diaz;

2. A last name should not be used as a first name. Bad luck Taylor Swift. Bad luck a lot of people in English-speaking countries actually, considering that James, Paul, Thomas, Scott and John (just to name a few) are all frequently occurring surnames as well as first names; and finally,

3. A child should not be given the same first name as one of their siblings. This may seem ridiculously obvious but in the past, when the rate of infant mortality was significantly higher than it is today, parents sometimes wished to pass the name of their deceased child onto their newborn.

In Finland, as in many other European countries, 'name days' are celebrated in a similar way to birthdays. When I was living in Sweden as an exchange student, several of my friends gave me cards, hugs and little gifts on 19th November. My birthday is in March. I gently reminded them of this and they laughed and said "but it's your name day!" Each day of the year has at least one name allocated to it (many deriving from the Feast Days of Saints). In Sicily, my mother-in-law bakes a cake whenever someone in the family has their name day.

I like the idea of celebrating name days; any reason to celebrate and make people feel special is a good reason and names can be fun. They can be funny too.

I once worked with a woman who was incredibly gifted at gossiping. Her last name was Tellchatter. I also had a neighbour once who I knew simply as "Jo". After living next to her for about a year, she told me they were moving house. We swapped details so we could stay in touch and, for the first time, I asked her what her surname was. "King", she told me. You've gotta be joking, I thought (pardon the pun). If that's not the ultimate declaration of love - to change your maiden name to King so as to share your husband's name when you already go by the first name of  Jo - then I don't know what is.

But the most memorable first-last name combination of any I have ever heard would have to be that belonging to a little boy called Jack who came to one of the swimming classes I taught during my university days. When I first looked at the attendance list with his name on it, I imagined that there had been a mistake, a typo perhaps, or somebody playing a silly joke. But then I questioned my colleagues about it and they confirmed that this was indeed his name. So do not even ask me if I'm pulling your leg on this one, because I swear black and blue that I'm not.

His last name, ladies and gentlemen, was Russell.

                                            ***************