My son is head down and ready to enter this world. We are ready with bassinette, breast pump and bottle of Bollinger. There’s just one thing we haven’t sorted out…

“We need a name,” my bowling ball-esque beauty berates.

“All mine have been rejected,” I sputter in defence.

“Well, think of some new ones. There’s a baby name book over there. Haven’t you any great uncles I don’t know about. We could name him after them.”

“Yes, ah, Uncle Ralph.”

I get the ‘unhelpful’ stare.

“Any others?”

“Uncle Horace,” I reply, asking for trouble. I’m ignored.

“What about your heros; people you admire greatly?”

“Epictetus, Ludwig von Mises and Nassim Taleb,” I grin.


Naming babies is a weighty business. You ought to get these things right. Or at least not horribly wrong.
John Key, Phil Goff, Don Brash; I wondered at the last election if it was just coincidence that these guys have short, solid-sounding names. Did Helen Clark adopt a three-syllable name just to appear softer and more feminine? That only worked until the first time she bared her teeth.

Is it a surprise that great All Blacks captains – Jock Hobbs, David Kirk, Fred Allen, Wayne Shelford – were the sort of men who weren’t mired in an excess of tricky syllables?

So you’d think, given the aspirations of greatness we have for our offspring, we’ll all choose short, solid, prime ministerial names. You’d think wrong. With the birth rate in New Zealand now consistently over 60,000 per annum some people are bound to make a mess of things. Increasingly they choose silly names, or just make them up.

The name Police

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) is responsible for administering baby names, or more specifically, rejecting ones they don’t like. Their criteria are simple. Most critically, you can’t have a name that is likely to cause offence, one that is or resembles an official title or rank, or one that is unreasonably long (more than 99 characters including spaces).

The Economist reports the idiocy that exists in naming babies. Regrettably, New Zealand is a standout performer and the DIA has recently rejected Lucifer, V8, Anal, Christ and Sinbin. Also disappointed will be parents that wanted to call their offspring a number (89), or a punctuation mark (*). The DIA also declined Justus, Duke, Baron, Prince and King. Our Australian counterparts applied much the same thinking in declining Post Master General and Chief Maximus.
On the face of it this might seem a triumph of good government. It is not, on two counts. Firstly, these people have been allowed to breed. The complete hash they’ve tried to make of their babies’ names will likely be the forerunner of on-going parental incompetence. A bad name is the least of our concerns.

Secondly, the DIA are a permissive bunch, outside a few basic rules, and have allowed names such as Ravenous, Veneer, Fish and Chips (for twins), Cinderella Beauty Blossom, Yeah Detroit, Number 16 Bus Shelter, Midnight Chardonnay and the daddy of them all, Tallula Does the Hula from Hawaii. Tallula had to go to the courts to have her name changed at the age of nine.


My most common exposure to odd names occurs at the Avis depot in Los Angeles. Avis locations are commonly staffed by African-American girls with names like Ja’Quaelah and Tashaonda. These appeared ridiculous, made-up names to me, but many are not. Like many African-American names, they derive from their African roots and many have African-Islamic influences. That’s not to deny that the US African-American community are overachievers when it comes to name invention.

So it was in 1956 when former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was born. Condoleezza was, you guessed it, a name completely made up by her parents. No other child was called Condoleezza that year, or probably that decade. And yet Condi Rice was well educated and rose to the top of the political echelon.

People seem inclined to condescend and declare odd names the domain of ‘the underclasses’. That’s simply not true. Educated, affluent hill dwellers, who drive boring cars and have expensive haircuts, are capable of a mad rush of creativity when it comes to naming their children.

While mainstream politicians tend to have sensible names, the advent of MMP has seen things spiced up a little. Green Party leader Russel Norman named his precious first-born son Tadhg.

It reminds me of that awkward group of letters you get stuck with at the end of a game of scrabble. Yet again I was too quick to giggle. Tadhg is actually an ancient Irish name, misspelled. There is no ‘H’ in Gaelic and this was added at a later date. Why this was seen as helpful I can’t explain.

Celebrities seem prone to near lunacy when it comes to naming their children. Bob Geldof’s children are called Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie Frou-Frou.

Not be outdone, chef Jamie Oliver knocked out some cutsie-goulash in naming his three girls, Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo and Petal Blossom. More recently they have been joined by their little brother Buddy Bear.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of modern society and a disease of affluence. We’re all told how wonderfully unique and special we are and set about carving out a unique space. Many do this with piercings that look like low-grade industrial accidents; or tattoos that Pamela Anderson would think crossed the lines of taste and decency; or these nonsense names that will likely curse their children’s lives.

I’m sure the parents thought they were being wonderfully creative, but their children’s achievements are likely to be hampered by their names. It’s a Machiavellian reality. People reach hasty irrational conclusions sometimes based purely on someone’s name.

What’s in a name?

In a NZ Herald article – ‘Naming Babies Isn’t Easy’ – Auckland University linguist Dr Helen Charters confirms that even the sound a name makes influences people’s expectations of that person. “Large open-mouth vowel sounds are often associated with big things or strength, while ‘ee’ sounds are associated with smaller things.”

One potential error compromising the future of our children are names beginning with R. It is likely that our economy will become increasing linked with Asia. That being the case, we should be thoughtful when it comes to the difficulties some Asian cultures have in pronouncing R’s. In Japan for instance, Ronald McDonald had a corporate name change to Donald McDonald. It seemed like the polite and honourable thing to do. To have Robert, Rupert and Ryan grow up, only to be called Lobert, Lupert and Lyan seems to me a retrograde step.

Even at quite an orthodox level, we are capable of irrational bias when it comes to people’s names. Recently I had young job applicants by the names of Ethan and Tristram. Phonetically these are solid enough names, but somehow they lack weight.

What impact on history would there have been if Alexander the Great or Attila the Hun were called Tristram?
Tristram had a decent CV, but somehow I couldn’t see a youthful, well-educated Tristram commanding the respect of grizzled field managers – sensibly named Ian, Dave and Tom. A slightly stronger name and he might have made the interview cut.

This might seem shallow but I am unrepentant. What were his parents thinking when they called him Tristram? Young boys are inclined to develop speech impediments. More than 80% of children with lisps or stutters are boys. What if Tristram developed a lisp? Announcing his name would sound like the floundering failures of a novice saxophonist. Such thoughtless parents are the type that would actually encourage him to take up the saxophone, on the basis it is a cool instrument. That is until he first lisped into “My name is Tristram and I am a saxophonist.”

Lisping Tristrams of the world unite! Change your name to Jim and take up the oboe. Speech impediments be damned!
Perhaps the glimmer of hope in this age of creative names is that they’re easy enough to change. As time passes, parents also seem to realise the error of their ways. In the last year for instance, 762 children’s names have been changed by their parents before they turned two. Unlike a bad tattoo, this folly is not difficult to rectify.

None of this helps me in finding a name for my son. A friend of mine did offer some good advice; “When I was young I wished my name was Jim Curry,” he said. Jim Curry is the perfect name for a man; solid, adventurous and slightly spicy.

Let me check with my wife…

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1 Comment

  1. appalling article!! shabby journalism, well a bunch of words really….which journalist with any credibility would set out to offend our local families? especially lovely 4 year olds! IF Paul Paynter has a diploma in journalism I suggest he retires it to an attic or shreds it and gets a proper job with Bill and Ben, maybe a Tristram would briefly consider hiring him…but then again, Tristram would probably know better than to do that!

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