What’s in a baby name? Everything. A child will live with it their entire life, it will appear on their lunchbox, their school books, every form they ever fill in, their drivers licence and their tax return. Older relatives will be peeved if they are not given a shot of immortality by being included. Friends will have strong opinions. Lists will be consulted, agonised over, scored out, re-considered. Naming a baby is the biggest “naming rights” privilege of them all. Yet it is no easy task. Where there are two parents, they have to agree. Finding the perfect name is almost as hard as finding the person you want to have a baby with in the first place.
Kate Winslet is the latest celebrity to come under scrutiny for her choice of baby name. It’s not even that unusual. Bear. This name is already carried by the well-known survivalist, Bear Grylls, and is the second name of Jamie Oliver’s boy, Buddy Bear. There is hardly a child in the western world who will not grow up without a beloved teddy bear at their bedside, yet to use it as a name has stirred indignation. It is doubly odd in that many parents use the suffix of “bear” to infantilize and affectionately anthropomorphize their own child’s name, such as Layla-bear, Sissy-bear, Bobby-bear and so on.
One cannot help but suspect that the choice of name has a lot more to do with being an outlet for various other simmering resentments that are less easy to express. Winslet has fallen in love, as she says, and had a child with, three different men. This alone has earned her the ancient primal curse of the masses. Women are not supposed to be free and independent agents in this way. It defies the status quo. Married or unmarried, she still presents as that most reckless and despised of creatures, the single mother, and has drawn the ire of Fathers 4 Justice.
Gwyneth Paltrow is another actress who attracted scorn when she named her daughter Apple. Although fruit names are less common than flower names, they are by no means unheard of. Clementine has been a staple of the British Upper-Classes Utterly Acceptable Baby Name Bible for centuries; Clementine Churchill being the most famous example. Borrowing a name from the natural world around us is deemed to make perfect sense if it is a daisy, a rose or a willow, but pieces of fruit are somehow weird. Try telling that to Dr Canaan Banana.
Outside of a certain orbit, names become hippy. Thus, a rainbow or a mooncloud is hippy-dippy where a river can become more mainstream, as it were, if it becomes associated with success. Neither Bear nor Apple is really that bad when you put them up against some of the other oddities from the past year. Cheese, Phone, Blip, Butterbean, Panda and Fairy all made new appearances, none perhaps quite as “different” as 2010’s Butt and Poopy, or 2012’s Hotdog and Swag.
Countries are sometimes not blinked at eye at, such as India, but when Egypt makes the list it seems more peculiar. There is no real explanation other than we are unused to it in that capacity. The same goes for days of the week, we have had a smattering of Saturdays and Sundays, but hardly ever a Wednesday. Paris, a town, we’re used to that, but not to a Marseilles or a Nimes. Sydney, Adelaide; fine, but Brisbane, Perth or Canberra? Ever met anyone called London? Or Winnipeg?
The most popular baby names of any set year are said to be a barometer of the times. In 2013, William and Charlotte topped the UK polls, the only surprise there being it wasn’t Kate for girls. These deeply conservative and safe choices indicate insecurity in the wake of long-term financial crisis and an uncertain future. For a moment, bookies predicted a less traditional name for the Royal Baby, but in the end they played it very safe too, with George. In the United States, the top two were Sophia and Jacob according to the Social Security Administration data. Unusual names do not start creeping into the US list until around 24 for girls, with Harper, obviously inspired by the Beckhams; and 34 for boys, with Landon. The top ten names are either old-fashioned or Biblical.
As a name will stick with a child for many decades hopefully, getting it just right is a huge responsibility. It is a huge gamble as to whether or not a child will actually like its own name, given that it is thrust upon it. Abel Smith’s parents, Winslet’s third husband and father of Bear, clearly thought they were doing the right thing by him. His boring and staid name was not how he saw himself though. In his own eyes he was Ned RocknRoll. Baby naming can become an anxiety, so much so an entire industry has sprung up to assist. As reported in the New York Times, consultants can be paid to shape the moniker for that imperative personal “brand” that will make one kid stand out. The name should ideally be “exotic but not bizarre, classic yet not pompous, on trend but not trendy.”
