What’s in a Name?

It came on the radio today that, thanks to Styles, Potter and Windsor, Harry has overtaken Oliver as the most popular baby name in the UK. Amelia has overtaken Olivia to the #1 spot for girls, which is less easy to explain but I like to think it’s because of the lovely Amelia Pond, Doctor Who assistant extraordinaire.

Anyway, it got me thinking about names, why name trends are newsworthy and how names are the ultimate first impression. It also reminded me of why it’s so upsetting when people continually get one’s name wrong.

So, hands up who thought my name would be pronounced Lie-za, as in Minelli? Quite a lot of you, I see. Anyone mis-read it as Liz? Lisa? Anyone read it as Lee-za? If you fall into the last category then you get the gold star. Hmm, let’s try and think of another example of a famously mispronounced name. How about Mama Giggles, Zooey Deschanel? I read that as ‘Zoo-ee” for years before finding out that it’s pronounced like Zoe.

When people get your name wrong

No-one really likes it when they get called the wrong name. It’s one thing if a stranger (the guy in Starbucks, the postman, the call-centre worker) spells or pronounces it wrong on the one time you cross paths. But it’s quite another when people get your name wrong consistently.

In my experience, pretty much the worst case scenario is when you don’t correct someone soon enough and it becomes too late to do so. This is why my hairdresser still calls me Liza-pronounced-as-in-Minelli, and why I have to pronounce it that way when I call to book appointments. To correct her now would be embarrassing all round. Plus, going to the hairdresser is quite stressful (all that smalltalk!) and being called Lie-za gives me a weird sense of detachment and confidence. For real.

The problem comes when people get our names wrong out of laziness or even defiance, which frankly just shows a lack of respect. I think people sometimes see my name as an affectation, that I was actually christened Elizabeth or Lisa and have decided to change it. Even if I had done that then, still, tough. How many Andrews can’t stand to be called Andy? How many Elizabeths will scowl if you call them Lizzie or Liz rather than their preferred Beth? Bloody well call people by their preferred moniker – it means a lot to them.

What’s in a name?

So, what’s in a name? Well, our whole identity. They define us, by definition. We agonise for months about what to call our children because we know, often unconsciously, that the name you give your child is the first way their character will be judged. We need everyone to think well of our offspring (you know…because of evolution and stuff) and we therefore give them the name that we think perfectly characterises the person we hope they will be. To do this, we judge the people we know and know of and create associations between names and personality.

If names were not important then we wouldn’t dedicate a whole page of a broadsheet newspaper to reporting trends. We wouldn’t say “oh, you don’t look like a Matthew!” or “You could have been a Joan”. We wouldn’t agonise over whether, when and how to correct people when they get our name wrong.

There’s an interesting study into the names given to twins about halfway down this article which makes the point about how parents think the names they give their children will forge their identities. (It also mentions that “people generally resent the mispronunciation of their name because mispronunciation amounts to a distortion of their identity”. Indeed.)


How do you respond when someone gets your name wrong? What funny names do you get called by accident? Is there a name you wish was yours? Has your tricky name ever landed you in a sticky situation? What are your secret baby names – I know you all have one!

(Image via Shutterstock).

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