Grace Dent: What’s in a name?

"My name has lost its sparkle. It’s not my unique selling point any more"

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As a little girl in the 70s, I loathed being called Grace. It was an old biddies name. Tinged with notions of white perms and a walking sticks, which at aged six, I had neither. Grace. Like Gracie Fields. Like Grace Darling. I dreamed of a modern, chic-like Karen or, better still, Joanne. Like Joanne Catherall from the Human League. Like Joanne in my class who could walk into any gift shop on a school trip and find a pencil case with her name on it. But there were no gonks, no paperweights or no sticks of rocks with Grace on them. Poor me. Poor my strange name hell.

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A weird name gives you a touch of star quality – you’re always a little bit special – but it also leaves you slightly short of space. My short career as child vandal was cruelly thwarted once I realised daubing Grace on any wall or bus shelter could be swiftly traced back to me, three miles away, Harold Street, third door down, ask for her mam, also called Grace. A weird name feels like a bad joke told every time you leave the house, when all a kid wants is a sound, a grunt, a beat that lets them blend in. One that isn’t greeted with scrunched brows, titters or sympathetic head-tilt.

To my mind, all babies should be called either Anne or Steven. I’ll stretch to Stephen with a “ph” if you’re insisting on being fancy. After approximately two decades of watching my friends – many of whom are media types – reproduce, I am particularly fiercely opposed to calling babies names like Tiger, Mouse, Marmalade, Woodstock or Blanket. These are not names. More like any word that crossed the mother’s brain following sleep deprivation and too much pethidine.

Still, I am now expert on hiding my hysterics when I hear Dewdrop has arrived. Or little baby Daenerys, named in honour of that bunk-up after an episode of Game of Thrones. “How noble!?” I’ll smile. I might even do a thumbs up. Or follow up with a positive sounding, “Well she’s not going to be an area manager for B&Q with a name like that is she?!” 

Obviously what I want to say is, “No, little Daenerys is not going to work at all! Your kid will become a part-time juggler. Or she’ll do a medieval semantics degree that takes six years before taking up residence again in your back bedroom. You’d not be in this mess if you’d called her Vicky!” Kids should earn or be awarded silly nicknames like Pickle, Muppet or Twix by other kids. It’s a rite of passage. Having your parents stiff you with a nickname that’s actually your proper name is just plain cruel. Oddly enough, I’m rarely invited to give speeches at christenings.

Of course, these days Graces are ten a penny. It’s common amongst tiny tots. I hear it screamed in Starbucks or as school kids pass me in the street. Clintons cards stock Grace fridge magnets and people have to specify which Grace when telling a tale. My name has lost its sparkle. It’s not my unique selling point any more. I can’t help feeling short changed. I want to take this new generation of Graces to the side and tell them what past Graces endured.

I want to tell these little girls about the time I took my cycling proficiency test when I was eight and the examiner was so confused by my name I have a pass certificate that says “Congratulations Ray Dent”.

I want to tell them about that time in the 1980s when being called Grace was so untenable for a chic modern teen destined to marry one of Spandau Ballet such as myself that I told everyone – teachers, parents, friends – to call me Georgina.

They refused. I want to tell them how lucky they are to be called Grace – boring, reliable – when they could be called Gaga, Tweetie or Pink. Obviously they’d think I was potty, but I’d take that with good grace. 

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Grace Dent presents State of Grace on Mondays at 11:00am on Radio 4.