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This is an idea you cannot help running across if you frequent baby name forums, attend a few parent group meetings, or just read the papers – that the bestowing of a name considered strange or highly unusual upon a child is a cruel thing to do, and has the potential to impact on their life in negative ways.

A short-lived parenting blog at the Herald Sun which was written by Cheryl Critchley asked, Are Weird Names Child Abuse? It might seem a bit extreme to suggest that calling your son Raiyybanzi is the equivalent of hitting him around the head or locking him in his room for three weeks without food, but Cheryl goes to the child psychologists for further information.

According to child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, yes, an unusual name is a form of child abuse, as it will lead to non-stop teasing in the schoolyard. Another psychologist, Dr Janet Hall, said a poor choice of name could lead to the child developing self-esteem problems. A name that others constantly question and mock is a “constant attack on your self-esteem”. It’s all sounding pretty dire for poor little Raiyybanzi.

A dim ray of light shone through when an education psychologist named Dr Helen McGrath suggested that while shy children probably won’t appreciate an unusual name, an extroverted one might enjoy the attention that it brings. She noted that unusual names do tend to change people’s perceptions, and even self-perception. However, there was no research which suggested any negative impact, and that factors such as social skills and family relationships were far more important.

The interesting thing is that Cheryl got her inspiration for the article from the names of AFL footballers she had seen in the newspapers – names such as Ayce, Jarryn, Jarrhan, Cheynee and Sharrod. These horrified her, and yet it would seem that Ayce and friends hadn’t had their lives ruined, but embarked on potentially lucrative and rewarding sporting careers. The photo of Ayce used for the article showed him looking cheerful and confident, with his self-esteem firmly intact.

This article was published a few years ago, but journalistic opinion doesn’t seem to have moved forward very much in the meantime. There’s a good reason for that – if you’ve been following the ‘Twas Ever Thus series at Elea’s blog, British Baby Names, you will see that when it comes to getting worked up over “weird” baby names, the media is pretty much churning out the same stuff they produced in the 19th century. Only the names have been changed, as the saying goes.

On Radio National a few months ago, on their popular Life Matters show, presenter Natasha Mitchell had a programme called You’ve Named Your Baby What?!. Generally light-hearted in tone, the show discussed unusual celebrity baby names (Natasha confessed she rather liked Sparrow), old-fashioned names like Mavis and Alfie, little boys just called H, and little girls named Rach’elle.

Guest Mia Freedman, who runs the successful parenting website Mamamia, while not actually accusing anyone of child abuse, opined that a strange name, especially one spelled strangely, could be a “burden” for a child. A burden in so much as they would be constantly questioned about their name – perhaps not damaging to their self-esteem, but a downright nuisance to them nonetheless.

In these sort of shows/articles, everyone is very careful to explain that when they say “unusual names”, they don’t mean names from other cultures, which to our ears may be difficult to pronounce, or sound like rude words, or appear to be on the “wrong” sex. No, these names are a wonderful sign of our diversity, and people should be proud to possess them as part of their culture, and it would be very wrong indeed to poke fun of them.

To my mind, this is the downfall of their argument, because it’s never explained why it’s not a “burden” to be named Caoilfhionn, even though that must surely involve at least as many requests to explain spelling and pronunciation as Rach’elle does. If it’s not such a terrible burden to be named Caoilfhionn, then I don’t see how Rach’elle is any heavier for a child to bear.

And if we as a society should be able to cope with Caoilfhionn, Purushottama, Oluwakanyinsola, Dudel and Phuc as names, then I don’t see why we cannot also cope with Mavis, Alfie, Sparrow, Ayce, Jarryn, Rach’elle and H. For that matter, how could anyone be confused by the spelling of the name H? Surely the strange-names-as-a-burden club should be heaping praise on H for its unburdensome simplicity? However, for some reason that never happens.

Oddly enough, Mia, who has an extremely simple and popular name, says that she needs to often correct people on the spelling and pronunciation of it. And yet, this burden doesn’t seem to have really been much bother, or held her back in life. From this I deduce that almost everyone has to explain their name at some point (“No, it’s John – J-O-H-N, not Jon – J-O-N”), and that it’s just one of those little things you have to deal with.

To befuddle the argument even further, Mia poked mild fun at “cutesy pet names” for children, singling out Jools Oliver for naming her children Poppy, Daisy, Petal and Buddy. Fun fact: Mia’s daughter is named Coco. I know: go figure.

Although these examples are not the most convincing you’ll come across, and don’t even manage to present a cogent argument, there are no lack of studies which purport to reveal the dreadful consequences of giving your child a strange name.

