19 Feb 2024

The Name Game

Choosing a name for a baby is a fraught business. You want a name that you love, and which has positive associations, and you also want to ensure that the name enhances the child’s life and does not saddle them with expectations and assumptions that will become burdensome. Confronted with a tiny baby, you may well feel tempted to indulge in whimsy, choosing diminutive pet names that are only appropriate for a very young child.

In an era when individualism is highly valued, conventional names are being supplanted by innovative and creative alternatives.  It is understandable that parents want to choose names that will make their child stand out from the crowd; having an unforgettable name can be very advantageous.

But if parents want to go down this route, they will need to find a compromise between striking and memorable names (which may well enhance their child’s life) and talking-point names that are one-off inventions (eg Moon Unit, Onyx Solace etc), which will either be amended to something more banal or recognisable or force the child to go through a lifetime of explanations.

Think carefully about spelling. You might feel that it makes the name more distinctive if you use an unusual spelling but bear in mind that your child might find themselves repeatedly having to spell their name or correct misspellings of it, which they might find very frustrating.

Shortening Names

Parents also need to think about ways in which names will be shortened – it’s hard to avoid this if a child is given a very long, multisyllabic forename. Are they happy with the possible nicknames the given name might attract? Nefertiti, for example, is a beautiful name, but when abbreviated it might not be so pleasing.

Some parents choose to give their children very grand, multisyllabic names, which they then shorten to something much more recognisable, eg Archimedes (Archie), Persephone (Percy), Poppaea (Poppy) Olympia (Ol). The child may well grow up only using the shortened version of the name, but they have the longer form of their name on their birth certificates and can choose to use it in adult life.

The same principle applies for parents who choose to use a pet name (eg Lottie, Ellie, Billy, Matty) rather than the name from which it derives (Charlotte, Eleanor, William, Matthew). By entering the full name on the birth certificate, they will give their child the choice to revert to it later in life, even if they consistently use the pet name or nickname in all other instances (school, doctor, dentist etc). Only registering the abbreviated name at birth reduces the child’s choice later in life, when they may feel that their name is babyish and lacks gravitas.


Be cautious about giving children names that convey a certain message about them (Adonis, Belle, Hercules, Tinkerbell). It is very hard to tell whether a small baby is going to turn into a magnificent physical specimen, a great beauty, or a delicate sprite, so why lumber them with names that are laden with expectations? You may well be turning them into a laughingstock, or a person who always feels obliged to give a mini explanations about the inappropriateness of their name whenever they are introduced.

If you’re attracted by the ancient world, the Bible or mythology, a rich resource of exotic names, do think carefully about the origins of the name, about its meaning, and the attributes it conveys. For example:

Jezebel: the original ‘bad girl’ of the Bible, a symbol of female treachery
Salome: a Jewish princess who played her part in the murder of John the Baptist
Lucifer: a fallen angel
Herod: the King responsible for the massacre of the innocents
Nemesis: the ancient Greek goddess of retribution
Pluto: the Roman god of death and the underworld

While you may be ignorant of the associations some of these names carry, you shouldn’t assume that everyone else is. Names such as these carry a lot of cultural baggage and shouldn’t be used lightly.

Thinking About Surnames

Finally, parents need to experiment putting their chosen forename together with their surname: some syllable combinations don’t work, while some names elide with the surname (eg Michael Lyons, Elizabeth Thame, Robert Trevelyan), which can make them quite hard to enunciate.

Some forename-surname combinations rhyme or are assonant, which can be awkward (Emily Romilly, Marcus Aldous, Blythe Smythe, Audrey Audley).

Some forenames, when coupled with certain surnames, can produce a comic effect. It is wise to think of all the permutations and abbreviations of a forename to ensure that this does not happen:

Richard (Dick) Head
William (Bill) Bury
Sandra (Sandy) Banks
Azure Skye
Crimson Pole
Milton Keynes

Alliterative names (ie forename and surname starting with the same letter) can, if all the above pitfalls are avoided, be very striking (eg Sophie Somerset, Boris Bowden, Daniel Dacre).

Name Diplomacy

There are fashions when it comes to naming children. Certain names seem to capture the zeitgeist and will be widely adopted in the coming months. Popular names in 2023 included Ivy, Florence, George and Arthur.

You may therefore find yourself in an awkward situation, when a sibling or close friend, who is also expecting a child, chooses the same baby name. If someone announces they’re thinking of ‘your’ name, you must say something along the lines of “What a coincidence – we were thinking of exactly the same name!”  You should then openly discuss whether that will be a problem; you might find, during these discussions, that one of you changes to an alternative option. There is nothing to stop you both going for the same name, but it would be better if it was agreed between you beforehand and you have both anticipated any problems it might cause.

It’s a pleasing gesture to tell a friend or relative that you’re thinking of using their name. It is, after all, paying them a compliment and indicates that you have positive associations with the name.

In days gone by, it was much more common to draw on a very limited ‘pool’ of family names, which were handed down through the generations; choosing one of these names was seen as a respectful gesture towards family tradition.

It is a great pity when certain names disappear completely from usage, so if you can disinter any unusual names from your family history, which you like, it is a good idea to bring them back into use, even if it just as a middle name, which is the safest option. This may start the process of bringing the names back into fashion – twenty or thirty years ago, Victorian names like Mabel, Edna Albert and Alfred were completely out of fashion, but they have since seen a revival.

Unusual Names from our Database

At Debrett’s we are the curators of the Peerage & Baronetage database and are therefore recording names of new-born entrants throughout the year. This gives us an insight into some of the more original choices that have been made. So here is a selection of some of the more unusual names we have encountered recently:


Willow, Wilbur, Rocky, Sailor, Armistice, Mallard, Aeneas, Achille, Lorenzo, Elvis, Wood, Ziggy, Barnaby, Maximus, Huxley, Wolfe


Domino, Winter, Bluebell, Bunty, Dolly, Dakota, Theodora, Madlen, Echo, River, Cosima, Lola, Tallulah, India, Juniper, Iolanthe


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