Tuesday 23 July 2024

Your name is your stamp of identity for life

It is all very well to spend an entertaining afternoon sniggering at the names which some misguided parents are bestowing on their children. However, for the children themselves, this name is their ‘label’; their stamp of identity which they will carry with them through life (unless they officially change it), and it can have a lot of social repercussions.

I am, of course, referring to the post which went viral on Thursday afternoon, where there was a screenshot of a conversation between two people discussing possible baby names – it is not clear where the screenshot was taken from but it appeared on the humorous FB page The LOL post.   After supplying a series of unique but unpronounceable names, the person helpfully giving their suggestions ended the list with “dnegel” and when the other person enquired what it meant the first person replied, ‘it’s legend spelled backwards”.  

This, of course, was hilarious and pure meme gold for those always looking out for such things, with perhaps the best one being “I Am dnegel” superimposed on a poster of Will Smith. Many got busy writing their own name backwards and having a good old laugh.

Except all this is not very funny for children who are lumbered with these names is it? In fact, the laughter quickly changed into fury when a woman stepped into the fray spitting nails because someone was making fun of the name Chezyah (one of the names listed) which is the name of her niece.  The altercation became heated and a string of expletives ensued as insults were traded back and forth.  

As I withdrew from that virtual fight with the imagined voices raised in shrill anger still “ringing” in my ears, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that there must be some kind of psychology behind why people should feel it necessary to come out with these strange-sounding names for their offspring.  A study conducted in 2010 by Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, came to the conclusion that in American culture, there has been a growing shift towards individualism, so that people are coming up with new ways to give children unique names, including unique spellings of more popular names. We have seen this latter trend flourish in Malta too, although in some cases I suspect it is because they do not actually know how to spell the name and they put in the wrong vowel because of the way some Maltese pronounce English – so Brandon, becomes Brenden.  Kif tinħass (just like it sounds) as we so fondly like to say. 

More eye-popping names like Klezyah (which was on the now famous, above-mentioned list) seem to me like a new twist to the game of Scrabble where they have thrown a string of consonants into a bag together with a couple of vowels and been challenged to come up with a name. The question is, why do it?

It is easy to dismiss it as the “ignorance” of the lower classes (as happens with the lower-income black community in the States where names like Shaniqua originated) who firmly believe that naming their children something special and unique will make them “stand out” in life. However, this doesn’t explain why rich celebrities should have also fallen into this habit of bizarre names. Some prime examples are Gwyneth Paltrow (whose children are called Apple and Moses) Cheryl Cole (who named her son Bear) and Kim Kardashian married to Kanye West who decided it would be a clever idea to call their daughter North West – the next two kids were christened Saint and Chicago. Beyonce and Jay Z’s daughter is named Blue Ivy. Sting and his wife Frances called their daughter Fuchsia.  But these names pale into comparison when one considers that legendary musician Frank Zappa and his wife called their children (wait for it) Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Diva Thin Muffin.

According to Julia Wang, who spent two years as head of digital content for The Bump, a baby-themed website, “today’s parents definitely value uniqueness over conformity. They are naming children after colors, after fruit.”  

Celebrities, however, live in a rarified world of luxury and privilege, so their children will perhaps not suffer as much from going through life with an unusual name.  For ordinary people, who have to apply for jobs, however, it might not be such smooth sailing.

Another interesting point is that teachers in state schools all have anecdotes about unusual names, which further confirms that it is a socio-economic phenomenon.  If you notice, the middle-class tend to stick to simple, easy to pronounce, traditional names of not more than two syllables: Zak, Jake, Luca and Noah for boys and Emma, Sophia and Mia for girls.  

Names also come in waves across the generations – there are loads of Matthews, Lukes and Rachels in their 20s, Sarahs, Karens, Alexias and Andrews in their 30s, Lisas, Claires, AnnMaries, Steves and Michaels in their 40s, and in the 50-year old age group you will find many named David, Mark, Edward and Richard. Derivatives of saints’ names (which were the only names accepted by parish priests on a birth certificate in the past) were also popular – in fact, anyone named Josette is probably in their 50s.   Of course, simple, straightforward names are still popular. To this day, it is not uncommon to have 3 – 5 children in one class with the same first name, so sometimes I wonder whether this is the reason that there is this quest for an unusual name.

Yet, as someone whose name is not that unusual but who has gone through life having to correct people on the pronunciation and spelling of my name, I wonder whether parents really appreciate what they are inflicting on their children?  In my case it can be mildly tiring because I am constantly having to explain that there is no “i” in Josanne, (simply because the most common spelling and pronunciation is Josianne) – one person had even asked me if I was sure I was spelling it right and asked me to check my own ID card. True story.

So if my slightly “different” name causes these constant questions, I wonder what these poor little tots are going to do when they have to learn how to spell their own names and explain them to others?  Let alone the torture being felt by the long-suffering teachers who have to wrap their mouths around a puzzling array of concocted names.  Which brings us to the real crux of the matter: does society judge us by our names?

In a BBC report carried in September 2017, social psychologist Dr Elle Boag says there are certain names which foster stereotypes. “We can all think of names which conjure up in our minds a hairdresser, an aristocrat or a criminal,” says the senior lecturer at Birmingham City University. “These stereotypes are passed on from our parents or associatively learned.”

We may try to deny it, but our inbuilt prejudices cannot be denied: who of us has not raised an eyebrow and smirked at hearing a name we consider ‘weird’ and which is associated with a particular social class?  In some cases, it does not even have to be a weird name but simply one with socio-cultural connotations, as the BBC report confirmed. “Author Sharon Bolton says she published books using only her initials after “suffering the stigma” of sharing a name with a character from BBC sitcom Birds of a Feather. The name Sharon became synonymous with background, character and lifestyle. To this day it conjures up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell-suit.” 

What I fail to understand is how a parent who would probably claw someone’s eyes out for their kids like a protective tigress, seems to have no problem with subjecting their children to potential bullying and mockery by burdening them with outrageous names destined to single them out (and not in a good way) for the rest of their lives?  Just think about how important a name is in life – you have to put it on public record the minute a child is born, register it officially when the child is enrolled in school and later on it is used on every official application, including employment. It follows you like a shadow, your badge of who you are, until the day they write your obituary. 

So please parents, spare a thought for your child’s future and the possible social stigma they will suffer before you make this extremely important decision. And if your heart is set on a really unique name, you can always file a court petition to have your OWN name legally changed instead.  Now, that really would be dnegel.

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