Sunday, January 4, 2009

Simple, well-known names work best

Naming a child is, like most things in Britain, as much about class as it is about fashion. Unless you happen to be committed to one of those quaint but unpronounceable family names - St John, Princess Tiaamii - then baptising your progeny offers an unmissable (and sometimes unwitting) opportunity to display your social ambitions.

For many years those wishing to play down privilege have tended to use names such as Fred, Stan, Jake or Sam. These all perform equally well in the stands at Queens Park Rangers as they do on the fields of Eton, leaving more obvious middle and upper-class names such as Ptolemy and Orlando on the sidelines. Similarly, for the self-made man with a few leftover rough edges, Tamsin seems so much more tempting than Tracey.

The penchant for more traditional names is an interesting development. Elizabeth and William are both solid all-weather names, indicative of the sort of middle-class aspirations - a job, a stable home, not being a contestant on Big Brother - which have, in recent years, fallen out of favour. And so it seems that in times of trouble we turn to old certainties and trusted authority.

Besides, these are versatile names. They abbreviate well and can be shortened according to social requirements. If a William finds himself attending a large inner-city comprehensive, he can become Billy; if he gets himself into grammar school, he can be a Will. If he ends up an Oxford Don, he can style himself Willem, possibly with the addition of an intellectual initial. Will is both the name of the heir to the throne and of several reliably cool figures, such as the actor Will Smith and the musician, of the Black Eyed Peas. Ditto Elizabeth: Liz, Lizzy, Bess - it is the ultimate social chameleon.

In an uncertain world, we give names full of potential. And if you have recently received a visit from the stork and are casting around for inspiration, try applying this infallible test of a name's universality, taught to me by a friend from Sheffield. Does it work in the context of a cold, muddy football pitch? As in “Oi, Peregrine, you cloth-eared fool, fetch t' bloody ball”. Simple, but surprisingly effective.

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