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02 Jun 2004 00:00
Thursday July 7 1966 was a particularly hot and muggy day in London. My mother had just given birth to me and in the bed next to her was a woman who had also had a baby.
“What are you going to call him,’’ my mother asked, as she lent over to look.
As I grew up, at each birthday I would wonder about my ward- fellow and imagine the gathering around his celebration cake and candles (“Happy birthday, dear Straw-ber-ry ...”). I wondered how he fared during the punk era of the late 1970s and if perhaps he became a new romantic during the early 1980s. Mostly, though, I wonder what he calls himself these days.
Joining him in the fruit bowl of names this month is Apple Paltrow-Martin, daughter of the actress Gwyneth Paltrow and the musician Chris Martin. It has further fuelled the belief that naming a child is a responsibility that should never wholly be left to the parents.
Giving one’s child an appropriate name is the first gift a parent can bestow on their offspring. Yet it can become an entirely selfish act. I mean, Apple — is that really for the baby’s benefit? If parenting is about raising a fully formed individual and disadvantaging them as little as possible (apart, of course, from dancing in front of their friends, which is entirely a parent’s right), why the aspirational/silly names? All it tells us is that it was at precisely that moment that they started living through their child.
In 1971 James Bruning, a professor of psychology, led a study into fashions for boys’ and girls’ names: apparently girls’ names go in and out of fashion far more quickly than boys’ and he can tell when a woman was born just by knowing her name. The names Eric, Dave and Jennifer were popular back then. All interesting but hardly damning.
However, in 1998 he published a report that concluded that, however unconsciously, we judge a person and their success by their name.
So Hanks were considered more likely to be truck drivers than, say, prime ministers. And Suzannes were likely to be good nurses but not plumbers, and the words Bertha and ballerina were rarely thought of in the same sentence. (People only knowing my first name always expect me to be tall, blonde, athletic and German and I can only guess at their disappointment when presented with a short, dark Italian in slippers.)
“In this day and age, of everybody seemingly being very aware of not stereotyping, our data clearly suggests that stereotyping exists when it comes to names,’’ Bruning reported.
While it’s unlikely that Apple will ever need to convince would-be employers that she can name all of the 92 elements, such prejudgement isn’t helpful to the Cailees and Sharleens of this world who had hoped to escape their parents’ low expectations of them.
There are two things that strike me as alarming about the trend for ludicrous names (not unusual-but-proper names that are very pleasing, but just names of random objects reissued as names for human children). One, do these people not have friends that say “you what?’’ when presented with a name like Stick or Book or Linen? Historically, this didn’t happen anywhere near as much in the old days (although records do show a boy named Amadee Maria in the early 1900s, a girl named Zeppelin born in 1915 and a boy named Avro after the World War I aeroplane). Are parents so very disappointed with their own lives today that they have to project romance and rugged heroism on to their children?
Two, in giving your child such an unimaginative name (for, paradoxically, that is what it is), there is a danger that we shall never look beyond the badge. In her book Sex and Suits, Anne Hollander says that: “If each woman at the ball is carefully wearing something different, the different costumes are what you see first across the room ... but consequently the faces might as well be the same ...
‘When two women wear the same dress, however, the first thing you see is how different the actual women really look.’’ (Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone should be called Jack or Chloe, either.)
This was born out by Bruning’s 1998 study — he found that the more we learn about a person, the more our stereotypical associations with any given name fade. “If the individual is present,’’ he said, “the name becomes relatively unimportant. But if you’re given just information with the name, then I think it can have a pretty significant impact.’’
The sad fact is that babies called Apple, Strawberry, Booboo, Hickalilly, or whatever other insane name their mummies and daddies came across while pregnant, often have little chance to become individuals. Because from the very day they are born they are judged on their parents’ taste. — Â
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