Your name: is it a gift or a burden?


Imagine this: you are about to meet two strangers.  The only thing you know is that they are called Fleur and Oliver.  Pause…. Think… what do you imagine they might be like?

Our names create impressions, imparting information to others in ways we may not even be aware of.  At the simplest level, they give away our gender (usually) and often indicate our nationality or ethnicity.  An American study: “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that our names can make a difference to what we achieve: College applicants with names perceived as “black” are more likely to be rejected than those with more traditional names; and less likely to be called for interview when applying for jobs.

The most popular names for girls and boys in the UK are Lily, Emily, Isabella, Sophia and Olivia; and Oliver, Jack, Harry, Charlie and James.  All classical names, easy to say and spell.  An article in Psychology Today,  points out that our brains are more receptive to names that are familiar, and easy to pronounce; we are neurologically a bit lazy it seems, preferring to hear the name Smith than Colqhoun.

Looking at the top hundred  most popular names, there appears to be a trend for uniqueness, either adaptations of foreign names, or newly created ones, such as Kai, Eli, Kayden, Jaden, and Logan or  Orla, Alyssa, Skye, Lila and Maya.  There is also a revival in names that were popular a century ago, Ruby, Pearl, Esme and Violet. It’s quite common for parents to regret, in later life, their naming of  their children, particularly if they called them after a popular film star or singer, or had made up something. It seems that names can become a burden…

As someone with a name very unusual in Britain,  as a child I wished I had been called Susie, because of the relentless teasing at school: “Voula, Voula, skinny as a ruler” being one example. (If only that was as true today as it was then).  Now I like having a unique name, I consider it a gift; and I am used to having to explain where it comes from and what it means: it’s short for Paraskevi, my full name, which is Greek for Friday.  I gave unusual names to my own children: my son, Thibault, has a traditional French name meaning leader of the bold; and my daughter, Melanthe is named after one of Penelope’s maids in the Odyssey: her Greek name means honey flower or dark flower. As children, they wanted to be called Tom and Lucy, but now they see their unique names as gifts, too.  Plus it makes it very easy to get web domain names, and email addresses!

Authors commonly pay great attention to naming their characters, using the meanings and sounds of names to convey something about personality.   Honor Sinclair, the fictional character of my novels Honor’s Shadow and Honor’s Ghost,  has two sisters, Faith and Constance.  In a scene in Honor’s Ghost, her father, a widower, comments:

“Every month I have Sunday lunch with one of my virtues, then one week off for good behaviour.”  He clearly found this terribly amusing for some reason, as he would guffaw with laughter.   It may be a joke for him, thought Honor, but it’s a nightmare for us, trying to live up to those names.  Constance is the only one who has really succeeded, at least up till now. I wish they’d called me Hope.  I can do hope without even thinking about it.  Though as my therapist pointed out, when I told her that, it’s hopelessness that I can’t bear, that I turn away from.”

So Honor found her name a burden, feeling she couldn’t live up to it. Yet she herself called her children Celestine, Eden and Thea: “Why wouldn’t you give them names as heavenly as they are?”

Is your name a gift, or a burden? What name would you have chosen for yourself?



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