The Double Vision Lecture 1996
Most of don't like our own names very much, though very few of us go as far as a Victorian gentleman named Mr Bugg, who was so teased about his name that he changed it by deed poll and became, rather grandly, Mr Norfolk-Howard with a hyphen. This little story got into the papers and amused everyone so much that Norfolk-Howard became the Victorian slang word for a bug, which didn't amuse Mr Norfolk-Howard very much. A lot of people do like their surnames, of course, which is the real reason why there are so many unmarried mothers around - the world is full of women who don't want to change their name.
But when babies come along they have to be called something, and that is why the world is also full of books called things like "Choosing a name for baby", and I want to suggest today that when you next have a baby or change your name, you should ignore those books totally. They are full of ordinary boring names like James and John, William and Mary, while the real choice is so much wider than that. There are lots of lovely words around which have never been used as names. Samosa, for instance. Samosa is a lovely word. It's wasted on a small greasy triangle. It could be a lovely girl's name. Samosa. Pipette. That's another. To scientists it's a small glass tube, but to me it's a nice girl's name. Pipette. Cathode. Margarine. Hystamine. Cortisone. Pleurisy. Well, perhaps not Pleurisy, but you get the idea. Any of these words and plenty more like them could be really unusual names for your children.
Ah, you might say, but wouldn't it be unfair to give a child a name which nobody else had? Not at all! There have been lots of famous people who had names which nobody else has ever used. Rudyard Kipling. Maynard Keynes. Aldous Huxley. Richmal Crompton. Somerset Maugham. There's never been another Somerset, never been another Richmal... People back then must have said,' An English county isn't a proper name for a child! You can't call a child Somerset!' But the Maughams quite rightly ignored them, just as the Malcolms later went ahead against all opposition and called their little boy Devon Malcolm. And think of Ayrton Senna. What a name! Has anyone else in history had a surname as a first name and a laxative as his last name? That's what we should be aiming at.
Other nations are not much help to us here. In America people don't have names, only nicknames, and you can go through life being called Buster Keaton or O J Simpson without anyone having the faintest idea what your name actually is. If anyone can recite the real names of the Marx Brothers without looking them up, they get a prize....
We aren't as badly off for choice as the French are, of course, where they only have about a dozen different names to choose from - Jean, Paul, Claude, Charles, Luc, Pierre.... and a few more. You'd think that the French might do the equivalent of using names like Devon and Somerset, but no Frenchman has ever been called Provence or Normandie or Seine Infèrieure. Instead, rather desperately, they have had to create new names by joining two of the old ones together, which is why so many famous Frenchmen are Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Gauthier, Jean-Marie le Pen and so on. Same for girls - Marie Claire, Marianne, and so on. In fact, the word marijuana in French is thought to be a girl's name and is nicknamed Marie-Joanne....
The Spanish tend more towards religious names than anyone else with girls names like Concepcion and boys commonly called Jesus. Indeed, it used to be a joke riddle asked by New Yorkers: "If Jesus was Jewish, how come he had a Puerto Rican name?" Now, I don't think we can profitably use religious terms as names - the only person in English literature I can think of named after something religious was Blind Pew - but if you look at more modern areas of interest, there is plenty of material. Turn to the business pages, for instance. Lovely girls names. Equity. Endowment. Boys names. Bond. Portfolio. Gilt. Rollover. Look at medicine. Lots of lovely girls names. Calendula. Tibia. Fibula. Patella, for a little Indian girl perhaps. Boys names. Splint. Kidney. Shin. Bladder. Midriff.
But you can find wonderful names in all walks of life, from architecture to cookery, so I'll give you just a small selection from the new Double Vision book called "Names to Give Your Child Which They May Want to Give You Back later..."
And the answer to my quiz question is Julius, Leonard, Arthur and Herbert…
Double Vision Radio Four, 20th March 1996