Shortly after the birth of our third and final baby, I realised to my dismay that a key part of my life was over. I had spent the previous 37 years planning what I was going to call my children — and now I’d used up all my chances.
As a lover of words, I have always been obsessed with names. They seem to me a particularly potent and fascinating area of language. The idea of actually being able to bestow a name on another human being has always struck me as really exciting.
Therefore, if you had asked me at any point from my early childhood what I planned to call my children, I would have been able to answer immediately. (Though it should be said that, until I reached my teens, I would only ever consider girls’ names — the idea that I might ever have a boy being completely beyond the pale).
When it came to planning a family for real, I was so keen to discuss potential names with my husband, Anthony, that he instigated a rule: he wasn’t prepared to talk about it unless I was actually pregnant. This seemed unduly harsh — but he was unbending on the subject.
I am always amazed at the many people who don’t decide what to call their child until after it’s born — and, even then, not always straight away. People often say that they want to meet the baby first and decide what name will suit it. That does make sense to me — except that I’m far too impatient to wait that long to decide.
By the time, I was about halfway through each pregnancy, we had a boy’s and a girl’s name lined up. It was very much in Anthony’s interests that we reach a decision, because it meant that I would finally shut up till the next time.
A few weeks ago, the BBC published a searchable database of baby names. You can enter any name, and it will tell you how many babies it was given to last year. It’s a lot of fun to play with.
Obviously, the first thing I did — that anyone does — was to put in the names of myself and my family. It turns out only 21 babies were called Susan in 2016. I found it fascinating that a name that was part of the standard British canon a few decades ago (it was the most popular girls’ name of 1964) should have become almost obsolete.
It made me wonder whether names have always gone quickly in and out of vogue. Does the tendency go right back to biblical times? Perhaps, when Joseph’s first son was born, people said to each other: “He’s calling him Ephraim? You’ve got to be kidding. No one’s been called that since the 2100s.” Or maybe King David said to his wife: “Shall we call the new baby Solomon? It used to be really out of fashion, but I’ve heard it’s coming back in again.”
Although it is so common to name children from the Torah or other parts of the Tanach (for our boys, we chose the increasingly-popular “Isaac” and the more unusual “Boaz”), it seems to me that a disappointingly small selection of the available names are ever used.
Why is no one called Haggi, Bunni or Mushi, for example? Why do you never meet a Jeezer, a Pispah or a Madmannah? Where are Er and Ner, Uz and Buz, Gog and Magog? Surely these folk deserve to be remembered, too?
Often, of course, the reason is that the characters in question are either extremely minor — they might only be mentioned because they’re related to someone more important — or else morally questionable. Cain and Jezebel, for instance, are uncommon for good reason.
Some names have meanings you wouldn’t necessarily wish on your child. One of David’s wives was called Eglah, meaning “heifer”.
Other biblical figures, however, fulfil all the criteria for having people called after them: they are significant, heroic, and their actions have far-reaching effects down the generations. Yet they are ignored, because they don’t have decent names.
An example is Puah, one of the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s command to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Without her, Moses would not have survived. Another is Hoglah, one of the daughters of Zelophehad who campaigned for the rights of women to inherit property. She was a feminist several thousand years before her time. These two women deserve to be remembered, and yet the modern world is not highly populated with Puahs or Hoglahs.
My husband was particularly fond of Beeri the Hittite as a potential baby name, on the grounds that he sounded like he’d be a good person to have at a party. Luckily, the choice of names for our children wasn’t only up to him.