Strange Names, Strange Ways

Posted: July 28, 2008 in Mixed Lollies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

As has been discussed elsewhere, I am, among other things, a fan of names and a fantasy geek. These are both areas in which taste is subjective, varying wildly from person to person; but with fantasy, you only need please yourself. Names are a different kettle of fish: not only do both partners have to agree on what to call their child, but it’s generally wise to consider the child itself. This is a blend of social pragmatism and courtesy: no matter how much you love the spelling, calling your daughter Melyndah is probably setting her up for a lifetime of everyone getting it wrong.

Well do I know the pain of this, because while I’m quite fond of my given name – Philippa – there are four different ways of spelling it, depending on how many L’s or P’s you include. Almost every single award or school document in my cupboard has it spelled incorrectly, along with my maiden name (Grahame – also with multiple versions). This got so bad at university that when I won a literary award in first year, the prize cheque was made out to ‘Phillip Graeme’ – which, apart from being a boy’s name, is so far distant from both actual spellings that I temporarily lost all faith in humanity. (Needless to say, I couldn’t cash it, and had to wait two weeks for one with my actual name to come through. ) On the flip side, there’s not an over-abundance of Philippas in my generation. Unlike friends called Sarah, Jessica, Matthew or David, I only had to share with one other person. Plus, I had Foz to fall back on. (For those who are interested, my dad first called me Foz as a little baby, after Fozzie Bear in the Muppets, because I smiled a lot. It stuck, and that’s pretty much all my family and family friends have ever called me.)

Point being, there’s a balance to names. If written down as a formula, it might be something like: familiar enough to spell correctly, but not so common as to lose all individuality. Even so, you can’t please everyone, and trying to do so is probably a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, it makes sense just to run with your preferences – after all, it’s going to be years before the kid can complain (if they ever do) and even then, you’ve got nicknames and the final option of deedpoll. So long as they don’t cop too much teasing for it in primary school, you’re good. (Which just makes me think of the Simpson’s flashback where Homer is trying to decide what to call Bart based on how kids might react, and settles on Bart over Louie, because it rhymes with smart rather than screwy. I’ve heard worse theories.) 

Which brings us to celebrity names, and the recent spate of interesting ones. The biggest complaint I’ve heard of Sunday Rose is the similarity to Sunday Roast, while most people just think Shiloh Nouvelle is odd. (Keen observers of tabloid gossip will note that Angelina Jolie now has three sons whose names end in X – Maddox, Pax and Knox.) The new Packer heir, today’s paper says, is called Indigo, while the notoriety of Gwyneth Paltrow’s children Moses and Apple is well-documented. At the tippy-top of the list are the children of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates: Fifi Trixibelle, Little Pixie, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence, and Peaches – whose full name, for those who are morbidly interested, is Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof.

All of which, by conventional naming standards, are pretty unusual. But as a fantasy geek, a significant part of me doesn’t mind – after all, I enjoy far stranger names when it comes to beloved characters. The level on which I object (if at all) is one of childhood taunts and, in a couple of instances, adult embarassment: but both these things are socially conditioned. We object to weird names, not because of any inherent property in the name itself, but because it’s not what we’re used to, or what we’d choose ourself. It’s different. It’s pretty much guaranteed that kids will find a way to tease other kids, but in the adult world, why don’t we just get over it?

The truth is, we use names as a kind of social measure. Based on our own preferences, we make assumptions about the kind of people who’d call their child X or Y, weighing it up against a mental list. It crosses generations: looking at names on paper at work, I automatically assume that anyone called Beryl belongs to my father’s era; that Chrisie could be aged between twenty-five and forty; and that Melissa is around my own age. It’s easier with women than men, because for whatever quirk of masculine pride, we tend to be more conservative when it comes to boys, presumably thinking that men are more likely to suffer for having a different name. However snobbish and judgemental it makes us, we all do it. And in our adult way, we tease.

