What's in a name? Humiliation, that's what
Thursday 20 March 1997
Three or four months back I wrote a piece about names which could be confused sexually - names like Evelyn, Robin and so on. This was prompted by my belief that the American poet Joyce Kilmer was a woman, which caused many a correspondent to beat me about the head with the news that he was a man. (One person confused me by writing in to say, "You'll be telling us next that Val Kilmer is a man!")
Nevertheless I still stick to the line I took then, that people who were given sexually ambiguous names could not complain if their gender was occasionally mistaken - indeed, there were other names which I could have mentioned in this connection. Pat is one. Pat is short for Patricia but it is also short for Patrick, so a Pat can be a man or a woman. I had a distant cousin once, a distinguished jazz pianist called Pat Smythe, and he suffered from the fact that there was an even more famous woman show jumper called Pat Smythe. What made it all more ironic was that because she was called Pat Smythe (rhyming with "writhe") he, too, was called Pat Smythe although his mother, I think, had always pronounced her surname "Smith", which is the really smart way of pronouncing Smythe. His mother, by the way, had the wonderfully rare name of Ysenda, which is a name that never could be mistaken for a man's.
Hilary is another name given to both men and women. Of the two Hilarys I have met in public life, Hilary Rubinstein is a distinguished literary agent and editor of the Good Hotel Guide, while Hilary Strong is the distinguished director of the Edinburgh Fringe. One is a man and one is a woman. The late Ruby Murray was a woman, while the ever-youthful jazz cornetist Ruby Braff is a man. (I would guess that, in his case, Ruby is short for the commonish Jewish name Reuben, as was the case with Rube Bloom.)
Shirley was another name I mentioned as being bisexual, but after I wrote the last article, Geoff Lofthouse wrote to me from Leeds to say this: "You omitted to mention the best-known (up here) Shirley of all, namely Shirley Crabtree from Halifax, former Rugby League player and all-in wrestler, known in the ring as 'Big Daddy'! His story is that he became a rugby player and wrestler in order to combat the jibes and insults he received as the result of his unusual name..."
This is no laughing matter. I received another letter from a man called Shirley - admittedly it was only his second name - which had caused him considerable embarrassment in his youth and which he had spent many years not admitting to, "as I was gazumped by Shirley Temple born a year or two later, so no schoolboy could possibly reveal a name like Shirley".
But most poignant of all is the letter from a man who had been given the name Kay. Nowadays Kay, if used at all, is thought to be female, in the wake of stars like Kay Kendall. But when he was christened in 1924, Kay was indubitably a male name. Hans Andersen's Kay and Gerda were boy and girl. The childhood companion of King Arthur was Prince Kay. "So I had a perfectly respectable and proper first name of Kay. But no sooner had I got it and become properly used to it than some woman whose proper first name was Kathleen or Catherine or some such, decided to play the piano for the BBC. The BBC - then an infant and knowing no better - allowed her to become known as 'Kay on the Keys'. So my name was stolen and lost for ever."
The letter goes on to relate how he suffered such humiliations as being put in the female wards of hospitals before giving in and changing his name to Martin. I felt for him. My father used to call me "Kay" too, though it was only short for Kington. It was almost as if he were apologising for giving me the name Kington, which is infallibly turned into the more common Kingston. Even the Radio Times gets it wrong. Look at today's Radio 2 listings and you will see me at 7 pm listed as "Miles Kingston..."!
A reader writes: Just a moment, just a moment! Have you engineered this entire article just to drag in the misspelling of your name by the Radio Times?
It's not just me. They spelt Kevin Kline as Kevin Kilne the other day...
Answer me! Is this whole article just to humiliate the Radio Times for calling you Kingston?
Well, at least I didn't mention the election...
This election-free zone will be back tomorrow.
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