Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Christian names

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Well, then, let it be John.”

“John is an odious name.”

“Won’t William do?”

“You know I detest it.”

“What do you say to Dick?”


When a woman pronounces thus, very slowly, syllable by syllable, there is nothing for it but to give in, unless you want to have a scene.

“Well, then, my dear, let it be George Frederick Augustus.”

“You are so stupid,” my little wife broke in. “Why can’t you think of some proper name for the child?”

“That’s exactly what I have been trying to do, my dear,” I mildly retorted, “but there is no pleasing you.”

“How can you say so? You know very well I’ve submitted to have all the children called after that odious old uncle of yours—Gubbins, Gubbins,—until I am quite sick of Gubbins, and I am determined now that baby shall have a pretty name.

The quarrel, good reader, is as old as the time of Aristophanes, and it will go on, we suppose, as long as babies condescend to come into the world. There was a time when people were content to take the first name that presented itself, and it was Tom, Dick, and Harry,—Harry, Dick, and Tom, to the end of the chapter; but either the character of our reading, or the spread of the fine arts, and therefore a better appreciation of the beautiful have made us more fastidious. What a daring thing it would be to call a girl Betty or Sally, and yet, a century ago, these were fashionable names among the upper ten thousand.

It cannot be denied, however, that fashion and mere imitation have a great deal to do with the matter. The name of the reigning sovereign always influences the christenings of a certain per-centage of the population. For three or four generations Georges and Charlottes, and Carolines, were all in vogue; and now we are taking a turn at Victorias and Alberts. But it is only the gregariously disposed that follow the leader in this way, and the fixing a name is really becoming a matter of anxiety to the fastidious. The difficulty I always feel about the matter is lest the name should not fit. Why is it that an ideal will mix itself with every name?

That Mary should suggest everything that is womanly and amiable is simple enough. For these last eighteen hundred years the Roman Catholic Church has identified her sacred name with all the feminine virtues; that Isabella should suggest a proud passionate nature we undoubtedly owe to its southern origin. But why should Ann be a cold, formal, highly-starched old maid? and why, again, should Fanny be, with so few exceptions, the designation of a false-hearted flirt?

Blanche, again, in our mind’s eye, is a proud blonde, with haughty manner and a fair white neck. We may have known many a Blanche with black hair and with narrow forehead, but the fact does not in the slightest destroy the ideal Blanche—the Blanche that should be. Catherine, again, is a proud stately dame that a lover would not like to trifle with. Indeed, when the name is shortened into Kate it gets a little vixenish. Again, Emily is very womanly, with a profusion of light hair, a little lethargic, perhaps, but still desirable. Jane would snap your nose off on the slightest occasion. Julias, in the age that is just past, always performed on the harp, to display their commanding figures, and never condescended to do such a thing as plain work. Martha still follows out her destiny, and attends to the shirt buttons; and a better adjunct to Mary could not be found in any household. But there is a series of composite names that completely perplex one to interpret the characters of their owners at all. These are the Sarah-Anns, Sarah-Janes, Hannah-Marias. My belief is, however, that none of these young ladies ever attain to more than twelve years of age, and are always destined to hover about the intricacies of dirty courts, nursing babies, from which they are always being called by infuriated and slatternly mothers at the top of their voices.

There are some female names, again, which suggest physical deformities, but these we decline to indicate. With the rising generation, however, a charming class of old names have been revived. Mabel and Millicent, Maud, Beatrice, and Violet, come to us with the great warranty of our old playwrights, or with the poetic tinge upon them of long past times. Our old English names are all characteristic. Cicely and Dorothea are quaint, and perhaps a little old-maidish, but they sound fresh and unhackneyed, whilst Geraldine and Gertrude are charming.

