What’s in a name?

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Names are a funny thing. As I know a lot of teachers, professionally and in my own family, it’s sometimes a topic of conversation – how someone can live up to their name without even knowing it. If you’ve got a Tyler in your class, beware! Emilys will usually be sweet and quiet, at least early on, and then you’ve got the more quirky – I once taught a class that had a Willow and a Branch in it! Of course, there are exceptions, but names are very powerful things – in old stories and ancient mythology, to know someone’s name is to gain power over them (Rumpelstiltskin, for example!)

The Office for National Statistics has just released its annual data on baby names in the UK, with a nifty little tool that can tell you how the name has changed in the last 1 or 10 years: ONS – Baby Names 2011. There’s the usual Harrys, Jacks and Sophies, but there’s some surprising ones too.

Kayden (Boy, I wasn’t sure!) has jumped 1041 places in 10 years now at 94, with Ollie (not Oliver), Ashton and Dexter all making huge leaps up the chart. The falls aren’t as dramatic; Ben is the biggest, falling 66 from 31 to 97. For girls, Lexi has moved 1475 places to take the number 45 slot, with the alternative spelling Lexie up 1265 to no. 74. Other big climbers include Elsie, Annabel, Florence, Matilda, Ava – all of which sound to me like my great-grandmother’s generation coming back into fashion. The biggest faller is Lauren, down 78 in the last decade but still 85.

Characters’ names are so important; as with anyone else you meet, they give you something to hang on to while you’re getting to know who you’re reading about. Give someone the wrong name and I find it as jarring as suddenly realising they’re not the gender I thought they were. The way novelists choose names has changed as much as the way they write – look back to Pilgrim’s Progress and the characters are named the characteristics or moral elements they embody:

On his way to the Wicket Gate, Christian is diverted by Mr. Worldly Wiseman into seeking deliverance from his burden through the Law, supposedly with the help of a Mr. Legality and his son Civility in the village of Morality, rather than through Christ, allegorically by way of the Wicket Gate. Evangelist meets the wayward Christian as he stops  on the way to Legality’s home.  (Wikipedia)

From there, names become more common, especially as novels become more realistic – but names don’t always quite match that realism. Dickens uses characternyms, names giving characteristics, to some of his characters – alongside making them caricatured and exaggerated, to make sure his readers recognise them from one month to the next in his serialisation. Mr Bumble, for example, is the awkward and distracted workhouse keeper who sells Oliver Twist to the local funeral parlour, and Mr Jaggers is the sharp, prickly medium of Pip’s Great Expectations.

Names are difficult; I’ve always found it a bit odd when parents say ‘oh, we were going to call her so and so, but she just didn’t look like it when she came out’ but it’s similar with character birth – get the name wrong and it doesn’t feel quite right. When you nail the name, you get a sense of who you’re dealing with.

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