Saturday, 3 September 2016

what's in a name?

Just as I was digesting my lunch and thinking about going back into the garden, the Systems Administrator asked me whether I'd left any tools out, because it was due to rain within the next five minutes.  As I trundled down to the bottom of the slope to collect them, it was already spitting with fine drops.  That bubbled up out of nowhere, unforecast.  It's not due to rain until this evening, when we should get a real soaking, thank goodness.  I ran the hose on the beds at the bottom anyway, since they are so dry it's going to take more than one night's rain to put things right.

As I digested I was scrolling through the complete list of 2015 girls' names published in today's Guardian.  I wish they'd provide a little more statistical analysis, though I suppose if I were slightly more enterprising I could download my own copy from the ONS to a spreadsheet and work it out for myself.  The ONS only includes names that were given to at least three babies, and there is an enormously long tail of names only appearing fewer than half a dozen times.  It would be interesting to know what proportion were covered by the top ten, twenty or thirty names, and how many shared their name with only two or three other girls born that year.

Some of the choices that sound obscure to me are presumably perfectly normal and mainstream names in a language other than English, or the comparatively familiar northern European tongues. Some look dangerously as though the baby's parents just weren't very good at spelling.  A few are baffling because they are so firmly boy's names.  I'm not in favour of gender stereotyping, but Noah or Toby?  I know that Noah is rising sharply in the popularity stakes, and Toby Jones is a wonderful actor, but even so.  And it was definitely Uncle Vanya, not Aunt.  I don't understand why anybody would call their baby after a brand of suet, or something that sounds like a kind of processed cheese.  Some names unfortunately are going to be worse barriers to obtaining a job as an investment banker even than wearing brown shoes or an inappropriate tie.

But increasingly as the years go by the list makes me feel very ancient.  My own name, or rather the nickname I've been called by throughout my life, doesn't make it into the top thousand, though at my school there was another girl with the same name in my year of sixty.  My baptismal name squeezes inside the top hundred by a whisker.  And it's the same for the names of most of my classmates.  You couldn't move for Susans when I was at school, not to mention the Susans in Swallows and Amazons and the Narnia stories, and where are they now?  Number 1601 on the list, that's where.  There were only three baby girls registered as Lesley in the whole of the country in 2015.  There were two in my class in the 1970s.  Ann and Anne, Judith and Judy, Helen, Barbara, Fiona, all going the same way.  Shortened versions of names complicate things a little.  Many of the Kates I knew were probably christened Katherine, but that isn't doing much better (263 versus 393).

There's no denying it, names date us.  Some last better than others: Olivia seems to have been having a good run ever since Olivia Newton John was in the charts.  Will Isla last as well?  I mean, where did that come from?  When I was growing up the only Isla anybody had heard of was Isla St Clair and now it's number 4 in the list.  By the time I really am ancient I expect the wheel will have turned again, and the list will be full of little Agathas and Gwens, Dorothys and Irises, Sybils and Doreens, Janets and Joans, while the massed ranks of Lilys and Scarletts will be feeling their age.

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