Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 28 February 2009

Dot Wordsworth contemplates names

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Contemplating the sad fate of Jade Goody, the reality television celebrity, Mr Gordon Brown remarked: ‘I think everybody is sad about the tragedy that has befallen Jane Goody.’ Mr Brown is unlikely to watch Big Brother or read vulgar newspapers, apart from cuttings gleaned for him by servants, so there is no reason why he should have known that her name was Jade. Neither Jane nor Jade was among the top 100 names for baby girls in Scotland in 2008, according to the General Register for Scotland.

Which names are ‘nice’ and which ‘nasty’ changes with fashion. Jade, one might think, would have been popular in the era of Rubies and Pearls. But it had the insuperable handicap of being a word for a strumpet. Pepys reported Barbara Villiers being called ‘a whore and a jade’ by the King, which of course she was, though it is often more unpleasant to be called what one is.

If a generation ago, Jason became a name often shouted across supermarkets, in 1900, it was unusual and likely to be borne by a well-bred boy. A character called Jason featured in a novel, The Bondman, by Hall Caine (1890), turned into a successful play in 1906. When I searched in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for famous Jasons, I found that almost all those in the 60 volumes were recent authors of the lives — one of them, Jason Tomes, having written 61. Extraordinary.

Both Sharon and Tracy were once male names, the most famous Sharon (not all that famous) being Sharon Turner (1768–1847), who translated The Death-Song of Ragnar Lothbrok. It is surprising that so many parents later named their daughters after Spencer Tracy. Stewart Granger’s daughter, born in 1956, was named Tracy, as was Kenneth Tynan’s about the same time. Denis Preston, the jazz critic, named a child Tracey in 1959 — could it be after Stan Tracey?

A sex-change for a name is quite common. The Princess Royal called her daughter Zara. Zarah is the name of a boy in Genesis — the twin who put his hand out during birth and had a red thread tied round it by the midwife, making him prior to his brother Pharez. Hilary is a Father of the Church, and usually now a girl. Hyacinth was a male martyr, but a boy called Hyacinth now would be a martyr indeed.

Many popular names today baffle me. Lexi is in the top 100 girls’ names. It sounds like a motor-car. And will tearful mothers this year call their daughters Jade?