This is where celebrities give us lesser mortals a helping hand by exploring the farther reaches of naming opportunity on our behalf. “Off-grid” names, as they are known, are the holy grail. Pamela Redmond Satran, the founder of the name search site Nameberry, says “Finding a name that has authentic roots, but is completely undiscovered, is the ultimate baby name status symbol.” Whilst these are often highly original, they do run the risk of being downright ridiculous. The young Zowie Bowie changed his name back to David Jones as soon as he could get himself to a deed poll office. Whether North West will re-orientate and change direction remains to be seen.
Despite the evidence that the majority are sticking to names that their own grandparents may have borne, there is also a tension around anonymity, if too many in the same generation get named in swathes of sameness. For some inexplicable reason this always happens. A name will be out of vogue for many years, and suddenly it is everywhere. “No one wants their kid to be one of the 15 Aidens in the kindergarten class” says Linda Murray, editor in chief of the site BabyCenter.
Acting on this instinct, Jenn Lewis-Gordon, from Lakewood, New Jersey, went through the entire list of the Top 1000 US names and crossed off any that had been used already more than 100 times the year previous. She was left with Bombay, Thursday, Ptolemy and Ocean, with one other; Atlas, that they plumped for. Young Atlas will know, that the question, “What’s in a Baby Name?” was one his mother took extremely seriously indeed.
To avoid the danger of the name being on the list at all, some parents quite happily just make up new ones. These neologisms, uncannily, have a way of sneaking into the lists eventually. Izan, Emi and Cree are all registered names for boys now, as are Nanou, Safi and Esosa for girls. Australians love making up their own names and changing spellings. They have added Bree, Aunisty, Benjerman, Dearria and Eh to the naming game, and Moo, for a girl. Feenix and Kormak, are typical of their re-invented spellings. Like other nations, they quite like place names for kids, making Byron and Bronte especially popular. Uren, for a girl, is possibly the worst ever Australian new name, although Lea-ah, pronounced Leedashah, is interesting.
Shakespeare wrote that a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but we all know that this is contra-indicatory. We are incredibly sensitive to names and all carry deep cultural associations in the individual subconscious, that determine how we feel about them. Research has proven that teachers treat children differently according to their assumptions about their background from their name, and this will inevitably impact on future test scores and success in life. Betrand and Mullainathan addressed this issue in their paper Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?
In a bid to protect innocent babies from the potential damage to their futures by reckless naming, New Zealand has taken a tough stance. Judges there have banned many baby names, including, Lucifer, Majesty and 4Real. In 2008, there was an infamous example when “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii” was banned there, and the Judge declared it made “a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap.” They have also banned, unsurprisingly, Adolf Hitler and Anal. The clamp down on naming freedom is said to stem from the revelation that a child in New Zealand had the legal name of Number 16 Bus Shelter.
Sweden also had to reject the registration of “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqibb1116” although they have allowed both Google and Lego to get through.
You see, Bear is a pretty ordinary name after all.
Parents-to-be out there may be interested in the predictions that have already come in for top baby names of 2014. Apparently there’s a big vintage revival about to occur, so make way for the patter of the tiny feet of little Gertrudes and Percys. Boys names for girls are in, as are spice names (Saffron, Cayenne, Sage and Cinnamon) and Pope Francis is influencing a whole new world of little Franciscos. Historic heroes are ready to make a comeback, so hello young Huckleberry and Atticus. Greek mythology continues to be a treasure trove for name searchers.
If you want your child to be unique you will have to avoid all of the above, and do not pick a name beginning with the letter C. School registers worldwide are going to be chock-a-block with this initial. A great deal, as it happens, is what’s in a baby name.
By Kate Henderson