Writing and art by Alex Stone

Dear John

Dear John – What happened to you, mate? Your name, I mean.

A generation ago, every second male baby was immediately, almost reflexively, named John. Now, John appears to have disappeared. He done a runner. Why? Dunno. Maybe it’s because the name signified mainstream normality. Maybe new parents now aspire to a real difference for their kids, and greater diversity in names. In the latest stats, John doesn’t figure in the top 100 names of babies born in New Zealand last year. There are no te reo Māori names in that top tier there either. No Hone.

But that proposition of mine about a parental hankering for the unusual doesn’t really hold. Jack hangs in durably at number four in terms of popularity, George at six, followed by William, James, and Charlie (not Charles) So some traditions in naming persist. Theodore and Oscar appear at 15 and 16, and Alexander (Yay! That’s me) at 24. That means 140 baby Alexanders added to our population last year. But no Johns.

Strangely – well to me anyway – Biblical names appear to be making a comeback – or at least, still going strong: 297 new Noahs in New Zild at number two on the list, Elijah at 18, Jacob and Benjamin at 27 and 29, and Joshua, Isaac and Samuel at 34, 36 and 37. Still no Johns.

A similar thing has happened in girls’ names, with one old favourite Sophie at number 6, but others like Alice at 81, and Jill and Mary off the list. The top five are Amelia (255 of them!), Charlotte, Isla, Olivia and Ruby.

All this begs the question: if a person’s name is meant to be a unique signifier, then what gives? Maybe the answer is, ‘A person’s name is not necessarily meant to be a unique signifier.’ Hence nicknames and middle names and surnames and online handles adding to the mix. Every experienced parent will know that the strongest competing desires of new parents are for their baby to be absolutely normal (in terms of health, and numbers of fingers and toes), and at the same time for the child to become really special and clever and unique.

Some cultures have the custom of changing a person’s name at various ages. Maybe this is an appropriate way to re-jig names to suit. Some children force this by way of distinct behaviour, which leads to nicknames, or by choosing to formally change their names. One teenager we knew went to the trouble of a deed poll to officially change her name from some flowering Victorian moniker (it was never to be mentioned again in her family), to something she though was more snappy and trendy. By the way, she’s changed it again, this time going way more cosmic, but this time only informally. As you do.

One of the basic precepts that comes with the science of evolution is the acceptance of both speciation (the development of new species) and extinction. There’s a strong correlation in the modelling of this, with the extinction of names. One of the things that has been discovered is the apparently contra-logical conclusion that, with increases in population, a country’s pool of surnames actually decreases, and become dominated by a popular few. It will take new traditions of surnaming with respect to marriage, to change this. Or special circumstances. I had a friend who had the splendid surname of Twentyman-Jones. He was to get the family inheritance, he was told, on condition that if he had only daughters, they would hold on to the family name. As far as I know, the surname is still alive in that country. Good on them.

But all this does nothing to help with our problem with John, or Jill or Mary. But then again, is it even a problem at all? We will call it our January holidays conundrum. You decide. And go and see if you can find a baby John, or Mary.