Facing the Name

“Oh, so you’re Alexandra?” I interjected, before realising that the look of incredulity on my face was clearly visible to my friend’s flatmate. Not in an aeon would I ever have imagined that an ‘Alexandra’ might be a frizzy-haired ginger girl. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit that I do have certain preconceptions about what somebody should look like, based on their name. Somebody called ‘Alexandra’ is normally blonde and rather posh, while ‘Shane’ is a zit-encrusted young man with a ponytail and a baseball cap, who works on a fairground. This is far less effective with say, Chris, Tom or David – because everyone is called Chris, Tom or David.

Not having a very common name myself, nobody actually guesses that I am an ‘Arthur’, but most people do seem to think that the name fits my personality somehow. The internet is full of illuminating quizzes claiming to tell you something along the lines of ‘What does your moniker say about you?’ However, on closer inspection, you can normally re-take these until you find something suitably complimentary. ‘Arthur’ probably derives from an old Celtic word meaning ‘bear’, yet I am probably the least bear-like man in England. I only discovered this when I was about eleven years old, meaning that bears were never even a favourite animal of mine, when growing up.

A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has prompted a wave of articles about how science apparently back the idea that 35% of the time people are able to pick out the correct person from a group of five faces, based on their name. If this was random, the rate should be around 20%.

This raises a number of interesting questions: do people name their child according to its physical attributes? Is the reverse true, making a child fulfil a certain role bestowed on them by their name? Do famous namesakes influence this?

The paper found that men called ‘Bob’ tended to have rounder faces than men named ‘Tim’, and that they are also seen as friendlier, more jovial and more outgoing. Some people link this to the so-called ‘bouba/kiki’ effect, wherein many languages use the more staccato ‘kiki’ sounds for brittle, sharp or narrow objects, whereas ‘bouba’ sounds may be employed for smoother, softer and more rounded ones.

Let’s be honest, though: how old is the average Bob? I’d wager he is well over 40 – ‘Rob’ is a much more popular abbreviation for anyone under that age, which accordingly conjures up a substantially different-looking person. ‘Robert’ is more formal, and implies that the user takes himself rather seriously, whereas ‘Robbie’ hints that the person has not quite succeeded in growing up yet (cf. Mr. Williams). So, I imagine Bob to be a somewhat corpulent man, probably not terribly posh (unless he is trying to hide it), with greying hair and ruddy cheeks. It probably doesn’t help that ‘Bob’ sounds a lot like ‘blob’ either.

‘Tim’, on the other hand, is even easier to ‘profile’. Tim is probably in early middle-age now, middle-class and has a bit of an inferiority complex. Tim Henman is the first person who comes to mind – a talented sportsman who never ultimately succeeded in winning the only tennis competition that people actually watch in Britain. ‘Tim’ is over-polite, meek, reserved and insipid. It is too shy to be a fully-voiced sound. Nonetheless, it may well be preferable to ‘Timothy’, which sounds fussy, long-winded and rather slimy.

There might be some truth to the Timothy untermensch theory however, as the article’s lead author, Yonat Zwebner, explains:

“For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance.”

Years of being bullied by the likes of Will Self and his latter-day playground counterparts will inevitably take their emotional toll and force a child unfortunate enough to be called ‘Tim’ into a specific role within his peer-group (presumably that of whipping-boy).

Of course, there is an element of choice in this: people who dislike their given names are free to change them and a significant number of people use their middle name instead. Equally, there is obviously a familial, if not genetic, context to this – names are frequently alternated between generations in families, with many naming at least one of their children after a grandparent or great-grandparent. Cultural stereotypes will obviously play their role in guess-work too: not that many people would imagine ‘Shaniqua’ to be a a redhead with freckles, although there is absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be.

Similarly, every single girl that I have ever met called Alice has been blonde. Although I suspect that this is probably because of subliminal programming – Disney’s Alice in Wonderland being the case in point – I have noticed that a lot of blond(e) people do seem to have names beginning with the letter ‘A’ and am genuinely mystified by this.

When I was in China, an elegantly-dressed woman in her late thirties, who turned out to be the manager of the restaurant I was in, asked me if I could help her with choosing an English name. I told her that it was perfectly acceptable to use her Chinese one, but she insisted otherwise. Her chosen English moniker was ‘Doris’, however she explained, “Someone told me…Doris is very fat.” I laughed so hard that I almost choked on a dumpling, before telling her that in England ‘Doris’ is probably very old, but in America she is imagined to be a plump middle-aged Midwestern lady. On hearing that her Chinese name meant ‘beautiful flower’, I suggested she revert to a previous choice of hers, ‘Lillian’.

I subsequently discovered that a British teenager had earned a small fortune by devising an app that helped Chinese people choose an Anglophone name for their child. The app apparently lets the parents select which qualities they wish to imbue upon their children. Whilst this may be how naming works in Chinese, the literal meanings of most European names are obsure to their users, taking us back to the perception of various names. If, when using the app, one selects ‘loud’, ‘talkative’ and ‘likes a good night out’, does it suggest ‘Karen’, I wonder? I did recently discover that ‘Maeve’ derives from the Old Irish for ‘drunken woman’ (an apt description of both of the Maeves I have known).

