Philip Hensher: Be bold - don't settle for a name like Chloe or Thomas

'It's a perfectly nice name, but it's hard to imagine a femme fatale or nuclear physicist called Chloe'
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The Independent Online

Before settling on a name for the new addition to your household, it's as well to take a mental leap 50 years into the future and bestow a professorship or knighthood on the ankle-biter.

Some names can carry off eminence without any problem; others require more of an effort. Timothy, which seemed like such a sweet name for a dear little baby in 1960, is not really the sort of name for the regius professor, and no doubt in 50 years, there will be a Dame Phoebe or a Sir Ethan wishing their parents had had more sense.

The annual list of popular names for babies makes fascinating reading, demonstrating as it does how quickly fashions change in these things. Many names that one thinks of as common have become quite rare – Richard, Simon (everyone in my class was called Simon), Jane, Catherine and even John. The most popular names for some years have been Jack and Chloe, which I think rather fall at the professorship test; I mean, Chloe is perfectly nice, but it is quite hard to imagine either a femme fatale or a nuclear physicist called Chloe. It has a faint tang of homemaking and old lace about it.

Most of the rest are remarkable for being made up of what I think of as distinctly old-fashioned servants' names – Emily, Charlotte, Olivia, Thomas and so on. They are not exactly aspirational, but betray a sort of longing for intense respectability.

There is nothing really wrong with that, and indeed I'd like to see the revival of plenty more splendid Victorian and Edwardian names: Constance, Queenie, Gertrude or (not much hope of this one, despite Catullus's vote) Lesbia. The nearest thing to the exotic in the list is that constant element, the Celtic, with such imports as Caitlin, Liam, Callum and Ethan. Their parents have probably not noticed that Irish names applied to non-Irish children always become extremely vulgar very quickly – Kevin, Keith, Siobhain, Deirdre, Brian and so on.

The odd thing one's noticed recently is that the old habit of using family names and sticking to your cultural background has more or less disappeared. If Muslims and families of Indian descent do generally stick to traditional names – it is nice to see Mohammed on the list – other families and cultures treat the act of naming a child as a sort of cultural shopping expedition. Jackie Mason has an amusing routine about a Jewish family that calls its newborn daughter Tiffany Schwartz, but that is a very common phenomenon across Europe now.

The French and Italian working classes are always getting their children's names from American soap operas, and a startling number of Parisian or Roman teenagers are called Patrick, Kevin or even Sue-Ellen. Conversely, in the old days in East Germany, families would often make up for their inability to travel by giving their children exotic foreign names, and if you ever meet a young German called something like Luigi Kaiser or Francesca Schmidt, you may safely assume that he or she was born in the DDR.

Personally, I would like to see a revival of that charming American habit of naming children after great classic writers, such as Homer and Virgil, and, indeed, an updating of it. Not being very likely to have any children, I called my pet greyhound Conrad, after my favourite novelist, and it would be agreeable to meet children called Thackeray, Milton, Tolstoy or, what used to be an occasional name, Haydn. I suppose that you would raise an eyebrow on being introduced to someone called Proust Hopkinson, but you'd soon get used to it.

The thing that the list of popular names doesn't display are the really extraordinary rarities and, indeed, the habit, which seems to be on the increase, of inventing names. Some of these coinages attain a kind of hideous popularity – Jade and Willow both registered this year, alas – but there are so many nonce-names that you start to wonder whether any name would get your child into trouble in the playground any more.

It is all getting to be like Brazil, where people cheerfully call their children Baden-Powell or Trousers, and nobody bats an eyelid.

Personally, if I had a daughter, I would be rather tempted by one of Wagner's names, which are magnificent – Dame Ortlinde Hensher, think of that – but plenty of people seem to give up altogether and just concoct something entirely random.

This, too, seems to be something of an American habit; certainly the patient viewer of an American chat show will quickly collect a dozen names that no one has ever had before in the entire history of the world. My favourite example of this is the singer Barry White, who called his daughter Shahrah; it sounds plausibly exotic, but clearly nobody around him mentioned that it is Persian not just for "the King's Road" but, more vulgarly, for the male rectum. Poor woman.

Still, there is something more dashing and admirable about that than just settling dozily, like half the country, for Chloe.