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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Why picking the right name for a child is no easy task

You can call yourself whatever you want in everyday life, but if you want to officially change the name of your child, or your own, your home country will have its own specific requirements and procedures

There is such a thing as ‘namer’s remorse’, when a parent deeply regrets the name they gave to their child. Getty
There is such a thing as ‘namer’s remorse’, when a parent deeply regrets the name they gave to their child. Getty

When it comes to making any kind of first impression, the impact of our names cannot be underestimated. I know all about this, having been burdened under the weight of the name Kevin for almost five decades. The popularity of certain celebrity Kevins (Costner, Bacon, Kline and, err, Spacey) doesn’t seem to matter – as a British person, my name is tarnished in my home country for being a bit wet; a bit “meh”, as the kids say. It’s an old Irish name that essentially means “of noble birth”, but you don’t hear of many aristocrats calling themselves Kev, do you?

Without a middle name to resort to when things got really bad at school, I soldiered on and was determined that, should I ever be in a position to name another human being, I would think long and hard about that choice. Because a person has to use that name for their entire life – and that’s quite some responsibility, if you think about it.

Namer's remorse actually exists

My firstborn son, who is now in his early 20s, was named Ethan Lloyd Hackett and he’s never been unhappy about that, possibly helped by the fact that a fellow pupil at his school was called Elvis. But three summers ago, it was time to go through the naming process again, because my wife was expecting a boy (her first, my second) and we both had very different ideas about a suitable moniker. It took many weeks to finally come down in favour of a name – and even after his birth, we were still debating it. It seemed that whatever names Mrs H suggested, I found a reason to dislike them.

We nearly settled on Hugo, but in the end he was named Benedict James Hackett, and not once have we regretted that decision. In any case, if he grows up hating it, at least he can call himself Ben or James. Options are good.

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There is such a thing as “namer’s remorse”, which is when a parent deeply regrets the name they gave to their child, perhaps having conceded to the opposing wishes of a spouse or other relative. Names aren’t necessarily permanent, though. You can call yourself whatever you want in everyday life, but if you want to officially change the name of your child, or your own, your home country will have its own specific requirements and procedures. My own father changed his name two years ago from Terry Hackett to Diamonds L’Amore (really, don’t ask) and it’s on everything from his bank cards to his passport. Curiously, the only thing he couldn’t use it on was his Facebook account – something my siblings and I are quite glad about.

Name associations with the famous and infamous

The popularity of some names comes and goes. Kevin was, I have discovered, quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s, almost completely disappearing as a choice by the 1990s. The cult of celebrity has seen at least two generations of girls being named Kylie (after two very different famous people), but Adolf completely disappeared from birth certificates around the world 80-odd years ago. When was the last time you met a young woman called Margaret? And will the name Donald ever make a comeback? Time will tell, but the associations of names and the famous, as well as infamous, are undeniably powerful.

“It does seem to be a mostly western concern,” says ­Amanda Nolan, a child psychologist based in Dubai, of the obsession with choosing the perfect name for a child. “In the Middle East, so many boys are named Mohammed [in all its variety of spellings] and the family naming structure shifts with each generation. It’s a similar story with girls, with many being named after respected rulers’ wives or other pillars of the community. But when it comes to Europe, America and Australia, for instance, a name can have all manner of connotations.”

Mohammad is the most popular boys name in the world, for obvious reasons, with Muslim parents viewing it as an inestimable honour to name their sons after the Prophet Mohammed. For girls, Ayesha (the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s favourite wife) is ubiquitous in certain regions. “In other parts of the world, though, parents seem keen to stand apart as being different, often because they believe an unusual name will give their children some sort of advantage in life,” Nolan says. “Obviously that can be a fairly risky strategy, and I always advise against it because children can be just the cruellest people to one another – and bullies always home in on the kids who are ‘different’ in some way.”

Finding uniqueness in a name

For wacky children’s names, the world of celebrity can’t be beaten. Actor Jason Lee’s son is called Pilot Inspektor (inspired by one of his favourite songs). Radical rock musician Frank Zappa called his daughters Moon Unit and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen, while Bryan Adams’ daughter got away comparatively lightly with Mirabella Bunny, on account of being born on Easter Friday.

Nolan says that most of the parents she has dealt with in recent years weren’t concerned about the meanings of their children’s names, but that it used to be a consideration. “Again, there was a firmly held belief that, if your child’s name meant something powerful, compassionate, wise, loving – whatever the attribute – that their character might mirror that meaning,” she says. “Now we seem more concerned with how a name will be perceived by others than what its historical meaning is.”

Another Dubai resident, Michael Long, who is British, remains unapologetic about calling his son Miles. “He’s back home at university and he’s never had any real issue with it,” he says with a laugh. “Most people don’t make the connection straight away and, when they do, they usually just roll their eyes and ask him if his mum and dad disliked him. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. But we were young when he came along, and both of us thought it was a bit different, a bit of fun and a conversation point. But then if you’re only familiar with measuring distance in kilometres [instead of the old imperial system], you wouldn’t think it was odd at all, would you?”

Nolan has one final piece of advice that she’s adamant about: “I’m seeing increasing numbers of parents choosing fairly common names for their kids, but getting clever with the spelling,” she says. “They want a unique name that will sit OK with the majority of people, but they might add vowels or silent consonants, so that the way it’s written is different or edgy. The problem is, though, that you’re basically cursing them to having to spell their names out for the rest of their lives – it can be hugely embarrassing and inconvenient for them, and I doubt anyone will ever be grateful for that.”