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The Australian Grand Prix was held in Melbourne on the weekend, and before the event there was plenty of buzz in the media around German Sebastian Vettel, and British Jenson Button. These glamorous visitors from Europe always get a lot of attention, for both are handsome and charming; Vettel amusing and slightly mysterious, Button affable and quietly confident. In the end, Button opened the F1 season with a victory, winning comfortably against Vettel with a 2.2 second margin. It is his third Australian Grand Prix victory. (Picture has Vettel on the left in black).

I thought we’d take a look at the names of both these Formula One champions, because Sebastian and Jenson are Googled often to reach my blog, and so far I haven’t added any requested boys names to the Featured Names list, while I’ve been quite conscientious about adding the girls.

Sebastian is from the Latin name Sebastianus, which means “from Sebaste”. There were several places called Sebaste, because it is the Greek form of Augusta, named in honour of the Emperor Augustus. His adopted name meant “great, majestic, venerable”. There are towns in modern-day Turkey and Palestine with this name (or a version of it), still with ancient Roman ruins which can be visited.

The name became well known because of Saint Sebastian, a 3rd century Roman soldier originally from southern France. Skilled at converting people, according to legend he was shot through with arrows, yet did not die, so had to be martyred twice. He became popular in the Middle Ages because he was said to protect people from the plague, and also began to be depicted as a beautiful, semi-nude young man. (In early pictures, he looks like an ordinary bearded fully-clothed saint).

The name was popular amongst Continental royalty and nobility, and still retains a slightly upper-class image. Sebastian is Viola’s twin brother in Shakespeare’s gender-switching romantic comedy, Twelfth Night. Lord Sebastian Flyte is one of the main characters in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited; beautiful and rather fey, the TV series and film makes it clear Sebastian is homosexual, although this is left ambiguous in the novel. Indeed, Saint Sebastian himself is considered a gay icon (for pretty flimsy reasons), and the name was a code for homosexuality; Oscar Wilde’s pseudonym was Sebastian Melmoth. So far, so androgynous.

However, the name got a watery overhaul when the name Sebastian was given to a Jamaican lobster in the Disney film, The Little Mermaid. Sebastian is a court composer, and a good friend and adviser to Ariel, the mermaid of the title. A Rastafarian who can lay down a reggae beat, he has given the name a new level of cool. The choice of his name seems like a deliberate reference to another famous composer: Johann Sebastian Bach. Incidentally, Sebastian is the lobster’s surname – his first name is Horatio (maybe after the American composer, Horatio Parker).

Sebastian first entered the charts in the 1960s and began steadily climbing, to become Top 100 by the 2000s. At #38 it still seems to be gaining in popularity – an elegant name that belongs to many people’s favourite Disney character.

Jenson is a lot more straightforward. It’s a surname which is basically a form of Johnson, being based on the name Jens, a short form of Johannes. According to Lou at Mer de Noms (rather a Jenson Button fan), the name Jenson has edged itself into the UK Top 100, and its growing popularity can be attributed almost solely to Mr Button himself. As to how he got his name, he was named after a family friend, Erling Jensen (father of F1 driver Steven Jensen). The spelling was altered so that it didn’t reference Jensen Motors, who made British sports cars until the 1970s.

It’s an attractive name, and one I think we’d be using in spades if Jenson Button was Australian. As it is, it’s one many parents are at least putting on their lists, although my personal feeling is that Jensen is slightly more popular, thanks to handsome American actor Jensen Ackles, from Supernatural. As I’ve said before, with female Jennifer become less popular, it gives male names starting with Jen- more of a chance.

When I try to decide which name I like best, Sebastian or Jenson, I find myself in private debate. If I take the side of Sebastian, it seems more sophisticated than Jenson, complex and multi-syllabled, romantic and princely. On the other hand, if I take the side of Jenson, it seems more laddish and chipper, down-to-earth and unpretentious, with oodles of cheeky British charm.

So I am content to say these are both very nice names, and I won’t force them to compete against each other in some Baby Name Grand Prix. When it comes to nicknames for them, I think of Seb and Bastian, and Jens and Sonny, respectively.

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