Playing the name game
Wacky baby names are no longer just for celebrities, with Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii popping up last week in Taranaki. As Kate Monahan discovers, creative and strangely spelt names are popular in Hamilton too. But what is the impact on kids?
By KATE MONAHAN - Waikato Times | Saturday, 02 August 2008

IAIN McGREGOR/Waikato Times

COOL SCHOOL: At Hamilton East School having an unusual name is normal. From back, left to right, Xstacy Pompey, Zinnia Miru, Xjamyian Lee, Raven Bax, Xjaneyien Lee, Charlie Ray-Star Wilson, Xakiryion Lee, Ocean-Gaia, Nicacia Kara.

You'd think Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii would stand out from other kids.

Last week, a New Plymouth Family Court judge branded her parents as child abusers for the name they gave their nine-year-old daughter.

Over at Hamilton East School, the colourful moniker would have barely raised an eyebrow among students and teachers. In fact, Talula DTHFH would probably feel right at home.

"Even the standard names usually have a twist," says deputy principal Linda Woolhouse. "There are 10 different ways to spell Crystal. We also have a Konner and a Konnah."

The school has had past pupils called Redemption, Shakira and Nzgilaina. Woolhouse knows of kids at another school called Shark and Orca.

Among the school roll of about 300, Muhammad and Abdullah are the most popular names. There is only one Joshua one of the top three boys names in the country and it was a novelty to get a William (in the top five) enrolling.

Instead, students have such original and beautiful names as Zinnia, Ocean, Charlie Ray-Star, Xstacy, Nicacia, Raven, Xjamyian, Xjaneyien and Xakiryion.

These kids, aged between five and 10, don't think their names are wacky and weird.

Raven Bax, seven, says his name is "cool" and with his dark hair, likes being named after a big black bird, demonstrating by flapping his arms around the room. He also loves his middle name, Te Kauri, strong and proud like a kauri tree.

"I like my name," says Zinnia Miru, nine. "I'm named after a flower. It is yellow, and can be pink and kind of blue." She admits Zinnia can be hard for others to pronounce and spell. "I tell them how to spell and to talk and to write it."

There also seem to be a plethora of names beginning with X.

Xstacy (pronounced ecstasy) Pompey, 10, likes her name because it is "interesting."

The bevy of creative names means students at the school tend to be open-minded and accepting of others, says Woolhouse. "Kids don't get teased because there are children from all over the world here. It is part of the tone of the school, we don't put up with teasing."

Teachers are accustomed to never presuming the spelling or pronunciation of a name. "Everyone works very hard to pronounce things correctly," says Woolhouse. "We will ask new students how to say it and spell it. I get tongue-tied all the time."

Woolhouse, who has been teaching since the 1980s, says there are clear trends with names.

"I've seen the Dallas and Dynasty era, and lived through the Beverly Hill 90210 and Melrose Place names. You see what is trendy in how parents are naming their kids."

She has worked at schools in Hamilton and Christchurch with a more conservative population, reflected in more mainstream and traditional names such as Joshua and Emily.

Office administer Rochelle Owens says her daughter, Savannah, eight, feels her name is a little dull. "She said, `Mum, why didn't you call me something more interesting?' "

Woolhouse says if Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii came to Hamilton East School, she would be fully embraced. "We would probably just call her Talula."

Among the more unusual names at Hamilton East School are the Lee children, who all have names starting with X; Xjamyian (pronounced jar-me-in), 10, Xjaneyien (jar-nay-in), eight, and Xakiryion (za-kai-rin), six.

Their mother, Jessica Haussmann, made them up because she liked the sound of the letters together.

"I always liked X," says Haussmann, a Telecom call centre worker. "It just developed when we were naming our first son, and looking through the baby books. I made up the name Xaryion (pronounced za-ryan) from a collection of syllables I liked."

Haussmann and partner Adrian Lee, a welder, went on to have the other three children, all with x-factor names. The younger three children attend Hamilton East School, while Xaryion has gone on to intermediate. "The kids get a bit sick of spelling their names out to everyone," Haussmann admits. "If there is an adult standing up there, stuttering over a kid's name, you can guarantee it's one of mine. If I call to make an appointment at the medical centre, when we walk in, they look surprised. I think they expect a Chinese family."

However she likes the idea of her children standing out. "It's part of the appeal," she says. "If the kids want to change to a more mundane name later on, it's okay."

NEW ZEALAND'S Births, Deaths, and Marriages Registration Act 1995 goes some way to protect innocent babes from odd and offensive names.

Registrar-general Brian Clarke can reject a name or combination of names if, "in the registrar-general's opinion, it is undesirable in the public interest for the person to bear it".

The criteria are three-fold. Could it cause offence to a reasonable person? Is it unreasonably long? (100 characters is usually considered sufficient). Does it include or resemble an official title or rank? (So no little Lords, Barons or Princes, thanks very much).

Many of the quirky names mentioned in previous stories have not been approved by his office, including Fish and Chips, Masport and Mower, Yeah Detroit, Stallion, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy and Sex Fruit.

However, in the US, the authors of a new book, Bad Baby Names, have found some doozies. Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback scoured a century's worth of US census reports to find some strange names, the worst including Wanna Funk, Lotta Bacon, Cyclops Walthour, Cancer Grindstaff, Young Boozer and Dracula Taylor (see sidebar).

