Charles Nevin: Oh for Peter's sake, Mr Doherty

Fiddling with your name is a sure sign of taking yourself too seriously

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Considerable mockery, I fear, will attend the decision by Pete Doherty, the mercurial boulevardier and talented musician, to re-style himself as Peter Doherty on the cover of his new album, Grace/Wastelands, out today. If there is still one taboo in British society, it is taking yourself too seriously, and fiddling about with your name is a top indicator of the inclination.

We are all used to the recipients of honours insisting on the new handle being applied at all times by all people – and I'm certainly not talking about you, Sir Ben Kingsley – but the move away from friendly diminutive to formal form of first name seems to up the obloquy even higher.

You will remember the move by the late visionary Mancunian music and media impresario, Tony Wilson, to Anthony H Wilson; and the wish of Andy Cole, that glowering prince of strikers, if not scorers, to henceforth be known as Andrew Cole.

You will also note that in neither of these cases did the change have a positive effect: Tony was much mocked (even if he seemed to enjoy it); and Andy received no more deference from fans or markers. He was, in any case, soon upstaged by poor Gazza, who, in a sad/splendid example of his unique style, decided to be known as G7, which was confusing for a time for economics correspondents. There have also been the artist formerly known as Prince, and the one variously known as Sean Combs, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, and Diddy, but not, so far as I know "."

Peter must be aware, though of some successes: Reg Dwight, Marion Morrison, Diana Fluck, and William Pratt, for example, fared rather better as Elton John, John Wayne, Diana Dors and Boris Karloff. Let us pass over the attempt by the Royal Mail to pass itself off as Consignia, and instead consider the triumphant moves by such as Jif household cleaner to Cif household cleaner.

Despite the flak, these people were on to something. Names are important. True, Shakespeare had Juliet doubt their importance in the matter of her Romeo, but we know what happened to them.

And first names are of especial significance. People react to them even before meeting their bearers, judging them by those they have known, and not always loved. Parents agonise over their choice. Children agonise over it, too. And small wonder, when you remember the challenging time laid on by his dad for the boy named Sue. (And by theirs for Warren Peace, Merry Christmas, Art Gallery and Moon Unit Zappa.)

Peter may have gone formal, but there is the opposite, often more successful, popular movement: one thinks of Tony Benn, Tony Blair and, of course, Dave Cameron. But if you are looking for something different, why not try initials. Very classy. T S Eliot, J K Rowling, JRR Tolkien, T J Hooker, P J Proby, A L Rowse, for example: alluring semi-anonymity, gravitas married to non-gender specificity.

I have, though, saved Peter's finest role model for last. And it's a very big one indeed: another inspirational communicator who at one time was also known by a short form of his first name. So would you have voted for Barry Obama?

Charles Nevin is the author of 'The Book of Jacks', a history of our most popular first name and its famous bearers, published by Mainstream at £9.99

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