The Unusual History of Unusual Names

Every so often, a debate comes up in the newspapers about the names children today are given. This is generally following the release the ‘top baby names’ list for the past year alongside a ‘most unusual names’ list. These names tend to follow celebrity trends; although shortly after the last Lord of the Rings film was released, it was revealed that at least one baby had been named ‘Gandalf’ the year before.

The debate that follows always centres on whether it is actually appropriate to give a child any kind of unusual name. Surely it just invites playground bullying? You are effectively marking your child out for life as someone who has parents who like to think they have an amusing sense of humour, but are actually avoided by most people as “that couple who named their child ‘Technologically Extinct’.

It also almost always ends up in people calling out for the British government to bring in an “official list” of acceptable names; if you don’t pick a name from the list then your child doesn’t get registered, good luck getting a passport or driving licence! After all, they do say people in the past never did anything that silly.

Well, actually…they did.

Whilst conducting research into my family tree, I discovered a small collection of little girls born around between 1897-98 who were named either ‘Diamond’, ‘Jubilee’ or ‘Diamond Jubilee’, in honour of Queen Victoria’s landmark anniversary. Looking a bit closer and going for a wildcard search, I found that it was a very popular phenomena! Even the boys didn’t escape; you have to feel a bit sorry for ‘Jubilee Frederick’. There were also a large number of children, again of both genders, given “Jubilee” as a middle name (at least was easier to hide), and the same thing had happened ten years earlier for the Golden Jubilee!

It wasn’t just anniversaries that were marked in such a way. Nowadays it’s fairly common for a woman to either keep her maiden name when married, or double barrel it for her children. Wind things back and such a practise was socially unacceptable; when you married you took your husband’s surname and that was that. But there were women who didn’t want to lose that connection. My boyfriend discovered one of his direct ancestors was named ‘Inman’. After a quick search of marriage record, he discovered the boy had been given his mother’s maiden name. Likewise my own grandfather was given the name ‘Avery’. My Mum was under the impression it was after his mother’s brother, in fact it was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name.

We should not forget the tradition for naming the occasional child born at sea. After all, the voyage to a new life in Australia took several months and if your good wife was already expecting before you set off, then there was a chance she would ‘be delivered of a child’ onboard. When this happened, it was only natural to name the child after the ship itself. Of course, this is fine if your daughter is born on the good ship Martha, but if that ship is called ‘Ostara’, are you really blessing your child, or cursing them?

People like to use the past as an excuse to change the way we behave in the future. But if we started using any kind of official list, we’d be robbing ourselves of a tradition that many are ignorant of. Little Gandalf may be quite proud of his name in the future…

If your child really hates their name, they can change it by deed poll when they’re eighteen. In the mean time at least you can point out ‘Jubilee Frederick’, and remind them that it could have been worse.

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