Formerly known as ...

What's in a name? Quite a lot if you're a six-foot gunslinger christened Marion. John Wayne wasn't the first or last to opt for a change, writes Ann Treneman
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Sebastian Cooter was 10 years old when he realised his problem had a name and that name was none other than his own. "I really did not like the name Sebastian. I thought it was just horrible," he says. So one day he told his parents, teachers and friends that from then on he was to be called by his middle name of Thomas.

It worked and they did. "After a while they all got used to it. Now it's only a few members of my families - a couple of my aunties - who still call me that," says Thomas, now 20, of Queen's Park in London.

Where Sebastian went, many Thomases have followed. "There is no doubt that the trend for names at the moment is conservative with a small 'c'," says Helen Petrie, a name expert and psychology lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. "'There is a revival of old-fashioned names. The more American-sounding names and innovative ones don't seem to be catching on."

What did catch on was Thomas. For much of the Nineties it has been at or near the top of the name chart. (Last year it was number three, Sebastian did not make the top 50.) This week, the Office of Population, Censures and Surveys will announce the favourites for 1996. The list is usually a rearrangement of the previous one and so the top name is likely to come from 1995's crop of (in order) Jack, Daniel, Thomas, James, Joshua and Matthew for boys, or Jessica, Lauren, Rebecca, Sophie, Charlotte and Hannah for girls. Both The Times and the Daily Telegraph tot up their own birth columns: the former says James and Alice were 1996's favourites, the latter claims Emily and William still dominate.

But many born as an Emily will not die as one. No longer do we feel a name is for life, with Ms Petrie's research showing that 41 per cent of people have thought seriously about changing their first names and 22 per cent also want to alter their surnames (apart from a change on marriage). Last year 270 people changed their name by deed poll, up from 174 the year before, but many thousands more will have done the deed more informally.

Some will twiddle with a given name (wonder-walker Ffyona Campbell was once a Fiona) or adopt a middle or nickname. "Once someone called me Marni," said a woman otherwise known as Margaret, "and I just did not bother to correct them and soon all these people thought my name was Marni." People starting a job or getting divorced may pick another name to match a new life. Others leave it to fate: one woman put her finger down in the phone book and found it resting on Brown. That became her name.

More than half of us believe our name conveys a stereotype and dislike it accordingly; this is true for those named Alice as well as Amber. "You get name changes in both directions. People hate being called Howard and Margaret because they feel stereotyped with the common, boring names and wish they were called something more unusual," says Ms Petrie. "But then you get people with unusual names picking ordinary names because they want to blend in with the crowd."

Thus Zowie Bowie is now just plain Joey. And what about Maurice Micklewhite, Marion Morrison and David Kaminsky? Step forward Michael Caine, John Wayne and Danny Kaye. Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde seems much more familiar as a Dirk but some, like Dweezil Zappa, have stuck with it. "People say it's a terrible thing to do to a kid but it makes you find out who you are pretty quickly."

Many named Mellow or Sunshine would disagree. "You'll probably name your kids Sue and Joe," a friend once said to Chastity Bono. River Phoenix is a particularly strange case. Would his short life have been different if he was named Robert? Or, for that matter, if his surname had remained Bottom? "His parents had a dream and River was the focus of it," a family friend once said. "He was going to change the world." Instead, they all just kept changing their names: their surname became Phoenix; mum Arlyn became Heart; sister Rain was happier as a Rainbow; and brother Joaquin changed to Leaf at the age of four.

It seems some of us simply prefer distinctive names and will either grow into an unusual given name or adopt one as our own. What is a burden to a River can be a boon to an Elle. (Can you imagine Eleanor Gow as a supermodel? Neither could Miss Macpherson.) William Pratt would never have made as good a villain as Boris Karloff, Norma Jean Baker was no sex symbol and Vincent Furnier could never be Alice Cooper.

In fact Alice is a rarity in that men hardly ever adopt female names. A University of Sussex study found we all more or less agree on which names are the most masculine and feminine but that it is only women who react against this by adopting names meant for the opposite sex: "It is not surprising that among our subjects there were no boys named Sue although there were girls named George, Cecil and Jack." And still no Sebastians in sightn

Generation Gap returns next week

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