First published in MODERN ENGLISH TEACHER, 2002
What do parents do when they choose your name? I’m happy enough with ‘Peter’, and my sister’s happy enough with her name too. We’re fine as long as we’re not together. Then we have a problem. As soon as we’re introduced as “Wendy and Peter” someone ALWAYS says, ‘Oh, just like …” and I finish the sentence wearily, ‘Yes, just like Peter Pan.’
Names can be a burden. And the names used in ELT materials have always fascinated me, from the days when John Brown and Mary Brown had bizarre and scarily weird “conversations”:
A: Hello, I am John Brown. I am your husband.
B: Hello, John. I am Mary Brown. I am your wife. We are married.
John and Mary. Were they the most typical English names? Mary had been the most popular girls’ name in the 18th and 19th centuries in both Britain and the USA. But even when I started teaching full-time in 1971, Mary had fallen out of the Top Fifty given names in England, and both Marie and Maria were more frequent. By 1975 John was only 25th in the list for babies born that year, and 43rd twenty years later. Other textbook writers of the era followed primary readers for native speakers and assigned everyone single syllable names – Bob, Rob, Tom, Tim, Dan, Don, Ben, Nick, Dick, Rick, Bill, Will, Joe, Sam, Pam, Pat, Ann, Liz, Sue, Viv, Kate. These short names are still popular with book designers because they save space. You might save several line turn overs in a dialogue, and conversations look neater with names of equal length.
Tim How are you?
Anthony She’s fine.
Sam How Are You?
Tom She’s fine.
It also betrays its primary reader origins. However, it remains a way of cutting text that overruns. I’ve shortened several texts to fit a given space simply by changing the names.
When I started writing ELT materials, I solved the author’s perpetual dilemma of choosing names by having a copy of the Guinness Book of Names on the desk. This gives the Top 50 male and female names at ten year intervals for the UK, the USA and Australia, as well as the Top Ten names for various countries. I’d tick off names as I used them. So, if a character was born in 1971 in the USA, it might be Michelle and Kimberly for women, or Michael and David for men. Go to a 1993 birthdate (where you have ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ lists for the USA) and you might have Brandon and Brittany. Australians aged fifty would be Peter and Susan, while thirty year olds would genuinely be Scott and Kylie. Of course you suited the name to the character. You can get lists for births announced in “The Times” newspaper which differ considerably from the general register of births. Daughters of the nobility were unlikely to be called Sharon or Tracy. Alistair or Nigel were unlikely names for truck drivers.
The Top 50 girls’ names cover a smaller percentage of the female population than the Top 50 boys’ names cover of the male population. There are also fewer one syllable female names, partly because of the combined effect of ‘-a’ endings (Anna, Tricia, Laura, Lisa, Sarah, Rebecca, Emma, Gemma) and ‘-y’ endings (Patti, Cathy, Suzy, Lizzie, Amy, Katy, Tracy, Stacy, Lucy, Hayley, Kirsty, Sophie, Josie, Jodie). The male ‘-y’ names (Bobby, Johnny, Danny, Billy, Freddie) tend to be dropped by boys as they get older, with the notable exception of pop singers in the late 1950s and early 1960s … and professional footballers.
You can access frequency lists of family names too, and here you have to exercise discretion. A friend had serious trouble with a class when he assigned an African student to play ‘Mr Brown’ in a role play, which his classmates found hilarious. I’ve avoided the name ever since in spite of its frequency (#4 in the Top 100). When I repeated this story at a seminar I was told that one early 70s textbook had a meeting between Messrs Brown, Black, White and Green (presumably in a misguided attempt to use familiar colours as names), and this had also caused problems in multi-ethnic groups doing role-plays.
My daughter was named Chloe in 1980, and her younger brother is Joshua. When they were little, you couldn’t find mugs or key rings or nameplates with their names on. Chloe was so obscure that none of her teachers could ever spell it and her school reports include variations such as Cloey, Chole, Clhoe which worried me at the time about the general spelling ability of primary and middle school teachers in England. By 2000, Chloe and Joshua were right at the top of their respective lists. My daughter now complains that her name is too widespread, because every time she goes in a supermarket a mother is shouting at a toddler, ‘Chloe! Put that back on the shelf! No, Chloe!’ At least when she’s fifty she’ll have a name that’s characteristic of thirty five year olds.