But, after all, fortunately for the sex, ladies’ names are not of very much importance, for the greater part of their lives at least; they hide the prettiest or ugliest patronymic in their husbands’, and Clara Devereux possibly may sink into Mrs. Samuel Biggs. But with a man the case is different; his Christian name is not only his own, but his wife’s; therefore the responsibility upon his sponsors is double. There are so many considerations to be taken into account in launching a name into the world, to play a part perhaps for fourscore and ten years, that it should by no means be undertaken without due thought; and first, there is the euphony of the thing. A man may have such a mis-assemblage of unrythmical cognomens, that he and his friends have to go jolting over them all their lives, as though they were journeying over a corduroy road. Let us suppose a man christened “Richard Edward Robert,” for instance. The ear in a moment detects a jumble of sounds, out of which it can make nothing. If a man must have many Christian names, they should be strung together at least upon some harmonious principle. They should either begin and end with short syllables (including the surname), such as Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, a name which once heard is never forgotten,—or the names should be a mixture of many syllables; how many it matters not, so long as they run well together. To my mind it is of no small importance that a name should both be characteristic and have some peculiar quality about it easily remembered. Imagine two persons starting as rivals in life in any particular profession; without doubt, the one who had the most forcible name would be the one most familiar with the public, and would, therefore, in a worldly sense, be the most successful. There are some names that circulate among us instantly, and make as fast friends with their owners ever after wards, although we may never have seen them. He is a lucky man whose sponsors have thus cast his cognomen in these pleasant lines.

Some persons with undistinguished surnames have a deep instinct in this matter, and strive by all means to correct their misfortune with their children. Smith, Brown, and Robinson, &c., are very ingenious as regards the pains they take to make their Christian names kill their patronymies. Godolphin Smith really reads aristocratically, and Ignatius Brown completely lifts his name out of the crowd. If a man, in consequence of possessing a careless or ignorant father, is compelled to go through life as John Jones, he can make his son and heir respectable by calling him Jasper—Jasper Jones! The Jones, it will be perceived, is not noticed behind the high-sounding Christian name—it shrivels up out of sight. But there is another way of getting out of the difficulty: instead of sneaking out of your proper name in this manner, it is just possible for a bold man to “defy augury”—so to insist upon his name, to thrust it down his neighbours’ throats by damnable iteration, that they shall be obliged to look upon it with respect. Suppose, for instance, that our friend were called Jones Jones, Esq., of Jones House; there would be a moral swagger in the sound, that would be sure to carry it through. But there is one perplexity in naming children which cannot be easily got over. We may give that remarkably fine baby at home a remarkably fine name. Marmaduke Rashleigh may fall pompously from the parson’s lips; but what if he should turn out a mean-looking little shrimp? On the other hand, it is just possible that the twin brother, named Peter, after his paternal uncle, may turn out a magnificent specimen of the genus homo. It is of great advantage to some men to have even a very odd name, a name perhaps a little difficult to remember at first, but one which ever after bites in the memory with the tenacity of a Trotman’s anchor. There are some public men whose cognomens are so odd, that all the world is repeating them over to themselves. There was Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, for instance; you have to make a hurdle race over it; but once thoroughly indented into your mind, you don’t forget it again in a hurry. There is a very bad fashion springing up, a fashion taken from the usage of foreign potentates, to string Christian names together with a perfectly reckless profusion. Monarchs who are known to the world by but one name seem determined to have a private stock by them. Looking over the Gotha Royal Almanac the other day, we came upon a name almost long enough to fly a kite with. The Emperor of Brazil rejoices, for instance, in the following assortment: Don Pedro II. de Alcantara Jean Charles Léopold Salvador Bibrano Francesco Xavier de Paula Leocadro Michel Gabriel Raphael Gonzaga. Our own court have been perhaps a little influenced by this foreign fashion; otherwise, the Royal children have been charmingly named, especially the princesses. Are we to have an Edward the Seventh? We trust so, at some distant day. The nation would never take kindly to the name of Albert, as compared with the old familiar names of English Princes. For, as I have said before, names are things. Half the brutality of our wife-killing king is lost in the familiar title, Harry the Eighth! and who knows how much of the affection once shown for “Bonnie Prince Charlie” was due to his name alone?