Molly, Milo, Esme, Alfie: you may think your child's name is rather cute and original. So how come the whole shop comes running when you call it out in Sainsbury's? Be afraid, says Joanna Briscoe. Your choice of name says more about you than you could ever, ever imagine
ACTRESSES Lisa Kudrow, Helen Baxendale, Jodie Foster and Uma Thurman are all currently pregnant. Many normal people are in the same tender condition, yet one and all are teetering on the verge of a potentially life-scarring situation for which no folic acid has yet been found. It's summed up by two words: Alice and Jack.

Among the first group, which includes microcelebrities, rock dinosaurs, and camera addicts of a general nature, Scout, Tiger Lily, Tallulah, Ireland and Betty Kitten, the manifestations of what we may call the "Moon-Unit tendency", are the most prominent pitfall; among the latter, life's proletariats, there is the Jack-and-Alice problem: the Ellas, Mollys, Lilys, Freddys, Alfies and Charlies, names proudly pronounced by parents who think they're delivering a frisson of originality when really such names are about as offbeat as an Alessi corkscrew or a picture of a thoughtful cherub. Saddling one's children with trendy names is not clever, not funny, and not to be recommended. But half the time we don't even know we're doing it.

A recent report from the States is naturally at hand to confirm this. "Embarrassing name and initials could lead you to an early grave," the Sun informed us this week, along with dodgy findings from said survey.

First names are for life, not just for Christmas, a stylistic choice that marks us forever, and is thus subject to the most hazardous fashion influences of a treacherously subliminal nature. Naming a child is like choosing a dress for eternal use, and being condemned to wear a puffball or a pirate outfit into the next century; it's like sporting a Teletubbies tattoo. There are pitfalls, readers.

So if you think you've found the perfect name for your baby, think again. Dangers, even social death, lurk just below the surface, in a morass of subconscious influence, categorisation both instant and subtle, a code as invisible yet potent as an airborne virus. What you call your child says much more about you than you could ever imagine.

Whence, precisely, did this rash of Bethanys appear? Who can explain the rogue appearance of Milo? Why, oh why, have a whole generation of Sainsburys shoppers named their sons Jack?

Let us take a chronological peep at the subject to show how disaster can so easily strike. When my friends and I were nine, we all wanted tomboy names; Sam so matily abbreviated, Samantha so excitingly spelled out on the dotted line; Charlie, Jackie, and Frankie. Teenage tastes fly in the opposite direction, granting a guaranteed visit to the deed poll office. My own preferences were Tiffany and Jade, topped only by Roxanne. Teen mothers tend to indulge in disasters of the Scarlett, Diesel, Kylie-Marie variety, depending on socio-economic circumstances. If you are a child bride, do check with your mother first.

Name choices used to be a matter of class, clearly categorised and immutable. Now names are interchangeable, minutely categorisable, and have the shelf life of a souffle, sliding up (within a century) and down (within an Islington primary-school year) the social scale. First, there's the generation of middle-class names chosen by parents who thought they were being just a bit trendy, but which are now in the official top ten list: the king and queen of middle-class groaning predictability, Jack and Alice, as well as George, Georgia, Ellie and that horrible cliche Ella. Whereas my school year boasted a hundred Sarahs and Kates, every Alice I now know under 12 refers to her namesakes with an initial; the Jacks have to use an additional epithet: "Fat Jack B nicked Ginger Jack B's Tomb Raider II," to give an example.

Within the broad sphere of pleased-with-oneself middle-class favourites, let us examine the case of Mockney nomenclature. A veritable flood of Alfies, Archies, Arthurs, Sids and Stanleys is upon us. Not one bricklayer, flat cap, pigeon or even lottery ticket among the lot of them. The entirely faux, two-bob-and-a-pint Cockney-name craze is a fashionable sickness. I know one victim whose kids are, tragically, named Jack, Molly and Archie. In the meantime, maids' names are currently finding favour among girls - Molly, Lily, Martha and Maud, not one of whom will ever, I guarantee you, carry a coal scuttle.

Traditional names of the William, Elizabeth and James variety are often the only recourse, the polar opposite of the painful, self-satisfied defiance that is Mockney, yet also vulnerable to hijack for fleeting trendiness; thus the respectable Eleanor suddenly reappears,but in its frightful Nineties diminutives, Ella (Jennifer Saunders has one) and Ellie (Imogen Stubbs), while William is regurgitated as Will (Mel Gibson).

A creaking biblical tone unconsciously flavours the choice of many a parent, with Noah (Debra Winger's son), the odd Ishmael, and the Bible- thumping subcategory of Rueben and Seth, useless to anyone outside Cold Comfort Farm.

Let us not forget the Sainsbury's name with velvet on it, where supermodel offspring and hippie daughter merge in Saffron, Jasper, Maia and Sky. Vampish names such as Ruby and Lola fall into this category, what we may call the "Portobello" name (the rock-chick end).

Crusty pretension is just as pretentious as pretentious pretension. My ex-brother-in-law wants to middle-name his son Crazyhorse after some Indian chief, or Dillinger after a criminal. Clearly he thinks he is being original, even whacky - Ian, I prevail upon you in print, I beg, entreat and point out to you in public, that this is pathetically predictable.

We are now obliged, readers, to turn to a matter of class. While Mungo, Merlin, Tarquin and Tristan are still, so to speak, safe, Isabella, Holly, Beth, Louis, and most other once tasteful names, are not. Liam, Callum, and the ubiquitous Alice, have already been appropriated for glottal-stopped pronunciation. Names, one finds, tend to go down via the footballer. Jessica and Amy, once the vaguely trendy choice of the middle classes, are now dandled upon many a northern sports star's knee for the benefit of Hello!

Augusta is still silly and posh, but Allegra, Atlanta and Aurora, once pretentious B1-style names, are skidding into C2 territory, in a kind of Hollywood-glamour category not a million miles from the trailer-trash delights of Cheyenne, Jade and Scarlett. And again we are seeing the love of the double-barrelled, ornately decorated weak solution of American southern: Hayley-Louise, Jo-Anne and Natalie-Jade. For boys, US-influenced, macho names that sound like places are in vogue: Chester, Frazer, Preston. No, no, no.

Finally, we have the parent who is aware of the whole phenomenon, and thus strains too hard for originality, for a name that won't be pilfered by centre forwards or be triplicated in the nursery. These people name their babies Esme, Cora, Hope and Rosa. I won't reveal my name choices here, because I don't want them nicked, and in any case, they tend to provoke delighted snorts of derision.

Granted, it is impossible to get it right, but do not charge blindly like fashion-victimised bulls, and remember, never, never, never name your child Jack. Trendy names initially ride on their shock factor, slide into the Guardian, then become at one with the footballer. Our predictions for millennial favourites include Ivy, Violet, Dorothy, Faith, Raymond, Rodney, Edith and Lolita.

So just how far around the corner are Brian and Janet?