A name racing up the popularity charts in 2002 is Archie. I found this odd at first. My memories go back to a British radio programme in the early 1950s called “Educating Archie” which starred a ventriloquist’s dummy called Archie Andrews. The absurdity of having a ventriloquist with a dummy ON RADIO was never remarked on at the time. The current Top 50 contains names that might not be familiar to non-native teachers, nor even to native speakers who have lived abroad for a few years. Try these from the 2001 list:
Callum (15), Ethan (21), Cameron (23), Connor (24), Kieran (34), Tyler (41), Kyle (42) or Reece (43) for boys.
Georgia (14), Bethany (17), Caitlin (21), Mia (25), Courtney (30), Erin (41) or Niamh (47) for girls.
(Update. Added on 1st January 2012)
Others in the 2011 list include Jenson (69), Jackson (75), and for girls Willow (77), Bella (71), Esme (72), Eliza (84). In 2011, Tia, Scarlett and Aimee dropped out of the Top 100 girls, while Christopher, Robert, Ellis and Brandon left the Top 100 for boys.
An American editor commented on one of my manuscripts which was being adapted into American English. She had never heard the name ‘Brittany’ and therefore assumed it was British. It was at that point the number one girls’ name for newborns in the USA and had been for several years. She clearly didn’t move in normal social circles, watch TV or listen to music.
But things have changed. Nowadays, the characters in text books are likely to have a far wider range of names from around the world. Partly, this is to indicate to students that English is a world language. Partly, it’s to please particular perceived markets for a book and partly it’s a laudable attempt to reflect a multi-ethnic society. I’ve found negative reactions to this in my travels. In country after country, teachers have complained that students don’t want names that are totally unfamiliar. It’s even worse if the students have no idea whether the names are male or female. The student request seems to be for broadly English names, or names from their own language. Teachers have pointed to various textbooks and said, ‘This was obviously designed for Turkey’ or ‘This book is really for Japan.’
Pronunciation is an issue. Teachers are embarrassed by names they can’t pronounce themselves. They also find it wasteful to have Japanese students saying Jesus, José and Julio in the Spanish manner, or for Arab students to have to say Françoise or Jean (male, French) with a French pronunciation. Most text books are careful to select near-phonetic unfamiliar names, though one was unable to resist mentioning Sinead O’Connor as a famous person.
Students like names they’ve heard of and recognise as names, especially at the lower levels. They don’t mind ‘famous’ non-English names which are easy to pronounce like Ali, or Maria, and female names with –a endings are usefully recognized by most speakers of European languages as ‘probably female’. I see no problem with a wide variety of names if the pronunciation can reasonably be guessed and is within the norms of English. So Petra, Malik, Keesha, Toshi might be unfamiliar to your students but you can easily guess how to say them. Teachers want names that are manifestly names. They don’t want to talk about them, or spend time on them, they just want recognition.
If a book is using real material, then it will have to use the real names. Apart from that many names are assigned for invented characters in textbooks. But read through this deliberately mixed-up selection from just a few current beginner level textbooks, all of which are designed for an international audience.
Ildiko, Seumus, Lah, Giacomo, Adesose, Ojumbala, Kibiri, Ameet, Thierry, Sinead, Mehmet, Andrija, Dilip, Illona, Pierre, László, Gheeta, René, Renate, Mahmoud, Lourdes, Phillipe, Per, Jan (male, Scandinavian), Beate, Diarmot, Lois, Rashid, Paulette, Yasmina, Jonas, Waris, Saleh, Dmitri, Sampath, Machiko, Jean-Pierre, Antoine, Sean, Ania, Tomako, Sergey, Julio, Keira
Are you confident of pronouncing every name on the list correctly? Do you know the gender of every one? As one teacher pointed out, having a class in Japan trying to talk about Consuela Guadalupé Echevarria from Guadalajara who’s visiting the ruins of Tenochlitan is irritating. Mexican teachers find the same problem with Hiroshi Watanabe flying from Fukoaka to Sapporo via Kobe. I agree that a very likely communication scenario for the student is using English to another non-native speaker, but you could never realistically expose them to a full range of names for different nationalities.