Miles Kington: When Hilary met Stacey, a state of confusion ensued

I once met a married couple named Robin. He was called Robin. She was called Robin. It didn't last
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There was an announcement in the Radio Times last week of a Radio 3 programme on Warne Marsh. Warne Marsh was an American tenor saxophonist who was not very famous when he was alive and is less so now. The programme's presenter is Stacey Kent, a delightful American female singer who is making a big reputation for herself here. Not big enough, however. The Radio Times's billing read:

"Stacey Kent continues his celebration of the tenor saxophonist ..." Yes, alas - the Radio Times fact-checker (if there is one) had automatically assumed that Stacey was a masculine name and a male guy, and omitted to check his sex.

It's all too easy to do. The next day I was listening to Radio 4's Saturday Review, on which Tom Sutcliffe guides his guests through the week's arts with the skill of a cultured sheepdog. There has been a new feature in recent weeks in which one guest is allowed to nominate a cultural delight of their own, and singer Catherine Bott chose a recording of Noël Coward singing "Poor Little Rich Girl". The pianist, unusually, was not Coward himself but Carroll Gibbons, the bandleader from America who led the Savoy Orpheans, and Bott waxed lyrical over the blend of his playing and Coward's singing.

"The thing about her playing. ..." said Sutcliffe at one point, and there was a tiny moonlit glade of embarrassment as it was explained to Tom that Carroll was, in fact, not a girl but a chap.

Ah, but it is so easy to do. There are not many chaps called Carroll or Carol, and most of them were kings of Romania, so how was Tom to know? Carol is just a shortened form of Carolus, I suppose, the Latin form of Charles, so it's quite logical for a chap to call himself Carol. Or Carroll. Except that it's a girl's name, and a chap shouldn't.

But names tend to get nudged across the gender divide more and more these days. We all know Samanthas who are called "Sam" and Charlottes who become "Charlie". There are plenty of American film actresses with first names that are clearly meant to be men's names, such as Reese Witherspoon and Tatum O'Neal, and that other one, what's her name, tip of my tongue, Meredith or Brent or something, it'll come back to me. Cameron. Cameron Diaz. That's the one. For film actresses to call themselves Cameron and Reese is like going around in trousers all the time.

I once met a married couple called Robin. He was called Robin. She was called Robin. They were both called Robin. It was confusing for everyone - except for them, of course. When one Robin referred to Robin, or called out "Robin!", they always knew which one they were on about. The other one. I suppose it was a bit like that when Evelyn Waugh married Evelyn Gardner. For a while, that is. It didn't last. Maybe that was why ...

Yes, there are certain names which cross the gender border effortlessly. Evelyn. Hilary. (Hilary Benn. Funny name. Girl's first name. Boy's last name. Just joking, Hil) Pat ...

Ah, yes - the person I always felt sorriest for was a chap called Pat Smythe, a very, very good British jazz pianist. His first name was Patrick, but everyone called him Pat. Unfortunately, Pat Smythe was also the name of a famous show-jumper, a female, so a lot of people must have assumed that the jazz pianist was also female, and got a shock when they met a short slim Scotsman.

But that wasn't all. Because of the show-jumper, whose name was pronounced to rhyme with "blithe", everyone assumed he was pronounced the same. But he wasn't. The family name was pronounced "Smith". I know this, because I was a distant cousin of his on my Scottish side, and I knew his mother a bit, and used to go and visit her in her grand flat in Heriot Row, Edinburgh, whenever I was performing at the Festival. She pronounced her name "Smith", which was good enough for me. So Pat Smythe not only had his gender in doubt but his name mispronounced by the entire jazz world in which he worked.

Oh, well. At least he didn't marry a girl called Pat.

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