Saturday, 24 November 2012

"A lamentable meagreness of taste"

Have you ever wished that some of your ancestors were, shall we say, more imaginative when it came to choosing names for their children? Even in the study of a family with an uncommon surname, such as Atcherley, it can be difficult to know which record relates to which person when so many of them were named Ann(e), Elizabeth, John, Mary, Richard, Roger, Sarah or Thomas.

If you too have come across 'repetitive forename syndrome' while attempting to assemble your own genealogical jigsaw puzzle, you might find consolation in the fact that this problem is one that has been complained about for well over 150 years. For your reading pleasure I repeat below, verbatim, a short article entitled Names, written by William and Robert Chambers and published in their Chambers' Edinburgh Journal on 17 October 1841 (No. 455, pages 308-9). Naturally, I add the disclaimer that the views expressed by authors are their own. I for one am very grateful to those people in the Atcherley family tree who gave their children more than one forename, and/or used a surname as a forename!

A lamentable meagreness of taste is displayed in this country in giving Christian names to children. The usual custom seems to consist in naming the infant after some friend or relative, no matter how offensive or prosaic the name may be. This is perhaps done by way of compliment, but, generally speaking, it is treated very lightly by the person supposed to be complimented, and the favour might as well be spared. Where the name is euphonious or well-sounding, there can be no harm in the practice, but where it is a harsh or too common appellation, a positive injury is inflicted on the child for life, all to satisfy a passing whim, or pay an imaginary compliment. It can be from no other cause than this that there is such a limited range of Christian names amongst us. We have Johns without end, and then in numerical proportion come James, William, George, Thomas, Robert, and two or three others, all which being repeated in nearly every family every new generation, there is the greatest difficulty in tracing descents for the sake of inheritance; and in those cases in which each male member of a family has several sons, all with precisely the same names, an utter confusion is introduced into the genealogy. We have thus, for example, known five cousins, all possessing the name John Thomson, and similar absurdities must be continually occurring within every other person's knowledge.

What we should propose being done in the matter of naming children is, for the parents to look about for a new and well-sounding name for their child, whether male or female, without any regard to the stupid old custom of calling infants after uncles, aunts, grandfathers, or grandmothers. Why not introduce more liberally into the common stock of Christian names some of the fine old Anglo-Saxon appellatives, such as Arthur, Athelston, Alfred, Swynfen, Albert, Edmund, Egbert, Ethelbert, Edgar, Edwin, Cedric; or for females—Adela, Adeline, Agatha, Amanda, Alice, Matilda, Eleanor, Constance, &c. The fund of Roman, French, and other names, might also be drawn upon, as Adrian, Adolphe, Hortense, &c.

On a former occasion, we showed the impropriety of giving children two Christian names, or of giving a surname for a Christian name. But it indicates a much greater meanness of taste to call any child by the name or titular appellative of any member of the royal family. We lately heard of a gentleman in the metropolis who had called his three sons, respectively, Kent, Cambridge, and Sussex, a thing no doubt done for the purpose of creating a sensation among strangers. "Sussex, my dear, will you come this way!" or "Cambridge, I'll trouble you to hand me that book," sounds well when uttered by an elegant mamma in a promiscuous company, and for the moment raises the notion that one of the royal family is present. Such are the mean motives which sometimes influence parents in the naming of their children.

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