There's a story doing the rounds this week about a mum who wanted to change her four-year-old daughter's name because it's no longer unusual enough anymore. As you can imagine, she has received her fair share of opprobrium from all angles, but I have to say that this mum, whoever she is, has my sympathy.
I've always been fascinated by names, maybe because my own is a little unusual, always unique in my class in school and generally providing a talking point when I meet someone new. I never ever forget a name and love imagining what people will be like based on their name. All the Daisys and Mollys I've met have been quirky, interesting, creative types and as a result they are two of my favourite names. My extremely loveable Granddads were Billy and John and I can't help but feel a warmth towards those names.
Similarly, there are some names that are just tainted by association and when we were choosing one for our daughter, that was a bit of a problem. Finding a name we both agreed on was tricky, to say the least.
Eventually we found two names that we were both very enthusiastic about. Then, a few months before our daughter was born, a family member unwittingly chose one of our names for their new dog... so at that stage we really only had one option!
It can be a difficult process though and one that can cause a lot of angst. There can be pressure to agree on a name not just between partners but with extended family too.
I also found that when it comes to naming your own child sometimes the name you thought was the most beautiful in the world just doesn't fit. I had wonderfully sophisticated names on my list like Ophelia, Leonora, Gwendoline, Paloma, Allegra - all names that I adore but they just didn't feel right. We decided to 'road test' our choices by talking to the bump using any names we were considering. This works surprisingly well and allows you to find out if you can 'live' with a name. This is how we eventually arrived at our shortlist of two, they were the ones that just felt right. By the time she was born we had been calling our daughter 'Little P' for so many weeks that she really was our 'Little P'.
The name 'trends' that change over generations and cultures also influence our choices. Obviousl,y in previous generations the most popular names used in Ireland were family names or Saints' names. Today, popular culture plays a much more important role in influencing us. When names enter into the zeitgeist, just like memes, they keep reappearing. So if suddenly it feels like everyone you know is having a 'Freya' or an 'Oliver' it's probably because as people hear these names they like them, pass them on or use them and suddenly they are 'trending'. This is obviously what happened to our poor friend who suddenly discovered that her daughter's once unusual name is now cropping up everywhere!
But why do we attach so much significance to choosing a name? Names are important to us as humans. Down through the centuries a name carried so much meaning. It was an indicator of family origin, occupation, wealth, even character. Having no name at all was even more significant. If you think of stories like Twelve Years a Slave or The Handmaid's Tale the protagonists are stripped of their humanity, their freedom and symbolically their birth names.
Our name is a signifier of our humanity, of being somebody. In the movie Castaway the famous volleyball only becomes a real companion to Chuck Noland when he names it 'Wilson'. People name their pets, their cars, even their houses. We encourage small children to name their toys and, of course, one of the first questions they are asking when they learn to speak is 'What's your name?'.
So, if you are currently trawling naming websites and books, keep doing it because it's a wonderful distraction during what can feel like a very long nine months! Road test as many names as you like but try to keep most of them to yourself. You can be sure that your mother once knew a woman whose cousin was called 'insert name you love' and everybody called him 'insert terrible nickname'! Don't get too hung up on it though because whatever name you choose your child will embody that name, not the other way around. Even if you knew a thousand 'Marys' once you have your own she will become THE Mary.
So to the mum who wants to change her little girl's name, do so if you must. It won't really matter in the end because, as Shakespeare himself knew, a little babe by any other name would smell as sweet.