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Sporting names to make the feathers fly

One of the reasons for Tim Henman's popularity at Wimbledon, quite apart from his tennis playing, may well be his name - at least, according to Brian Coote, professor of nomenclature at Milton Keynes University.

"It's a name that many people can identify with," he tells me, as we relax over a double espresso in the college refectory. "Oh, and congratulations by the way on spelling espresso correctly just then. I get so fed up with people calling it expresso, as if the name was something to do with its speed of production. It's called espresso because it is expressed or produced under pressure. It couldn't be called expresso, anyway, because there is no letter 'x' in Italian. Although you can never be too sure of these things, because we are always told that there is no letter 'k' in French, yet one of the French players in Euro 96 was called Kiko, which has no less than two of them! Well, I suppose when one thinks of all the names in French history that do begin with the letter 'k', like Kleber and Kellermann ... I'm sorry. Where were we?"

It is one of the features of Brian Coote's conversations that he gets so caught up in his train of thought that the train can take him miles from home within seconds of departure. To put it another way, he cannot stick to the point.

"Yes, Tim Henman. Odd name, Henman. But it means exactly what it says. Someone who looks after the hens. Way, way back in Tim Henman's ancestry is someone who actually did look after hens.

"Lots of people still have names based on an ancestor's job, and they belong to one of the four main groups of surnames, the group which is named after professions. Some of these names are extremely common - Smith, Carter, Porter, and so on. Most of them refer to quite old professions, so you don't get many surnames like Salesman and Rep, or Photographer, though of course you get older versions of those like Seller and Painter. The only names I have come across containing more modern jobs, curiously enough, were Indian names. Do you remember one Indian cricketer called Contractor? And another called Faroukh Engineer? Oddly modern names ... Incidentally, it's also odd how many politicians have these profession- based names. Apart from all the Clarkes and Fowlers and Archers, the leaders too have the same sort of name, John Smith and Thatcher and Major and now, of course, Jimmy Goldsmith ... I'm sorry. Where were we?"

A long way from the point, back to which I gradually steered him again.

"Yes, Henman. Oddly, the last two English players who did well at Wimbledon also had names based on jobs: Roger Taylor and Sue Barker. So all the people who have that kind of name will identify with Henman, but he will also get sympathetic vibrations from other people with names of animals in their surnames."

Are there any?

"Are there any?? My dear boy, they are all over the place! Even the leader of one of our major parties has an animal's name!"

Has he? Who? Let's think ... Not Major, not Blair, not Ashdown ... Trimble? Is that it? Is a trimble a kind of dog or something?

"Alex Salmond, of course, the leader of the Scottish National Party. The 'd' on the end is a bit odd, but that's a salmon all right. Then there's Sir Marcus Fox, and Lady Buck, and Douglas Hogg, and ... and ..."

Sensing that he was running out of examples, I dug into my mental showbiz database and came up with James Whale, and Donald Swann, and Ray Gosling.

"Ray Gosling! Very good! And Donald Duck, of course! No, hold on, you can't count him. He actually was a duck."

By the way, talking of Sue Barker, what was a barker? A fairground barker, that sort of thing?

"No, no, no. A barker was a kind of tanner, can't remember why now off- hand, and also a chap who stripped trees, for obvious reasons. Another politician with a job name, by the way, is Mellor."

Really? What did a mellor do?

"Gathered honey, of course. Incidentally, looking down the England football team I see a scattering of interesting professions there. Shearer - man who did the shearing. Seaman - a sailor. And Le Tissier must mean something vocational in French - hand me that French dictionary, dear boy ..."

But I had already made an excuse and left.