Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Name's the Thing

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but how would you know it's a rose, especially if someone came up to you offering a bouquet of, say, Snodgrass? Likewise, when you are in a different country, hearing a person's name may not give you a clue as to how that name is actually pronounced, spelled or, indeed, what gender it is supposed to represent.


When I came to the States I quickly realised there were more than a few differences in the way a name could be pronounced when talking to an AT&T customer service rep. Although I'd given him my name at the start of the call, he kept calling me "Tiny". Toni. Tiny? Hmm. Interesting.

When I had my daughter and gave her the middle name of Eleanor, people kept spelling it Elena. Now, on the phone in particular, I have to say "Eleanorrrrr" to make sure there's no mistake. Needless to say, the naming discussions we had on the arrival of our two boys were long and anguished. Paul is a big name in my family, but was relegated to a middle name since Americans say "Pol" or "Pall" to my ears, and Americans wouldn't know what to make with my "Pawl" version. One of my favourite names, Rory, was firmly rejected by my husband, insisting that there were two many "Rs" and Americans would never get their mouths around it. (I now have a godson called Rory, so I'm good.)

The other funny thing about names on either side of the Pond, is well, the names themselves. I have never heard of so many inanimate object-names since moving here - Stone, Wood, Clay, Cole (okay, "coal"), to name but a few. And then there are the girls walking around with boys' names, (says she, with a boy's name—but it's Antonia really). Even in my own extended family we have a female Aiden, which is not as unusual as I first thought either. (And isn't there a female Kennedy family member called Rory?) Amongst my kids' friends, there are girls called Emmerson, McCadden, Callen, Barri, Tobi, Peyton and Sloane, all of whom I have sent boys-only party invitations to in past years!

And don't let me forget the men walking round with girlie names. Many of you will know that John Wayne was really called Marion Mitchell, but even today in the US we have men called Rosie, Lyn, Carroll, Val, Dana and more. A lot of times it's a derivation of a foreign (as in not British) name, and sometimes they just chop half a name off and put a "y" on the end, but it still sounds funny to these British ears.


Some years ago, while my wife and I were visiting Seattle, we were served by a waiter wearing a nametag that read: "Prosperity." Since my wife is British and I can't be bothered, we didn't ask if it was his name or a slogan for the restaurant. The couple sitting at the next table were Americans, however, and asked him straight away about the unusual moniker. He assured them, in good humour but with the practiced air of a man who has done this many times before, that it was, indeed, his name.

But that was Seattle, so you expect that sort of thing.

Another odd name, also from America, comes second, third or fourth-hand to me and may be apocryphal (I read it on the Internet, after all): Peninsula.

Really, what are these parents thinking? If you saddle children with names that require them to stop every time they say it in order to provide additional explanation, you have not made them "special," you have taken a significant portion of their life away from them.

My wife's name is Shonagh. It is pronounced SHO-na and spelled—by friends, family, acquaintances, government agencies and dodgy charities sending us junk mail—in any number of creative, though never correct, ways. Additionally, she is forever having to explain to people that it is SHO-na, not Shawna, not SHO-nog and certainly not SHO-na-ga. I get the feeling that the "specialness" of her name has long ago worn off.

Because there is a Celtic branch of our family, we have friends and relatives with such names as: Mhairi, which, unbelievably, is pronounced VAR-ee, Niamh, pronounced NEEVE and Siobhan pronounced shi-VON (though this last one will be familiar to any Ian Rankin fan).

At least these parents made a conscious choice when naming their children. Perhaps these were old family names they wanted to keep alive and, well, sucks being you but you get tagged with it. (Our own family names – Cecil, Percival, Melvin, Phoebe – have wisely been consigned to history.) That may or may not lend some mitigating circumstances to lumbering a child with such a weight. But for another class of name, there is no excuse.

Theresa Green is an example. Did her parents know what they were doing? Did they giggle when they came up with it? Or did they innocently bestow a family name only to discover, after the fact, what they had done and then kept quiet hoping no one else would notice? Now, I don't know any Theresa Greens, but I did know of a Richard Head.

Personally, I think he should have been able to sue his parents for naming with intent.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to:
MHMail55-MT AT
or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. I knew a Hazel Groves and I promise this is true: her sister was called Olive.

  2. FYI - if it sounds like a boy's name but it ends in just the letter i? It's a girl's name. This goes doubly so if the dot on the i is a circle or heart.

  3. That's still nothing to the worst named person I have ever met (and doubly unfortunate because she's a lovely person). I promise you this is true, her name is Anna Recksiek. And yes it is pronounced the worst possible way it could be.

  4. Incidentally, if you want to talk about miserable names, there's a forum for that:

  5. It's an old apocryphal story in my home county of Yorkshire (where, if you know the accent at all - H's are routinely dropped) that there was once a certain Mr & Mrs Hoyle who proudly named their daughter Olive......

  6. A friend of a friend of mine is called Richard Colgate, which is harmless enough. But people have nicknamed him Dick Toothpaste, which is hilarious.
    When I say my name (Pam) in the states, the person relaying it back says "Tom?". It happens a lot. Also, my husband is Craig but Americans have trouble with that too and constantly call him Greg. It's very weird.

  7. A great aunt of mine was named Isabelle, but everyone called her Belle. She then married a man called Miles Bell.
    And my very own sister is called Ann, which meant her maiden name was Ann Summers.

  8. My brother went to school with one Wayne Kerr. Naming is simply fraught with pitfalls.

  9. This is too funny! Makes me glad I'm done naming children.

  10. One girl named Sarah that I went to high school with married a man whose last name is Bellem. I personally don't think I'd change my name in that situation, but she did.

    I can see people having issues with Craig. Even saying it to myself it sounds almost like Greg and, well, that's just a more popular name.

  11. My name is Joanne...pretty run of the mill one would think, but on the telephone people insist on calling me John. It most likely seems a probability to them as they are obsessed with giving little girls boys names.
    Had a friend call their kid Fay, last name Hart. They were very upset with me when I pointed out their abreviated name would be F.Hart...I still think it's hysterical!

  12. How can you mistake Greg for Craig?

  13. I am totally confused by childrens' names as you can't always tell if someone is referring to a male or female.
    I must admit that I do like names to be clear about that.

    Unfortunately all the Susans and Margarets and Valeries and Lillians of my childhood are all of a certain age now. However, boys names of the past do seem to be in vogue over here.
    I think Richard Head's parents need a good talking to though, giving him a name like that.

    Nuts in May

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Sorry. Start again.
    John - the name Craig is pronounced more like Creg here, which in turn sounds like Greg. The two are often confused and misheard. Graham is often pronounced more like Gram too.
    Maggie - it's funny but now and then you'll hear some little girls' names that are really old fashioned (to us). Audrey is a very common name for girls under ten around these parts (big Irish heritage city), and there are several Alisons (shortened to Allie), which to me is a very 1960s name.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.