Why do teachers think that Darrens are trouble and Michaels are good as gold? Antony Daly investigates the prejudices associated with first names
Do you have a covert hatred of Darrens? Do you secretly think Kirstys are a lot worse than Annabels? Children are likely to be judged by their first names - and nearly all teachers admit to pet hates, according to a recent opinion poll.
What's more, there are names that appear time and again on teachers' least-liked lists. It seems that names fix children as good or bad as soon as they appear in a school register.
According to the teachers polled by The Sunday Times (August 3, 1997), Fiona, James, Edward, Alexander, Elizabeth, Gemma, Susan, Michael, William and Annabel are all names for good children. Rebecca, Jonathan, Hannah, Neil, Kylie, Max, Mark, Kirsty, Joanna and Jake are bad.
Worst of all, however, are Wayne, Darren, Tracey and Sharon. No less than 80 per cent of teachers associate these names with bad behaviour.
The point was made by a delegate at a teachers' conference earlier this year who announced: "Darrens, Deans and Damians are doomed to fail at school. " Or as the 19th-century novelist and politician, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, once said: "Some names stimulate and encourage the owner, others deject and paralyse him."
The reputation that goes with a name changes over time. A "good" name such as William has had many associations since it came over with the Conqueror. Until the middle of this century, it tended to confer solid Protestant Englishness - William Shakespeare and William of Orange. Then, for the Just William generation, it came to imply naughty but resourceful. In the Sixties and Seventies, William Burroughs gave it a hint of the disreputable. Today, it is again back in the news because of its attachment to Prince William and, a little less youthfully, William Hague and Bill Clinton. Its Irish form, Liam, is also a contender.
One recent piece of research, The Baby Name Personality Survey by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod (1977), concluded that any William will be assumed to be "distinguished, professional, conservative, intelligent, serious and very boring". What a burden to place on a child!
But a newer, less lived-in name may present even greater problems. Dean and Wayne were surnames until the early Sixties, when parents began creating living memorials to James Dean and John Wayne with their children's names. Damian was little known until the Seventies, when it was popularised by the film The Omen; it appears that many parents were seized by an urge to name their sons after the devil.
Once these names acquired negative associations, there were no broader historical or social references to balance them. Give a child a bad name . . .
Some name-prejudice is class-based. As one secondary school teacher puts it: "Look, you are not going to meet a posh Wayne or a working-class Sebastian. It's as simple as that. Whether that means you treat the child any differently is a matter of conjecture. I would say, honestly, that you probably do.
"The idea that teachers assume that children from poorer backgrounds will be worse behaved than those from middle and upper class backgrounds is anathema to most people, yet I think it is just as prevalent as it ever was - and names are a central part of how we first assess where a child fits in the social structure."
Race also plays a part. If a teacher's pet hate name is Winston or Leroy or Chantelle, the prejudice may be a racial one.
Another factor, which may have racial undertones, is sheer unfamiliarity. In France and Germany there is a state register of names. If your chosen name does not appear on it, your child will not be legally recognised. But in the UK parents are free to choose any name they like. This leads to invented names and names that reflect hopes and aspirations.
The popular habit among many immigrant families of making a name by taking part of both parents' first names and bolting them together often creates hybrids that brand a child as different: Sametta (from Samuel and Pauletta), Nerice, Raydon, Jonday all appear in one London college's register this year, but none appears in any dictionary of names.
Other new names are created by spelling traditional ones backwards: Senga or Adnil, for example. These may appeal to the parents as being original, they may indeed be quite beautiful, but they often lead teachers to make negative assumptions about the parents and about the all-important parental support that they will be looking for.
Worse still is illiteracy in the register. A Sherul or an Abagail is branded for their schooldays - and perhaps for life - as a product of ignorance.
And if a name seems comical, there will be the assumption that the child will be foolish. Surprised teachers who encounter children called King and Prince, Princess and Jewel, Precious and Pride may be more inclined to smile than to share the parents' high regard for their offspring.
Names are a barometer of changing political and social attitudes. Some teachers find it hard to take seriously their first Rainbow or Willow, Moon or River. Not to mention variations in personal taste. How many unfair assumptions will be made about young Elvises and Eltons or all those little Madonnas?
What hope is there, then, for a poor, unsuspecting Darren or Tracey about to enter the education system for the first time? In fact, their time has passed, and neither name appears in the current top 50.
Their associations will, presumably, fade with their popularity and the children will be free of the "dejection and paralysis" which Bulwer-Lytton ascribes to having the wrong name.
It is the names that are now coming into sudden popularity that teachers should watch for: Connor, Jade, Ben, Kelly, even the Biblical Rebecca and Daniel.
Even now, teachers may be forming the prejudices that will make these the names for "bad" children in a few years' time. Such associations are impossible to predict - as are the names that will suddenly be popular.
Will it be Kylie, Dannii, Fox, Chandler or - God forbid - Camilla that is the "bad" name of the future? Parents and teachers alike should be prepared: the Darren de nos jours is on his way.
TES2 november 14 1997
MOST POPULAR NAMES IN THE UK
1950 1975 1996
Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls
1 David Susan Stephen Claire Daniel Rebecca
2 John Linda Mark Sarah Thomas Amy
3 Peter Christine Paul Nicola Matthew Sophie
4 Michael Margaret Andrew Emma Joshua Charlotte
5 Alan Carol David Joanne Adam Laura
6 Robert Jennifer Richard Helen Luke Lauren
7 Stephen Janet Matthew Rachel Michael Jessica
8 Paul Patricia Daniel Lisa Christopher Hannah
9 Brian Barbara Christopher Rebecca Ryan Jade
10 Graham Ann Darren Karen Jack Emma
Source: Guinness Book of RecordsCollins First Names