The name of the game

'It's in headlines that you meet the names that matter. Not Tom, Dick and Harry, but Osama and Yasser, Serena and Venus. That's fame'

Miles Kington
Tuesday 14 January 2003 01:00

Over the years, I have made a deep study of what people are called and have come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to become famous if you have an ordinary name.

Quentin Crisp became famous with an unusual name. So did Boris Karloff. But I venture to suggest that neither of them would have hit the headlines if he had stuck to his original surname. In the case of Boris Karloff, that was Pratt. In the case of Quentin Crisp, I think I am right in saying, it was also Pratt.

Nobody called Pratt has ever become famous. At least, not under the name of Pratt. Two people called Pratt have become famous under other names. There is a lesson here. I especially recommend the name Boris for would-be celebrities. It served Boris Karloff well and Boris Yeltsin well, but has served Boris Johnson even better. When you see "Boris" in a headline, there is only one person it can be. That's fame.

Let us put it another way. John and Bill are very common names. So are Smith and Jones. There are lots of people called Bill Smith, Bill Jones, John Smith and John Jones. There are far more people called by those names than people called Quentin Crisp or Boris Karloff, and by the law of averages there should be lots more famous people called John Smith, John Jones, Bill Smith and Bill Jones than famous people called Crisp and Karloff – but it is not the Johns and Bills and Smiths and Joneses who get in the headlines.

Indeed, if you are called John it is very hard to get into the headlines at all. John Major was Prime Minister of the UK for some time, but he was never referred to in the headlines as "John", only as "Major", a relatively unusual name. I would go so far as to say that it is impossible for anyone in this country called John Smith ever to become PM, a theory which is sadly still untested after the premature death of the post-Kinnock Labour Party leader.

If you do see the name "John" in a headline, unlikely though it is, the odds are that it doesn't refer to John Prescott or John Major or John Birt or anyone with the first name of John. It will more probably refer to someone whose surname is John ( such as Barry John or Elton John) because it is only through being a surname that "John" can attain any interest at all. If I see "James" in a headline, I assume it is the surname of Clive or PD, not the first name of Hewitt or Dyson – indeed, anyone called James these days who hopes for stardom will have already changed his name to the more sparky Jamie (Jamie Oliver, Jamie Theakston, etc).

All this is by way of prelude to my annual announcement of the top ten boys' and girls' names of 2002, based not on boring old births and registrations but on frequency of occurrence in headlines. It is in the headlines that you meet the names that matter, which are not Tom, Dick and Harry but Osama and Yasser, Serena and Venus. None of us has ever met anyone called Osama or Yasser, Serena or Venus, but we believe in them far more than we would in Tom, Dick or Harry. (Unless Harry is a prince, of course.)

For instance, who would you think was being talked about if you saw the name "Colin" in a headline? I think you would be baffled. The name Colin is common enough, but famous people called Colin are rare, and they are never referred to by that name. There is the golfer, Colin Montgomerie, but nobody calls him Colin. He is, it seems, known as Monty. There is Colin Powell, but he is usually called "Powell" in headlines. Besides, Colin Powell has taken the very sensible precaution of giving his ordinary name a funny pronunciation, "coal-in", at a stroke converting a common into an uncommon name.

He was not the first to do this. Another Powell, Anthony Powell, also changed the way his name was pronounced. Not the Anthony bit, but the Powell bit. He insisted that his surname should be pronounced something like "pole", which was ludicrous but effective. The only Powell before him to be famous was the maverick right-winger Enoch Powell, who had the great good fortune to be called Enoch, a name by which no other modern celebrity has been known. Whenever he was named in headlines, it was always as "Enoch", never as "Powell". It was a name to treasure.

That's enough prelude. Tomorrow I bring you the top ten boys' names of 2002, as computed from the media headlines

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