Some names don’t lend themselves much to mnemonic insults: thankfully, Philippa is one of them. A few inventive boys tried out ‘Philadelphia Cream Cheese’ in year 4, but decided, somewhat unsurprisingly, to let it die out. Pip was safe, too, until South Park made mockery of a certain nerdy English kid. With so many new names hitting the spotlight both in and out of celebrity circles, it’s tempting to speculate as to whether we might reach a point where unusual names no longer attract attention, both because it’s celebrities setting the precedent, and because, past a certain volume, novelties inevitably cease to be novel. But I doubt it. The more likely scenario is that a new notion of ‘normal’ names is adopted, and retro parents who favour Jane and Michael will be seen as revolutionaries compared to those with offspring called Aqua and Eldritch.

So in the interim, why not stay indidivual and stick with what you like? After all, it’s what everyone else is doing.

  1. bejewell says:

    I was given an old southern family name — Blythe — and I hated life for the first 18 years or so. Every year I dreaded the first day of school and the inevitable butchering of my name during roll call. Sometimes the teacher would get it SO wrong I was left wondering, “YOU’RE teaching ME? Ummm, okay.”

    But then when I was about 19, something magical happened. A cute boy I knew told me my name sounded like a movie star name. Suddenly it didn’t seem so bad. Acceptance was within reach. (I was so grateful I eventually married said cute boy.)

    Now I’m oddly grateful to have a name that stands out from the crowd. But still, when I was pregnant and considering names for girls (we knew our boy name from the start), I was extremely sensitive about what we chose. Finally settled on Annabelle — it wasn’t so unusual that it would confuse anyone, but it wasn’t an everyday name, either. And it had OPTIONS — Annie (which is what we would have used), Anna, Belle, Bella. I never had options.

    Anyway, I guess the grass is always greener — at least until you’re old enough to know better.

  2. fozmeadows says:

    Blythe really *is* a movie star name – Blythe Danner!

    I don’t know what I’ll do when it comes to naming my own children – being a name nerd, I keep running combinations through my head at odd moments, trying for something that I still like but which doesn’t sound as if I yoinked it out of Tolkein. Girls, I’ll be fine with, I hope. But a boy will stump me utterly.

    On a random note, did I ever mention my father is known as Bean to mum and I?

    Thanks for commenting, Beej! 🙂

  3. Bella says:

    Bob Geldof’s three daughters are with Paula Yates, not Pam.

    Tiger Hutchence is Paula’s daughter with Michael Hutchence, whom Bob Geldof has raised since she became an orphan at the age of 4.

  4. fozmeadows says:

    Consider it fixed!

    And I know Tiger is Paula’s daughter with Michael Hutchence – given that they’ve raised her since then, it was just easier to say she’s his daughter. Which, in most important respects, she is. 🙂

  5. Bella says:

    That’s okay.

    I just think it’s respectful to include Michael Hutchence, because he is her father too. Paula and Michael are both dead and they both left the little girl, yet Bob and Paula always get the credit as her parents.

  6. fozmeadows says:

    Fair enough 🙂 Although I guess, technically, you’ve stated it now, so there it is!

  7. mscatalysta says:

    Philippa is a pretty name! I love unusual names! But that’s got to be frustrating to spell. My last name is “Hofmann” and everyone wants to put 2 f’s and 1 n. But I’ve got the German version. Even after spelling it for someone they STILL get it wrong! Argh!
    All my kids will have cool names. Fun and interesting but not crazy weird so people are like– umm what the hell were your parents thinking!?

  8. fozmeadows says:

    Lol, amen to that! My maiden name was Grahame, and there’s soooo many spellings, everyone always got it wrong. The fact that Meadows is easy to spell (as well as sounding nice) was the deciding factor in choosing to take my husband’s name when we were married – he hadn’t actually expected me to change, and was pleasantly surprised when I said I would. Whereas my mother and all her friends, who had to fight for ages to keep their maiden names and then give them up anyway for banking/job stuff, were horrified, apparently having assumed I wouldn’t give up my own name. Funny!

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