They tell us that your child will do worse at school, be less popular with their classmates, drop out of tertiary education, and have their resumes ignored by prospective employers (although, after doing so badly at school and flunking university, you’d think a boss would have pretty good grounds for ignoring their resume).

Furthermore, they were more likely to be diagnosed as psychotic and to end up in prison – the bitter conclusion to a life of failure and misery. After reading this terribly sad story, which seems like the stuff of nightmare and soap opera, how could a parent be so heartless as to inflict on their child any name other than one selected by the Chamber of Commerce, heads of all major universities, and a panel of psychiatrists?

However, other researchers crunched the numbers and came up with opposing results. It was noted that men with rare names were over-represented in Who’s Who, suggesting that a life of success was just as possible as one of failure for those with less common names. Other researchers noted that many children with uncommon names came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and that once this was allowed for, there was no difference in academic outcomes that could be attributed to the person’s name.

One interesting finding by development psychologist Dr. Martin Ford is that everyone tends to attach a particular image or set of expectations to a name – up and until they confronted with a person with that name. People might say that they think of Berthas as being unattractive, but if shown the photo of a beautiful woman and told she is named Bertha, they rate the photo more or less the same as someone told the lovely woman is called Jacqueline or Christine.

In other words, Shakespeare was clearly on the money in regard to roses smelling just as sweet.

So here we have two competing theories: one is that unusual names are little more than child abuse, will damage self-esteem, prove an unnecessary burden, and be a severe handicap in regards to academic and social success. At worst, they may even send your child mad, or force them into a life of crime.

The other is that names, once attached to a real person, become almost meaningless – that what we are judged on is not our names, but our appearance, voice, grooming, hygiene, mannerisms, personality, social skills, motivations, abilities, intelligence, beliefs, income, education, job, family, friends, hobbies, home, influences, aspirations, and indeed the whole “package” that is ourselves.

I’m not sure I am completely convinced by either side – mostly because I am sceptical as to whether any of them have considered genuinely “weird” names. I feel as if they have looked at unpopular or uncommon names, or names judged to be undesirable by others, but that’s not really the same thing.

I mean come on, how sheltered must your life be to think that Ayce and Rach’elle are weird!

From what can I gather, Dr. Ford’s photo experiment was just using “outdated” names of the time like Hazel and Harriet – not only in no way weird, but by now very much back in fashion.

His original name study was done in 1984, on children who would have been born in the early 1970s. Very rare names of people born in 1972 include Atticus, Briar, Bristol, Coco, Darcey, Denzel, Emmeline, Fallon, Heaven, Jaxon, Jorja, Kourtney, Larkin, Lourdes, Marigold, Reeve, Rosamond, Sonnet, Star, Theodoric, and Wilder.

These names aren’t weird any more – some of them look pretty hip, and others seem unsurprising; a couple are even quite dull. In just forty years, a name can go from Woah, what the heck? to Meh. Maybe the rare names of today, such as Cameo and Twain, will seem equally familiar by the early 2050s.

That’s looking at US data of course, but in Australia we know that just twenty years ago Olive was a strange and awkward name to give a baby, and it is now Top 100 in Victoria, and getting there in New South Wales.

If name-weirdness is dependent on time, it is equally so on space. I know that when I look at some names on the American charts, or in American birth notices, they seem odd to me because names such as Legend, Princess, Race, Tinsley and Dutch are rarely or never used in Australia. Likewise, Americans look at Australian-used names like Lachlan, Jacinta, Hamish, Bronte and Zali, and think What the dealio?

A normal name can become weird just by crossing the Pacific; conversely, an American boy named Hamish who moves to Australia will blend in instantly. Fun fact: in the US, 8 baby boys were named Hamish last year.

What an individual person believes is weird seems to be almost entirely subjective. To Cheryl it’s Jarryn. To Natasha it’s Apple. To me it’s Race. To 1972 it’s Coco. To a commenter I saw on Mamamia it’s Felix (in the Top 100). To this journalist it’s Becket. To my mother it’s Madison. To you maybe it’s Hamish. Or Metallica. Or Banjo. Or Justus. Or Crew. Or Dudel.

I genuinely thought that this myth would be either BUSTED or CONFIRMED by the time I finished the blog entry, but not only has it not been answered, the very myth itself seems to be retreating over the horizon the closer we get to it, like heat shimmering on a bitumen road in January.

I am becoming less and less convinced that a weird name will ruin anyone’s life, and moreover, I am becoming less and less certain that weird names even exist, in any useful sense of the word “weird”.

Even Raiyybanzi isn’t that strange once you get used to it – it’s really just a juiced-up Raymond.

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