What's the most unusual name you've come across recently? UQ graduate and Contact contributor Andrew Kidd Fraser spoke to language and linguistics expert Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex to learn more about the origins of names and how spelling has evolved over time.
My favourite 21st century name is Stylus, although Jaymz and Staysea aren’t far behind.
I used to have a casual job teaching in secondary schools, and my students included Charlie-Cherie, Aimee, Riya, Tylah, Areebah, Angeli, Savannah-Lee, Maddy-Sunn and Tahlia. In one school there were at least four Charlies – Charley, Charleigh, Charlee and Charlye.
So where did all the alternative spelling of naymez come from?
Like many things, it can be traced back to the rise of the internet and social media. Certainly, in the late 20th century there were some unusual names, but it was really only with the rise of new technology that they became more extreme.
Check out funeral notices. You’ll find that the dearly departed is called John or Mary; the children have names such as Andrew, Ian and Jane; the grandchildren also have similarly sober names; but the great-grandchildren have names like Otion, Aniken or Kalice.
UQ Emeritus Professor of Applied Language Studies Roly Sussex said that social media placed a premium on brevity, so many of the new names were shorter.
“But the notion of fixed spelling has also been diluted by the internet, which has fanned what was initially a phonetic spelling of names,” he said.
“And, because the internet is such a mass communicator, many people want to express their individuality in a distinctive way. As spelling norms went out the window, that led to a certain whimsical playfulness.”
Sussex points out that the notion of standard spelling is a comparatively modern one, and really only started after William Caxton built the first printing press in England in 1476. Before Caxton there were various regional dialects in England, most with different spelling.
Caxton himself explained the difference in his ‘egges story’, in which some regions spelt ‘egges’, while in other regions the round product of a chicken was known as an ‘eyren’.
Caxton realised he needed a standard language, as simple economics dictated that it was far cheaper to print the one book rather than print one in each different dialect.
He settled broadly on the London dialect and, for good measure, also set up his printing press in Westminster – the political and commercial centre of London, where he assumed his major audience would be.
But the printing press was only the start of a standard English language; regional dialects – such as the Yorkshire accent, with roots in Old English and influenced by Old Norse – continue to this day. The printing press, more or less, forced a standard form of English spelling, but it was not a quick process.
A hundred years after Caxton started standardising spelling, no less a person than William Shakespeare (1564–1616) spelt his name in at least six different ways.
In 1612, on three separate occasions, he signs himself as Willm Shackper, William Shakspear, and Wm Shakspea. While in his will in 1615, his signature shows him adopt another three spellings, where he is respectively William Shackspere, Wllm. Shakspere, and William Shakspear.
While the Bard made a massive contribution (to put it mildly) to the development of the English language, his contribution was not in spelling.
Many other languages beside English evolved less organically.
The French, characteristically, went about standardising their language in a more heavy-handed way, with the establishment of the French Academy by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. With that came a dictionary that Sussex says “laid down the law for French as a language in pronunciation, spelling and grammar”.
That became the model for the French language, even though – as in England – regional dialects still survive. But the good hommes and femmes of the Académie Française (to give the institution its French name) are still fighting the good fight. In 2008, it opposed the French Government’s proposal to give constitutional recognition and protection to regional languages such as Flemish and Basque, fearing that it would undermine the integrity of the French language.
But for the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, language flowed gently and easily like a river to the sea until the 20th century, where two World Wars gave the planet a good sobering up and cause to obey the rules. This was an era when Aussie children were named Jane, Sue, Bill and Tom.
But it all changed in the 1960s, when a reaction against the overwhelmingly bland, dull, grey mass of society brought with it a desire for greater individuality and a new language – “that would be an uncool way to get the bread, man”. But not spelling.
MooseRoots, a genealogy research site, found that the ’60s were still dominated by names such as Beth, Chris and Mike, but unusual names such as Rene and Kip were becoming more common. The ’60s also saw the rise of hippies, who rejected modern consumerist society, wanted to live closer to nature, and gave their children names such as Bliss, Jewel or Sunrise.
The names might have been unusual, but the spelling wasn’t.
Thus, traditional spelling remained for the rest of the 20th century. But around the turn of the century the internet went from being a niche university tool to a part of everyday life around the world, which changed everything.
The notion of mass and easy communication led to people expressing their individuality through different spelling when naming their children.
It’s pretty easy to do and can be lots of fun. Changing vowels – A, E, I, O,U and sometimes Y – can lead to a new spelling of a traditional name. Ian becomes Ean, for example.
Look at what you can do with Aiden, one of the more popular children’s names currently. Little Aiden could also be Aaden, Adan, Aden, Aidan, Aidyn, Aydan, Ayden, or Aydin.
Imagine if this principle of creative and phonetic spelling was applied to our politicians. Annastacia Palaszczuk could become Anastaysha Palashay. Ms Palashay is an alumnus of The University of Queensland, as is our state’s Treasurer, Cameron Dick, who could become Camrun Dyk.
I am well aware of the desire for some distinctiveness, as after some 35 years as a journalist with the byline of ‘Andrew Fraser’ I have recently become Andrew Kidd Fraser. The reason is simple – there are too many of us. Andrew Fraser is the Scottish John Smith.
It was confusing, to put it mildly, when Andrew Fraser was the Queensland Bureau Chief of The Australian (that’s me), while Andrew Fraser was the state’s Treasurer (that’s not me). Budget day, when the Treasurer brought down the budget and I reported on it at some length, left many people checking to make sure that the architect of the state’s budget wasn’t reporting it as well.
When I first unveiled the new byline, I got a lot of calls and texts from people asking if I was Andrew Kidd Fraser. One speculated that I was on some very late middle-aged post-post-post-modern binge, thinking that this ageing hack was trying to stay forever young by calling himself Kidd, even with a weird double-consonant 21st century spelling. But the truth is less colourful – Kidd is actually one of my middle names. I just chose it to become distinctive, and paying respect to my family, which is important.
In any event, if I really wanted to give myself a 21st century name, it’s not difficult. Just change the vowels. I’d instantly become Andru Frasa.
What's the most unusual name you've come across?
About the author
Andrew Kidd Fraser attended UQ from 1980–83. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and was active in campus life, not just as editor of Semper Floreat in 1982, but also in various clubs and societies.
After graduating, he worked as a journalist in Canberra for several years, including five years in the federal press gallery covering the Hawke-Keating Government, before returning to Queensland as a press secretary in the Goss and Beattie governments. He then returned to journalism at The Australian for 15 years, including six years as Queensland bureau chief.
He cannot escape UQ – both his sons went there, and he looks over the campus from his home at Highgate Hill, watching it grow.