On the improper Application, and the ludicrous Effects of certain Names

The top 100 baby names in England and Wales are out. Apparently we’re all smitten with Olivers, Jacks and Harrys, and Amelias, Islas and Olivias. The top 100 for boys and girls is here, with the big news (according to The Guardian) that national adoration for Prince George has resulted in a rash of Georges (up three places from number 10 last year).

Comments on the Guardian’s article, and tweets addressing the subject, are predictable enough. One commenter fumed (perhaps with tongue in cheek, but you never know below the line) ” The absence of the girls names like Doris, Ethel, Evadne, Diedre, Winifred and boys names like Cyril, Walter, Cecil, Arnold and Earnest is shocking. It shows a breakdown in the moral fabric of society and the Government should do something about it immediately!” Another made a similar point, more urbanely: “Most popular baby names of 2015: ‘On Fleek’, ‘Turnt’, ‘‘, ‘Bae’, ‘Swipe Left’, ‘Retweet’, ‘Heart eye emoji'”. Yet another person tweeted, “all of these names are so yummy mummy hampstead white it made my jaw hurt reading the list”.

Whenever a list of baby names is published (and as a researcher interested in the relationship between naming and identity I’ve been scrutinising them diligently for years), anxieties about class cast long shadows over the associated commentary. Certain given names, it seems, inspire certain connotations. Parents naming their children are often influenced, consciously or otherwise, by a desire to connote a certain lifestyle with their child’s name; to summon, like an apparition, a set of cultural mores. Some object to this in principle (see the ‘yummy mummy hampstead’ remark); others think there’s nothing wrong with it.

The problem, no matter what your approach, is that nobody knows quite how stable the connotations of any name will be. A name might lose ‘currency’ or connotation when a million other parents have the same moment of inspiration as yourself: you might be unfortunate enough that an unpopular public figure emerges with the name given to your precious offspring, thus necessitating a hasty nickname. It’s a minefield.

At least these problems are nothing new. The commentary around today’s list inspired me to dig up a few articles from eighteenth-century periodicals that addressed exactly this sort of issue. This was before the ONS published an official list of course: but that didn’t stop numerous essayists thundering or hand-wringing about the degeneration of ‘proper’ baby-naming throughout the century.

One of my favourites is the anonymous ‘On the improper Application, and the ludicrous Effects of certain Names’, published in Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, or Compendium of entertaining knowledge in August 1792. Here are a few choice snippets (forgive the heavy annotation).

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“Battles innumerable await a youth of spirit labouring under a singular name.” Sure. Nobody wants their kids to get bullied. Calling your son “Daniel” or “Peter”, for example, is tantamount to child cruelty.

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(Wonder what he’d have made of the Beckhams’ “Romeo”? No pressure, kid.)

But what does this guy object to in particular? Once he’s got past his preamble, it turns out to be “a rage for fine names”. Middle and lower tradesmen have stopped calling their daughters good lowly names like “Joan” and “Sarah”, and have the audacity to prefer “Anna Marias” and “Charlotte-Matildas”, along with other “romantic and royal appellations”.

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This makes things mortifying, apparently, for the master or mistress who must direct Clarissas and Catherine-Ann-Marias to “perform the ordinary household drudgery”.

It’s one article among dozens that I found when I was working on my PhD: commentators are obsessed with the idea that by calling their children the wrong sorts of names, the poor are transgressing an onomastic boundary, aspiring in a way they find offensive. (They object to ‘foreign’ names, ‘sentimental’ names and ‘vulgar’ nicknames as well, but the class-based critique is the most common).

What are we to make of this? It is possible to view these ‘mischiefs’ within the context of a broad discourse of anxiety about the transgression of social categories, which is related to a commercial boom in the eighteenth century which, by the third quarter of the century, had reached revolutionary proportions. The historian Neil McKendrick has pointed out how the “closely stratified nature of English society, the striving for vertical social mobility, the emulative spending bred by social emulation, the compulsive power of fashion begot by social competition,” which “offered exciting opportunities for the entrepreneur,” were also productive of anxiety about social emulation. “Dress,” McKendrick asserts, “was the most public manifestation of the blurring of class divisions which was so much commented on.”(Neil McKendrick, ‘The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England’, The Birth of a Consumer Society, eds. McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, p. 11, 20, 53)

These essays can be viewed as an expression of this anxiety. The association between names and dress was a common trope over the eighteenth century. But unlike dress, names are, as the French social historian Jacques Dupaquier has pointed out, “a free commodity, the consumption of which is obligatory” which display “in a pure form the function of identification and of distinction proper to the consumption of fashionable commodities.”(‘Naming-practices, Godparenthood and Kinship in the Vexin, 1540-1900,’ Journal of Family History, 6 (1981), 135-155, p. 135.) Another social historian, Scott Smith-Bannister, has located the “purity” of naming in the fact that choices around naming were “not constrained by the limits of an individual’s wealth, as was the expression of social differentiation by other means, such as clothing, education, and so forth.”(Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 186.) In short, you may not be ble to afford designer clothes but you can always afford designer names. When essays like the one above express anxiety about a lack of proper correspondence between name and social class, they can be seen to worry about the possibilities for social mobility that were raised by the eighteenth-century consumer boom.

So: what does it mean that today some still sneer at or joke about popular names (across all England and Wales) for being “hampstead yummy mummy”, or for refusing to conform to ‘traditional’ (English? working-class?) names like “Doris” and “Arnold”? If you ask me, it says something – not necessarily something awful, but something interesting – about the person doing the sneering and/or joking, rather than the person who chooses the name for their baby. It says that deep down, we’d still like the name to act as a kind of transparent signifier of class, nationality, religion or culture. We’d like people to stick to their proper labels. So we know how to place them. As ‘class’ becomes harder to demarcate by occupation, income, manners, accent or even voting intentions, there are some levels on which some of us would like names to remain stable, to provide an easy signpost. Trouble is, names have a disconcerting habit of thwarting us in this respect; not only do fashions and connotations of given names shift over time, but more of us than ever are using social media and even deed polls to ‘rebrand’ ourselves later in life.

But that’s another story…


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