Friday, February 3, 2012

The Art of Naming

This week I was very excited to learn that after all the scandal surrounding the baby bump of Beyonce Knowles (OMG, is it real or fake?!) the mega pop star had finally given birth to a beautiful baby girl, named Blue Ivy. What a great way to start 2012!

Actually, I couldn’t care less. I did note however that Ms. Knowles is continuing the recent trend among American celebrities of saddling their offspring with stupid names. Reverse the order to Ivy Blue and the result would have been picturesque (somewhat). Change the first part to Green, and it would have been prosaic but highly descriptive. But hey, that would be Squaresville, man!

Back when I was a kid, it was rare even for famous pop star parents to give their babies stupid names. Indeed, the only ones I can think of are 1) Frank Zappa (Dweezil, Moon Unit, etc.) and 2) David Bowie (Zowie). But Zappa was a professional freak, while Bowie’s kid quickly opted to be called “Joe” before settling on the eminently sensible “Duncan.” 

A quick internet search reveals that today stupid baby names are as common in the celebrity world as prescription medication abuse and half-baked political dribbling. Consider for instance Tu Morrow, the daughter of some dude on a crime show; or Moxie Crimefighter, daughter of the magician Penn Jillette; or Jermajesty Jackson, son of Jermaine Jackson who clearly felt the need to compete in the regal stakes with his more talented brother Michael, who named his sons “Prince Michael” and “Prince Michael II.”

Of course it’s not only celebrities who dole out stupid names. Every year millions of Americans saddle their children, especially girls, with cutesy names spelled badly. I regularly spot these in supermarkets where shop assistants wear badges proclaiming the cruelty of their parents. Britnye was one recent horror, although I have also seen Tiffini, Djesyka and many other asinine variations on the names of rubbish pop starlets. I think these daft spellings have been applied to mark the child out as an individual, because what indicates uniqueness more effectively than having a trite name spelled funny? It all reminds me of Bruce Willis’ great line from Pulp Fiction (his character was called “Butch”):

“I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean sh!t.”

Is it only Americans who get up to this nonsense, though? I recall that in Japan a few years back some guy called one kid “God” the other “Devil” and a third “Little Flower Picked from Hairy Bottom.” In New Zealand in 2008, a judge allowed a child to rename herself after her parents had inflicted upon her the nonsensical “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.” Other names blocked in New Zealand included “Fish and Chips,” “Twisty Poi” and “Sex Fruit.” Meanwhile, in Germany, there are lots of boys called “Kevin.”

Perhaps the most bizarre name I have ever encountered was in my native Scotland. At first I thought Iwaly might be North African and conventional in that context but the kid was as pasty-faced and as me. Turns out it was an acronym, for I Will Always Love You. Hm… So that’s why you gave me this utterly stupid name that will ensure I am tormented in school every day for the next thirteen years? Well intentioned certainly- but also tragic.

I could wax existential about the cataclysmic breakdown of values and meaning in this postmodern age, etc., but you know all that anyway. I mean, they may have had slavery and beheading in the Old Days but at least adults understood the importance of the naming ritual and sought through it to connect their kids with the past and the universe around them. Indeed, in many pre-modern cultures individuals would assume different names at different points in their life as their roles changed. Native Americans are famous for this; kings and popes still do it.

When I learned- aged seven or so- that my name means God has judged in Hebrew I grew very anxious: it seemed rather early for the Almighty to be jumping to conclusions. My brother David on the other hand reveled in the meaning “Beloved”- the same as Iwaly, I suppose, only not stupid.

But even a fairly standard, classical name is problematic if you switch environments. There’s a Dutch senator called Tiny Kox who occasionally pops up in Russia to observe elections. Maybe that sounds like a great philosopher in Holland, but in English speaking countries, er… not so much.

Speaking of which, back home I know a lovely Brazilian-Polish couple who called their son Aeneas, after the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. That’s quite common in Greece, and refers to the Trojan warrior whose mother was a goddess: all very grandiose. But in Scotland, the kids just aren’t that well-educated. And to his peers in school, Aeneas is going to sound and read like something else entirely. So I hope he grows up into an epic hero as mighty as his namesake. Otherwise he’s doom