Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[30] ‘Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?’

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romeo

Names can be significant, sometimes very significant. When Juliet said these immortal words, she was lamenting the fact that Romeo, the boy she wanted to marry, was from the Montague family, in a bitter feud with her family, the Capulets. His surname made him an enemy of the family. This post is all about names.

[As you read on, look out for your name. It’s probably here somewhere. See which list you come in!]

Long ago, we all had just one name. With civilization and growing populations, surnames gradually crept into use (for everyone except reigning monarchs!) Now we normally have two names. (Middle names are as irrelevant now as they were fifty years ago. We may have them but we don’t use them.)

I am going to talk about what I can only think of as ‘Christian names’. That’s what we used to call them – because in the Christian religion, names were acquired formally at baptism (otherwise known as christening). It did not imply, in any way, that the speaker or the person named was of the Christian religion. (Just as we talked of French toast that was not French, or Brussels sprouts that were not Belgian, or a Jew’s Harp, or Danish pastries, or black and white grapes that were dark purple and light green.)

Where I grew up, there was a high proportion of Jewish children in the area and at school. As far as we were concerned, just like us, they had Christian names and surnames. (They may have used different terminology.)

Old Names

If you go back hundreds of years, you will find names that kept on going. Eldest sons were routinely given the same names as their fathers (sometimes for many generations), and younger sons acquired the names of uncles. Many of these names were still very popular back in the fifties. You will recognize here the names of kings and queens of England. (We still copy the names given to royal princes and princesses.)

For boys, we had (listing in alphabetical order) Charles, Christopher, David, Edward, Geoffrey (or Jeffrey), George, James, John, Michael, Peter, Richard, Robert, Thomas, William – all popular and well-liked names. For girls, Ann, Catherine, Elizabeth, Jane, Jean, Margaret and Mary were still common.

Nicknames

Most names have shortened forms or nicknames associated with them. One thing that was different in the fifties was that many common names then were always used in a well-known nickname form, many of which were not immediately obvious. For example, if you were a Robert, you were never called Robert, you were always ‘Bob.’ (But you were always christened or registered as ‘Robert.’) This applied similarly to Bill for William, Dick (Richard), Jim (James), Ted (Edward), as well as more obvious ones like Chris (Christopher) and Tom (Thomas). Sometimes there were variants so that Catherine or Katherine could be called Kate or Cathy.

The habit of calling every John by the nickname Jack had disappeared fairly recently. Jack had already become a separate name. Similarly, Harry was a separate name, no longer a nickname for Henry. These nicknames had been established long ago. (If you can’t see why Henry became Harry, think of current French pronunciation, which is much nearer to how we spoke in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.)

Other Common Names

As well as the long established names listed above, there were several names that were popular at the time – perhaps less common traditional ones and some fairly recent additions. For boys we had: Alan, Anthony (Tony), Daniel (Dan), Dennis, Derek, Graham, Ian, Keith, Kevin, Malcolm, Mark, Martin, Nicholas (Nick), Nigel, Philip, Robin, Roland, and Stephen or Steven. For girls there were: Barbara, Carol or Caroline, Christine (Chris), Clair (various spellings), Diana or Diane, Doreen, Dorothy, Gillian (Gill), Helen, Jacqueline (Jacky), Janet, Jill, Joyce, Judith (Judy), Kay, Louise, Maureen, Nicola (Nicky), Pamela, Patricia (Pat), Penelope (Penny), Rebecca (Becky), Sally, Sandra, Shirley, Valerie and Wendy.

I always felt that Alan was a quite common name. My class at school had two Alans. One of had to change for nicknames – so I was known by my middle name. (I think we also had two Malcolms and two Trevors, who sorted out appropriate nicknames.) Later, I remember playing ten-pin bowling at University – we always played three at a time against three from the opposition team. Once five of the six men playing were called Alan!

I may have missed some or have some wrong here! (All my lists of names may be mor etypical of where I grew up than the nation as a whole.) Growing up in an all-boys school, I was less familiar with girls’ names.

Old-fashioned Names

Some of these names now date us to that period. I know now that if I meet another Alan, he will be about my age, and the same is true for many of the names I have listed. Other names have come in since then. When I grew up there were many names that we knew but treated as old-fashioned. We associated them with our grandparents, because they had been common and had become rare. We would not have thought of using these names for our children.

Into this list I will put: Albert, Arthur, Henry, Oliver and Stanley for boys; and Ada, Adele, Agatha, Agnes, Alice, Amelia, Clara, Clarissa, Daisy, Deirdrie, Emily, Florence, Gertrude, Isabel, Ivy, Jessica, Lily, Mabel, Martha, Matilda, Mildred, Muriel, Olivia, Primrose, Prudence, Rose, Sybil, Sylvia, Ursula and Violet for girls. (Why are these mostly girls’ name? I think if you look above, you will find that boys more often stuck to the traditional names. The way we pick names for boys is not the same as how we pick girls’ names. There is still more variety and use of exotic names for girls than for boys.)