I remember a stand-up performance by Al Murray’s Pub Landlord alter-ego (Al Murray, incidentally, looks exactly how a ‘Bob’ should), where he asks a member of the audience what his name is. The man answers, “Wayne”, and the Pub Landlord goes on to invent an etymology along the lines of, “Wayne, that’s a fantastic British name, that. From the Ancient Celtic for ‘born on a Council Estate.'”

Fatuous though this may be, the first ‘Wayne’ that comes to mind is the character played by Mike Myers in the eponymous films. Names derived from pop-culture, especially Americana, do tend to be more prevalent amongst working- and lower middle-class parents. There are a number of possible reasons for this: they may be younger at the time of birth and therefore more heavily influenced by these trends, they may also look favourably upon America (or other Anglophone countries where these names are popular) as a comparatively classless society, or they may simply be copying their peers – much as certain sections of the upper-middle classes tend to name their children after super-foods. The trend is mirrored in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia.

Whilst researching this article, something else occurred to me.

In England, Scottish given names tend to be popular with the middle classes, whereas Irish-derived ones are typically seen as being ‘working class’, even amongst families that do not have any ancestral connection with either country. This is particularly true for male names: ‘Kevin’, ‘Sean’ and ‘Darren’ could easily be builders, plumbers or train drivers. Whereas ‘Ian’ is an accountant, ‘Alistair’ a solicitor perhaps and ‘Archie’ is a trustafarian art student. There are historic reasons for this, namely the large number of Irish labourers that migrated to build canals or work in the docks and factories of Britain’s industrial cities. Such people were not paid well for their toils. Whilst this is also true for some of the Scottish immigration to England from the 18th-century onwards, the strong Calvinist emphasis on education and attainment led many aspirational Scots to seek their fortunes in places like London, as well as in many of the outposts of the British Empire. In addition to this, a large section of the UK’s aristocracy are of Scottish origin, which further fuelled the romanticised image of Scotland that has captured the imagination of the chattering classes. Conversely, the development of an Irish middle class was hindered by the relatively late date at which Catholics received emancipation and the unequal distribution of wealth that remained in Ireland after this.

I have noticed that the formerly-ubiquitous ‘John’ (the most popular given name for men of my father’s generation) is now rather thin on the ground. ‘Jon’, as in ‘-athan’, appears to have largely replaced it amongst my generation. Indeed, a number of female friends and relatives have told me about how they intend to give their children Old Testament names, not because of any gravitas or religious connotations they may possess, but because they sound ‘cute’. Suggestions have tended to offer the diminutive version, i.e. ‘Benji’, even if they will register it as ‘Benjamin’ and the poor sod never actually uses anything other than a more sturdy ‘Ben’ amongst his friends.

Another notable trend is the popularity of the names of Norman and Angevin kings amongst the middle classes. ‘Edward’ and ‘William’ were very popular when I was growing up, ‘Richard’ slightly less so, with ‘Henry’ being surprisingly overlooked, until recently. Given the ever-diminishing prospects of Britain’s youth, one wonder’s whether it is really fair to bestow such lofty aspirations on the next generation.

I remember reading an agony aunt column in a Sunday supplement, a few years ago. It went:

‘”Mummy, why can’t I be king?” – Louis, aged 9.’

The response was something alomg the lines of:

‘Well, of course you will have this problem if you insist on calling your child ‘Louis’. I doubt any normal kid, with a name like ‘Ben’ or ‘Dave’ would ask this question.’

Then it dawned on me – my love of the medieval, my megalomania, my obsession with the ‘Lazy Susan’ at Joy King Lau – had all been facets of an identity I had been given by two parents who couldn’t settle on a name and had chosen ‘Arthur’ as a compromise.

Growing up as an ‘Arthur’ did have its perks. Whilst having to endure constant Sword in the Stone references and the occasional person who thought it the height of wit to accidentally call me something like ‘Alfred’ or ‘Athelstan’, I did feel very unique. I have, to this day, only ever met one other Arthur, who was a very old man, staying at the same hotel as me in Cyprus, when I was seven. He is probably dead now.

Nevertheless, this may be about to change. I was very hurt to hear a friend tell me that he had, at one point, confused me with another ‘Arthur’ in his phone. How dare he see other Arthurs?! I wouldn’t have minded if he had confused me with any old ‘Alex’ or ‘Andrew’, but this left my solipsism in tatters.

To add insult to injury, it transpires that not only has David Cameron got a son called Arthur, but it was in fact the most popular boys’ name in the Daily Telegraph’s announcements for 2015, only to be eclipsed by Henry last year. Let’s just hope that, as I enter my sixth decade, people assume that I’m a twenty-something because of my name.


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