More humorous examples (say them out loud) include Fanny Pack, Fanny Whiffer, Post Office, Warren Peace, Rubella Graves, Nice Carr, and Hell Hellickson, Hugh Jass, Al Caholic, Anita Bath, Amanda Hugginkiss, and Maya Buttreeks.

"I do think parents need to choose names carefully," says Te Aroha-based naming celebrant Wanda Brittain. "I think people want to make a statement when they name their baby. But a name can scar for life. Think of that Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue."

Brittain has been a celebrant for about 13 years, doing weddings, funerals, and naming ceremonies.

A non-religious service, often held on a child's first birthday, naming ceremonies are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to baptisms or christenings.

"Since time began, names have identified the child," says Brittain.

"In Roman times, there was only a choice of about 18 names to give to children, and now we have a ridiculous amount."

Red Indians gave their children very particular names when they were born, based on the cycle of the moon or seasons or a totem.

"Names were more powerful in ancient times, connoting the spirit of an eagle or cheetah. Today people have so much choice."

Celebrities have opened up possibilities, contributing such gems as Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter), Suri (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' daughter), Shiloh (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's daughter), Coco (Courtney Cox's daughter), Poppy Honey and Daisy Boo (chef Jamie Oliver's daughters), and Fifi Trixibelle and Peaches Honeyblossom (Bob Geldof and late Paula Yates' daughters).

A name can be a label, and an identifier.

It can tie you to your ancestors, with names honouring forebears. It can also identify your generation, and the era of celebrities or iconic figures you were born into.

For most of us, our given names have a meaning. Ask anyone, and there is usually a story behind their name.

Brittain presided over the naming ceremony for a baby girl called Pieta. "Her parents had gone to Rome on their OE, and stood in front of (Michelangelo's sculpture), and thought it was so beautiful."

Other memorable baby names for Brittain include Kowhai, India May and Spring Dawn.

Some of her clients pore over baby book websites on the internet, or look to nature for inspiration. "There is a big eco-trend, and if parents call their child after a tree or shrub or flower, they can plant that during the naming ceremony. There are quite a few (babies) called Lily and Rose."

There is also a trend back to old-fashioned names, such as Victoria and George.

Family ties can be a major influence in naming newborns. "Often middle names, or first names, are chosen because of a family connection," says Brittain. "Especially if someone close has died. The name is given to honour that person."

In Scottish tradition, there is a structured naming pattern for sons and daughters. The first son takes the paternal grandfather's name and the second son takes the maternal grandfather's name, and so on.

However, our increasingly diverse society means there are more options than ever before. "In the old days, everyone went to church and chose very appropriate names," says Brittain. "Now there is more freedom of choice." Brittain and her late husband Chris wanted to give their four children short first names, which couldn't be turned into nicknames; Mark, Grant, Leah and Kent.

However, Brittain indulged a little when it came to middle names. "I can't say the boys loved their middle names. I loved the name Julian from The Famous Five, so Mark's middle name was Julian. He didn't like it though because of the gay overtones. There is a whole connotation to some old names now."

Gaye, Dick, Fanny and other retro names, innocent and lovely in their time, would be unlikely to be given to a child born in 2008.

Initials are also something to consider. Will Catherine or Rachel Anne Thomas become a CAT or RAT? "Kids can be terrible bullies," says Brittain.

Naming is a serious business, although changes can be made. "Once a name is registered at birth, it's your legal name, your name for life and written on your gravestone when you die", says Brittain. "Unless you change it by deed poll."

Changing your name requires a bit of paperwork with the Internal Affairs Department, including signed and witnessed statements, and a fee of up to $125.

Waikato University sociologist Dr David Swain says your given name can have psychological and social impacts.

And it's no wonder that Johnny Cash's boy named Sue had aggression problems growing up.

"There has been some research done into unique names and their consequence," says Swain. "In one US study, boys who were given gender aligned names, which could be recognised as girls' names (such as Alexis, Courtney and Kelly), were significantly more likely at intermediate and secondary levels to misbehave."

Another US study found an African-American sounding name could limit job prospects.

The study, Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?, found job applicants with white-sounding names were 50 per cent more likely to get called for an interview after sending a resume than applicants with African-American-sounding names.

Swain says Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark, have stricter laws on names than New Zealand. "There is an approved list of first names and rules about the kind of first names you can't give," says Swain. "Compared with other countries, we are pretty relaxed about names in New Zealand."

But children with names with negative connotations baby Hitlers, Cancers, Devils and Young Boozers could suffer issues with identity as they grow up.

"According to labelling theory, names or labels attached to people have a great influence," says Swain. "If you label a child a low achiever then it negatively impacts their performance in the classroom. If you apply that labelling theory to names, then it could influence their lives and interactions."

Brittain is also unimpressed by parents in the US calling their kids Cancer, Dracula and Young Boozer.

"It marks you. If you go for a job, could you manage? People have different senses of humour, and there is personal choice, but how could you go through life with the name Young Boozer? I think people underestimate the strength and power of names. Those parents must have been drunk.

"They say what's in a name? Well, a lot is in a name."