What’s in a name?

For about a year my English language college has had a significant proportion of its students coming from Pakistan, and a significant proportion of those have the name ‘Muhammad’ (in various spellings), either as a first or second given name or as a surname. We’ve had about 12 over the last year, but only five or six at a time. Fortunately most of them either already go by another name (eg their other given name if Muhammad is one of their given names, or a given name if it is their surname) or agree to adopt one for the duration of the class. Even this does not always help: at one time we had Muhammad Umar (known as ‘Umar’) and Muhammad Umer (known as ‘Umer’), but at least they looked very different. The second most common name is Ali. We’ve got two Alis at the moment and have to point at one or the other when I say his name, which defeats the point of having a name. And one of them is, yes, Muhammad Ali (he plays cricket). (He is actually (first given name) Muhammed Ali.)

It’s not only the Pakisanis. In my diary of my time in Korea, I made an entry after the first week of classes. In one class I had a Yum and and Kan and in another a Yun and a Kam, (I noted that only one of those was female, but I simply can’t remember which, now), a Sang Ho (male) and a Sung Hwa (female) in the same class, Hyo Jin and You Jin (same class), two Jasons (same class), two Amys (different), Anna, Annie (same class) and Anne, Julia, Julie (same class) and another Julia, as well as Jolie (who took her nickname from …), June, Jin and Jasmine, Josh, Jack and Jacob. I’m not sure what it is about the letter ‘J’, either in Korean names or in nicknames. Later, I had So-eun and Eun-ju, who always sat together in that order, even though they didn’t previously know each other. One day I cheerfully (and accidentally) said ‘Good morning, Soju!’.

When I was at school, I was surrounded by Peters, Stephen/Stevens, Michaels, Marks and Andrews. Although this site shows that ‘David’ was the number 1 male name in Victoria that year and decade, I can’t remember any others at primary school and only one in year 7 at my first high school. At my second high school the highly influential music teacher was David. Later, when I moved to the big city to begin university, my first organist/choirmaster was David, as was the cathedral’s director of music when I joined there (he was also a lecturer at university, where one of the professors was also David). In fact, I’ve spent well over half the last 33 years singing in choirs directed by people named David (as well as playing the organ and/or directing choirs myself), sometimes in two choirs directed by the same David, and sometimes two choirs directed by two different Davids, one of which had the same surname as another choir director in the same city (and now there is a third choir director with the same surname, though the one I sang under has moved overseas and the first other one has retired). At one point the cathedral choir and parish had the dean, the director of music, three of the choirmen, one of the boys, the father of another boy and the husband of the virger* all named ‘David’.

Over the years I’d learned to not to answer in choir practice if anyone said ‘David’, because the chances would be that it was someone else being addressed, but now I have to get used to it again, because for the last 3 years I’ve been the only David in either choir I currently sing in. But the biggest conglomeration of Davids I’ve been in was while boarding as a university student at a theological seminary. At one point we had 13 Davids among the theological students living in the dorms, theological students living ‘out’, and university boarders. One day we tried to organise a whole table of nine in the dining hall. We managed to muster eight, then a young woman (Catherine, if I remember correctly) wandered in and sat down in the ninth seat …

* the spelling ‘verger’ is more common, but that particular virger adopted the alternative spelling, which is closer to the Latin ‘virga’.  (despite the reference to ‘occasionally … chastis[ing] unruly choristers’, I have never seen it used like that).


2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I sometimes get “annoyed” at my parents for giving me a common name like Rachel, but have to admit it could have been worse. While I’ve always known several other Rachels at any given time (and even a few Rachaels), I’ve never had another in my class, while Jessica has had to deal with other Jessicas in her class several times.

    I think this might have been different had I gone to a Christian school, though. A few years ago, volunteering at a Christian youth camp in January, my girls and I came to the conclusion that “Janelle has a sister called Sarah, and Sarah has a sister called Esther, and Esther has a sister called Hannah, and Hannah has a sister called Rachel” – Janelle, Sarah, Hannah and Esther were all in my group. It seems that in Christian groups, you will always find girls by the names of Rachel, Sarah, Hannah, and Esther, and although there’s a little more diversity in boys’ names, you’ll probably find an Adam and a Michael.

    For a while, in the homeschooling group, there were up to five Rachels at most of the gatherings – three of them parents, as well as myself and the younger sister of one of my friends.

    I found it interesting to note recently that both Rachel and Jessica, comfortably in the top 50 for some years now in Australia, are nowhere to be seen on English charts, but right up there on Scottish ones! I’ve known for some years that “Rachel” is pretty uncommon outside of Australia – for example, there’s no German equivalent of my name, and the French and Spanish equivalents are considered “unusual” names – and so didn’t expect to have a Gaelic equivalent. It turns out that there’s not one but two acceptable translations for my name into Gaelic – the literal transliteration used in the Bible, as well as the far more common “sounds-like equivalent” which I use. Likewise, “Jessica” is rarely translated into other languages, being “invented” quite recently, but Gaelic has a readily-available equivalent for it. “Ruth”, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to translation satisfactorily into any language, and when it does, comes out sounding like “root”…

    Another interesting things to note on Gaelic/Scottish names, aside from the surprising similarities between the Australian and Scottish name charts, is the prevalence of the name “Murdo” (Murchadh in Gaelic). I’d never encountered this as a name before, but apparently it’s quite common in Scotland. That came as a bit of a surprise after finding names in the course characters such as Lachlann and Aonghas, their translations both reasonably common in Australia but little-known elsewhere.


  2. There are many, many issues about names in families, especially between generations and/or in families with a strong Christian background. But these days a lot of biblical names (including some very rare ones) are very popular in the wider community.
    I had (or maybe still have) a book on names and people’s relationships to them, including those who love them and those who hate them.


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