As Shakespeare said: “What’s in a name?”

These thoughts were prompted by a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (May 13) on the contemporary popularity ratings of names given to children – “Christian names” as we would call them, rather than the secular preference for “Forenames”. According to this report, it seems that the name Michael has been the top baby boy’s for 43 out of the last 44 years; but now it has fallen from favor, having been awarded only 14,000 times last year.

Although she did not herself invent the terminology, Nancy Mitford was adept at classifying English social customs and mores as “U” (i.e upper-class, and elite) or, otherwise, as “Non-U”. I provide this information as the necessary key for understanding what follows.

One day, a little more than fifty years ago, some proud parents approached their priest and asked him to baptize their infant son. “What is his name?” asked the priest.

The parents replied: “We have named him George Keith Terence Alan Brian Bobby Francis Geoffrey Martin Peter Alex.”

Taken aback, the priest’s first reaction was to think that this might be a very “U” family. In the English way, it is “U” to have either no middle name/initial, or, as with the members of the Royal Family, to have a plurality of such names and initials. To have two middle initials is, perhaps, a compromise – but it is a slightly inconvenient one for those who live on the western side of the Atlantic: I have two middle initials, but American form blanks typically have no space for more than one. The poet T.S. Eliot had only one middle initial – but though his work and fame were achieved in England, he was American by birth. I am not sure where all this leaves the late President Harry S. Truman who, typically as an American, had just one middle initial – but, in his case, that “S” stood for no specific name.

And so we come back to the taken-aback priest. “Why,” he asked, “have you so named him?”

Their reply was, within its own terms, entirely reasonable: “Ah,” they said, “these are the names of our wonderful heroes, the brilliant English soccer squad that defeated Germany in the 1966 World Cup.”

England’s 1966 team, winning the World Cup by beating West Germany

Somehow, I think that, after all, this would not qualify as being “U”. Nevertheless, these parents could be understood and respected for their entirely reasonable intention to honor their heroes. And thus it ever was for Christian parents who name their children for the saints, the heroes of the Kingdom of Christ whose patronage can inspire the little ones and pray for them – rather more so than one could expect of a mere soccer star.

Of course, the choice of names for children follows contemporary culture; and it is instructive to look over parochial Baptism registers to see how, over the years, they reflect the passing fame of film stars, pop idols and athletes. So my heart leapt up, when I saw in that WSJ article that a certain Mr. Shackleford and his wife selected the name Aidan for their second child. St. Aidan of Lindesfarne! At last, at last, the name of a Christian hero.


But, alas, no: Mr Shackleford who, the paper reports, “runs a gambling consulting business” (the nature of which enterprise I cannot even begin to imagine) named the child for a character in the hit show “Sex and the City”. Unlikely though it may be that the great 7th century Apostle to Northumbria will be sufficiently known to this young man to be able to inspire him, we can, nonetheless, ask the saint to pray for his immortal soul.

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