The furore over the name Meghan and Harry gave their baby daughter is one of the couple’s more relatable recent hoo-hahs. Picking a name for a child is a hellish nightmare – up there with giving birth, I imagine. Whatever you do, you are condemned to betray your prejudices, pretensions and class aspirations for all the world to see. Choose something unusual and you let everyone know you think you’re fancy. Choose something boring, like Ed, and you are sending a clear signal that this will be an average child.
Unless you are blessed with extreme confidence, or are one of those American families who just repeat the same name again and again, adding numbers like factory prototypes, in the months leading up to the child’s arrival the question can assume monumental proportions.
For most parents, the game is to walk the narrow path between boring and pretentious. You don’t want to condemn the child to a lifetime of being teased or saying the phonetic alphabet to customer services. In the end we called our daughter Lily. It seemed a sensible enough choice, but in hindsight I wonder if all the death in the news left a subconscious impression on us. The moment the ink was dry on her birth certificate, an article appeared announcing that Lily had entered the list of most popular names.
Seeing your baby’s name loom on to this list is a moment of self-reckoning verging on humiliation. Every parent believes they are responding creatively to a unique set of inputs. Then you turn up at nursery and discover everyone else had the same idea. You have to concede that your careful choice was in fact the result of atmospheric forces that affected other parents exactly the same. Sorry Daenerys, free will is an illusion.
Our lives might have been easier if we’d had the help of Cool Names for Babies, a book my wife found in a charity shop a few weeks too late. If you’re not familiar with this classic of infant nomenclature, the cover has a picture of a baby clutching a pair of sunglasses. The “big question today”, the authors write “is: What are the cool names? And how can I choose one for my child?” They suggest taking a name whose sound you like and changing the spelling. It only takes a bit of imagination for “Gavin” to become “Kavin” or “Travon”. Keith turns easily into “Keithen”. Alternatively, drop syllables or letters. “These days,” they write, “Drew and Ward are cooler than Andy and Ed.” I tried not to take it personally.
For names with multiple iterations, they supply a handy chart identifying the Uncool, Cool and Cooler versions. You can spice up even the most uncool name by adding an X. Geoff isn’t cool, Jeb is cool, but cooler is Jex. And so on.
Despite all the agonising over coolness, naming convention remains astonishingly conservative. Each generation somehow finds its way to a set of about 30 names that have re-entered acceptability, as has happened in recent years with Audrey and Iris and Rose, Wilfred and Arthur and Alfred. It takes a lot for a name to die forever, although Nigel’s not looking good. Imagine naming a baby born today Norman or Susan and you realise just how limited the range is. In this, as in space travel and battery-powered cars, Elon Musk is breaking new ground. He and his partner Grimes named their son X Æ A-xii, an innovative use of “X” which only slightly looks like they entered their password in the wrong box.
The one truly radical act for a British parent is to pluck a name from further down the class ladder. Yet it might not be the worst idea for the downwardly mobile upper-middle classes, whose jobs in accounting and law are about to be replaced by Elon’s robots. They continue to worry that Liam or Wayne wouldn’t fit in at Eton, little realising that will be the least of their concerns. Cressida and Monty will have a much harder time fitting in at the robot repair shop.
With Archie and Lilibet, Harry and Meghan are trying to shake off some of their royal baggage while keeping the extended family happy, and inevitably have wound up as many people as they’ve pleased. As usual, they can’t win. The silver lining, for them as well as the rest of us, is that the moment you’re through the pain of choosing, nobody could care less. It’s the child that matters, whether it’s called Lilibet, Jex or X Æ A-xii.
Don’t get me started on surnames.