The Power of Names


“If only they’d called me Samantha
Or Susan or Judith or Anne
If only they’d christened me Deirdre
Or Brenda or Phyllis or Jan…”

The start of a verse I wrote about having a name like mine.
I might as well admit my name is Mary. It’s not a name you can Google with any chance of getting a meaningful result. I tried: 244,000,000 hits.

It’s not that I dislike the name per se or that I object to being named after Mary, the mother of Jesus, it’s just that I believe a name ought to identify a person uniquely and my name doesn’t. I had a grandmother, an aunt and a number of cousins named Mary, so we had to be differentiated, either by using surnames or adjectives like “young Mary” or “our Mary”. There was someone always referred to as “Nick’s Mary” and for a long time I thought this was an actual name like “Rosemary”

At school it was the same. There were 6 of us called Mary, just in my form. I think this is related to age. Names come into and go out of fashion and you can tell how old someone is just by hearing their name. How many Marys do you know under 40?

When I had a family we debated about what names to give our children. There were 3 considerations:
1 the chosen name should sound right with our surname
2 we wanted names that were easy to say and to spell
3 we gave each of our three children a second christian name – amend that to “given name” if you prefer.

Each had one unusual name and one fairly ordinary name that they could choose if they preferred. Our younger son decided to do this when he went to university and the only problem is that people who knew him as a child still refer to him by his first name. When he married the couple decided to use both surnames and hyphenate them.

Names are important. We hear someone’s name and rightly or wrongly form an impression of what sort of person they are. If you are trying to write fiction, you need to give the characters names. I find I can’t make much headway with a short story until I have a name for the main character. I imagine this is even more true for writers of historical fiction.

Hilaire Belloc wrote a verse  G is for Gnu, explaining that the name was the animal’s best method of defense because people couldn’t pronounce it. He ended with the advice:

“Child if you have a rummy kind of name
Remember to be thankful for the same.”

I don’t want a rummy name and at least most people can pronounce mine, but I sometimes wish I’d been called Samantha.

Esme (penname)

After going on about the problems of being saddled with a name like Mary, I used to complain that no-one under about 40 is ever called Mary. Then I started to look at names in the news and found quite a few Marys in the older age-range. There’s the academic Mary Beard, the shopping guru Mary Portas, both in their 50s and there’s Mary Berry, the cook and food writer, now 79. So perhaps I am in good company after all.



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