A Rose “Absolutely Fabulous” by another name …

MANY people adore the hazelnut spread Nutella, but actually loving it so much that you want to name your child after it seems to be spreading the pleasure a bit thin. Well, that’s clearly what a French judge thought when he prevented parents from calling their baby girl Nutella and instead decided that she should be called Ella.

His reasoning was that she might be subject to “teasing and derision” if she was called after a popular brand. He was probably right, and in any case, shortening names being what most families do, she would almost certainly have ended up as ‘Ella anyway.

What is interesting is that French parents have only been able to call their children what they want since 1993! Since 1993, the French courts have only twice tried to stop couples giving their child the name they had chosen – “Megane” (because it is a make of car), but the parents were not deterred; and Fraise – “Strawberry” – and in this case the parents went for Fraisine, which apparently was a popular name in France in the 19th century.

Of course there are many cultures where naming children is a matter of strong cultural and religious significance – my son in law’s family are Latin American Catholics by background and I have found that when in doubt it is safest to assume that the various aunts and uncles and cousins whom we only meet at Christmas or New Year are called Maria or Jose, because so many of them are.

A social historian on the Today programme on Wednesday dismissed this (and journalist Lucy Cavendish’s “Sparkle” for her only daughter, who in any case has a “real name”) as examples of a current trend for giving distinctive or unusual names, and cited “hippy parents” who had done something similar back in the 1960s – obvious examples are the late River Phoenix and his siblings Rain, Summer, Liberty and Leaf – who dropped his name to become the acclaimed actor, Joaquin.

But, without wishing to be rude to the distinguished academic, I don’t know on what possible basis she can suggest there is anything new about people giving their children peculiar or gimmicky or funny or just plain awful names. Think of all those wretched Puritan children who were named after the most sinful and miserable people in the Old Testament – what chance did you have of being happy if you were called Cain (the first murderer), Jonah (stuck in a whale, doomed not to be believed), Jeremiah (a byword for miserable), Enoch (father of Methusaleh – nobody wants to live that long!), or Zilpah (Jacob’s mistress – born straight into sin!) Even the beautiful and popular name Sarah has a pretty dark biblical background – she was Abraham’s wife, childless into old age, so Abraham fathered Ishmael on her servant Hagar, whom Sarah jealously drove with her son into the desert to die – what kind of role model is that for motherhood?

Just as an aside, does that lone protester who shouted “Not in the Bible!” at the consecration of Bishop Libby Lane on Monday, want us to base our lives on the Bible, or does he, as he and his kind would accuse the “modernisers” of doing, actually want to cherry-pick too?

Roman children were often just named after their position in the birthline – Quintus, Sextus, Septimus and the like. And more ambitiously after their father’s battle successes – so if one of your names was Germanicus, it proclaimed you were the offspring of a war hero. Not so different, really, from the over-excited fan who named his newborn after the entire victorious England team in the 1966 World Cup.

Some families give their children names that they want to continue – or link surnames, which can result in the sort of quadruple-barrelled name of the Drax family – one branch of which is Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, which, when you say it, is really rather splendid, albeit a bit of a mouthful (imagine having to fill that into those horrid little boxes on an American visa form!)

In our family, many people have nicknames which have stuck throughout their lives, to such an extent that they (and their friends) would not recognise who was being spoken of, if their baptised name was used. One of my sisters has had a nickname since days after she was born, and never uses her given name other than in official forms. My other sister was nicknamed Tad (short for “tadpole”) for some years – I suspect this was me as the older by four years at some point cruelly saying she looked like a tadpole. But that got dropped as she became the tallest of us, and was changed to “Beanpole” and thus to Bean, which is how I still think of her, although her husband of more than 30 years has never used it.

My late mother was christened Marguerite but all her life was called “Bunny” – a nickname which I discovered was common among women born in the 1920s and called Marjorie or Margaret or other similar names. I have never been able to find out why.

My father, the youngest by some years, was named “Tim” (as in Tiny Tim) before he was born, by his siblings, and the name stuck. In his professional life, he was known by his given name, but at home and among friends he has always been Tim. My partner is never called by her first given name – just as well because there were three others in her class with the same name.

If anyone calls me “Frances” – my proper name – they are either cross with me, or they do not know me. But I haven’t always enjoyed being “Fanny” – Americans always snigger at it, although it is not an uncommon name there, and back when I was at school there was a song, (originally performed by George Formby) popularised by the jazz singer, Clinton Ford, “Fanlight Fanny, the frowsy nightclub queen.”

It would be impossible to describe the total mortification for a shy teenager of hearing a boy from her school shout “Fanlight Fanny (and the rest)” across Lymington’s wide High Street on Saturday market day. The earth did not obligingly open up, but I wished it would.

Celebrities specialise in giving their children silly names. David and Angie Bowie’s son Zowie is now known by the more prosaic name of Duncan. Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay’s Chris Martin called their child Apple – but you wonder if she will grow up to rebel against her sainted mother’s detoxified lifestyle. Bono has a child called “Memphis Eve;” The Edge (also from U2 – is there a pattern here?) called his daughter Blue Angel; the late and undoubtedly great Frank Zappa called his children Moon Unit and Diva Thin Muffin (OK, that’s extreme hippiedom); but for embarrassing ego, probably Jermaine Jackson takes the (gilt-edged) biscuit with Jermajesty. Really. You couldn’t make it up.

After that, Nutella seems quite sweet.

Fanny Charles

PS I didn’t make the rose name up – there is a Rosa “Absolutely Fabulous,” named presumably after the brilliant sitcom.