As is the way with all fashions, many of these have now come back into popular use, for children born in the last ten years or so. Their parents are too young to remember them with the same aura of obsolescence.

Choosing Names

Perhaps here we should consider how we pick names for our children. Generally, we pick a name we know – or at least something we know is a name. Long ago, in a small community, we could only go by people we knew locally, and so relatively few names were re-used – again and again. In the fifties, our sources were not much larger although we probably all knew more people with names to choose from. There was one, hard-backed book of children’s names that included variations in spelling, explanations of origin, and lots of names too obscure for serious consideration.

Some new names could become popular then, creeping in from the news and other public information. As you know, if you have been with me from the start, this means newspapers, radio, cinema, and a tiny bit from television. (OK, I forgot about radio when I talked about information. We also had news on the radio, and some entertainment – by people with names!)

Alan_Ladd_1950s

There was an actor known as Alan Ladd filming around the time I was born. Perhaps he was the source of the popularity of the name around then. (It only takes a few avid admirers to name their children after someone. Then others may think they can copy the names of other newly named babies.) It is no surprise that the name Winston had a peak around the time of my birth.

You could always pick what you knew was a name from the Bible, or Roman or Greek mythology, or well-known books. So you might choose Aaron or Cassandra or Romeo (but you probably didn’t). Biblical names were more popular in the Jewish community, for example Joshua or Ruth. Only the brave used obscure mythological names. Some names, like Lorna, owe their popular origin to books.

There were some stranger ways of picking names. In the well-known, long running (and still running) radio series, The Archers, a set of twins was born in August 1958. Their parents, Phil and Jill Archer picked their names by throwing scrabble letters and seeing how they fell at random. That was the origin of the names Shula and Kenton. [Both are still alive and doing well in The Archers.]

Modern Names

Since the fifties, we have the same processes generating and spreading new names but television and the Internet have led to instantaneous global spreading of new names. Names common in the US or Australia can become common in the UK. Even uncommon names can spread with a single role-model type figure. It only takes one Kylie Minogue to spread the name Kylie for new babies throughout the World. Similarly we have Chelsea (Clinton), Jade (Goody), Keira (Knightley) and many others. As well as celebrities, this also applies to fictional characters in popular films or television series. Perhaps we will see Samwise and Katniss coming into popularity. [Samwise is from the Lord of the Rings. Katniss is the main character in The Hunger Games.]

From the fifties and soon afterwards we can date many name coming from Rock ‘n Roll and pop music, mostly names from the US. They may take off in Britain regardless of whether they were real or common names in the US originally. We have, for example: Elvis, Gary, Gene, Shane.

Elvis_Presley_promoting_Jailhouse_Rock

Even more modern are the very unusual names given by some celebrities to their children, names that may then enter popular culture. I think it may be wise not to give specific examples here, but you can probably think of a few.

It is a matter of fashion and culture that in the 80s, names reappeared that had been subsumed into nicknames in my day. Suddenly those who were named William were actually called William (not Bill). James and Richard also emerged. The one name that seems to have moved in the opposite direction is Charles, with the rise recently of Charlie as a new name.

The change to more informality has taken place more with girls’ names with the emergence of Judy as a registered name (not Judith), also Charlie (for Charlotte), Sam (for Samantha), Pat or Tricia (for Patricia), Alex (for Alexandra) and Jackie (for Jacqueline). Also, the trend continues for girls to take over boys’ names. While Sam used to be short for Samuel, it is now more likely to be Samantha (or just Sam). Note also Alex (Alexander/Alexandra), Bobby (Robert/Roberta), Tony/Toni, Jacky/Jacquie, and Charly/Charlie (Charlotte). The list is far too complex for me to give them all.

All of these lists of names do not include all the people I knew in my early life. They do not include all of my family. I have missed out many names used in the fifties and sixties, because there were too many generally acceptable names to list them all. There were lots of ordinary names – not ancient and revered, not quirky and modern, not associated with nickname, just ordinary names. (If you have not found your name, perhaps you were one of these.) To keep things relatively simple, I have not considered names that we knew were foreign (mostly French, Italian, German or Spanish), or names of Scottish, Welsh or Irish extraction.

Surnames

One other thing that has changed since the fifties is the use of surnames. We expected married women to take the name of their husband, and children to take the same name. It didn’t always work that way with film stars and celebrities but it was one of those generally accepted things that we did not question. Now many women who marry choose to keep their surname (which is their father’s name) rather than take the name of their new husband. Others adopt double-barrelled names or pick something new, and sometimes a different decision may be made for children. (This is, of course, blurred by the increasing number of couples who remain unmarried when they live together, with or without children.)

My intention was to combine three small topics into one post. When I started ‘Names,’ I thought maybe there would just be room for two. Now I have over 2000 words on just Names. It could be my longest post so far.

So the other topics may each get an expanded post …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

2 thoughts on “[30] ‘Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?’

  1. Pingback: [49] ‘… You can call me Al’ | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. Pingback: [50] Half a Century | Remembrance of Things Past

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