What’s in a name? Warnings from our family history…..

Prompted by a short discussion on Twitter with the fabulous @oldpostcards and @CountryBook about the first names our ancestors were given (‘saddled with’ in many cases) I went back through my tree to find patterns or traditional names handed  down through generations. It is something most sensible family historians do early on in their research I expect, but I hadn’t previously done more than note the obvious (there are so many Georges, Ediths, Alfreds and Mays in my family that it causes me endless confusion when explaining relationships.)

Now this blog has the potential to cause offence, for which I have to apologise in advance. It was just too tempting to take this one step further and think about those names common 100 years ago that are coming back into fashion, and those that I hope to goodness will be preserved in aspic never to be resurrected and loaded upon any small person born in the 21st century.

I have been interested in how our first name affects our view of ourselves for some years. I speak from bitter experience. One of my earliest blog posts was about my daughter. When she was born she looked like an ‘Elspeth Alice’, and I still maintain that is a pretty name. However, she has always loathed it and as soon as she hit 16 she changed it by deed poll to Evie, keeping the Alice as a sop to her deeply wounded mother. We are all OK with it now; in fact I respect her for making the change instead of constantly moaning about it and I call her Evie. Only her brother resolutely refuses to do so.

I am only referring to British names here because that is my experience, but in recent years some lovely, old-fashioned names have been brought back into use. Florence, Ruby, Martha, Eliza, and Edie are some of my favourites. Some never went away – Emily, Emma, Elizabeth, Sarah – and for boys the choices have always seemed narrower, with traditional seeming to stay popular for longer- James, Jack and biblical names for example. Even for boys though, shortened forms  of ‘old’ names have been picked up – there are an increasing number of Alfies, Charlies, and Wilfs in 21st century pre-school.

But this is where I get controversial. I think there are some names that won’t and perhaps shouldn’t come back into common use. They are either ugly, difficult to shorten affectionately (one of Evie’s main complaints about Elspeth) or so ‘of their time’ that they give your age away more effectively than your driving licience. With respect to many of my friends, these last include:

  • Janet
  • Linda
  • Susan (or my name, Suzanne)
  • Patricia
  • Pauline
  • Donna
  • Karen
  • Gillian
  • Denise
  • Sandra

These are locked into the period 1950 to 1980 and although one can envisage family tradition might keep them going as second names, I don’t expect Suzanne (which I do actually like) to be making a comeback any time soon. And even if I had as much ‘work’ as Anne Robinson my name gives my middle age away.

Girls names from the 19th and early 20th centuries that should stay there are, in my view:

  • Gertrude
  • Doris
  • Mabel
  • Edna
  • Mildred
  • Bertha
  • Myrtle
  • Enid
  • Beryl
  • Dorothy

Boys names include Cedric and Cyril but it really is much harder to find male names in either category. Any thoughts? Which was the worst decade for boy’s names?

My two aunts were called Gertrude and Doris. Auntie Gert liked to be called ‘Trudy’ but my dad (her brother) tormented her and insisted on calling her Gert. So it stuck. Little to recommend either name in my view.

This isn’t to say that we don’t feel a lot of love and affection for these names when associated with specific relatives and ancestors. But would we want to be called by that name? If not, why would our children feel happy with the label?

This is a post where I would really appreciate your thoughts. Do you think I am being unfair (particularly if you were born between 1940 and 1980 and LOVE your name)? Do you have an ancestor in your tree whose name you really envy and would like to adopt? Is there a tradition of particular names in your tree which has left you with a name you didn’t feel able to pass on to your own children? Or have you called a child one of the names on my list and want to heap vitriol upon me?

What names used regularly in the 21st century do you think might be on these lists in the future?

Apparently I would have been ‘Rowena’ if my dad had his way, named after the female character in his favourite book, ‘Eric the Archer’.

Thank you Mum!

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11 Responses to What’s in a name? Warnings from our family history…..

  1. wendymc12 says:

    Great post, I’m now a fan.

  2. amanda says:

    And you haven’t even touched on the vexed question of names which have since become dubious, Suzie (which is a name I love, coincidentally).
    My oldest daughter was (quite rightly in retrospect) absolutely horrified by my having even contemplated giving passing consideration to Fanny.
    As to those ugly Victorian English names, I always have an image of someone leaning over the pram, cooing and asking what the baby is called. “Egbert” or “Gladys”. Oh dear…

    • keatsbabe says:

      Oooh Egbert – now there’s a great one! Actually my sister has called me Fanny since we were in our teens. She can’t even remember why but to my great shame I still answer when she yells ‘Oi Fan!’ in public….

  3. Well Suzie, I have to agree with almost everything in this post (‘Rare’ I hear you say!). My only quibble would be that I’m not averse to the name Dorothy – I work with one and must say I quite like it, even if it makes me think of the Wizard of Oz!

    There are a few girls names I don’t see being given nowadays that seemed all the rage when I was young – I had 3 Wendys in my class at junior school as well as a Deborah, 3 Karens and 3 Christines. Now I’m not saying no-one gives these any more, but they are certainly rarer. A generation or two before that, Marion or Margaret were in but are now out. Not to mention our old friend Barbara. Is Vivienne in vogue, or Celia? I doubt it, though I like both.

    You are right on the boys names too – there are less that seem horribly old fashioned, though I always smile at the name Cornelius (which I only ever hear with Lysaght – 5 Live’s racing correspondent).

    As you know Rowena, Dad had something of a fixation with Eric the Archer – so I also thank Mum saving me from being an Eric – though I didn’t escape it completely. It sits quietly in my middle names, even hiding after the inoffensive John, but never goes away, not least because my employer insists on including it as a part of my external e-mail address!

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post Suzie!

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thanks Phil – this was a pretty safe topic really wasn’t it?!! Trouble with a name like Dorothy is it can be shortened to something horrid like Dotty. Come to think of it – I might get the Deed Poll forms out….

  4. Did I mention Carol?! The name of my lovely wife is not exactly de rigueur at the moment either – it probably fits on your first list.

  5. cassmob says:

    As a “Pauline”, I completely agree this is a generational name and should be left where it was found with the Perils of Pauline. I’ve always disliked my name (apart from a spelling variation), and the irony is that the name I like is Kate, which my mother hated. I have banned my children from naming any of my female grandchildren after me, so you can see where I stand. Agree about your other name lists as well. however I probably dislike the out-there movie-star names even more than some of these which others which should stay in the 19th/20th century.

  6. David Porter says:

    Our daughter loathes her name, she’d kill me if I typed it here, but we thought it was unusual and pretty. Now its not so unusual, but still pretty. She always wanted to be called Sandra… http://is.gd/Ftcvq9

  7. dawnysblog says:

    I’ve never liked my name (70’s child). However my niece calls me Dawny rather than Dawn which appeals to me more. She is only 3 :) My mum has always detested her first name, (which is on your list of keepers) luckily for her she’s always been known by her middle name. Great blog :-)

  8. Pingback: What’s in a Name? | ManipalBlog.com

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