24 Jan 2024

Life with an unusual name not for the faint-hearted

9:44 am on 24 January 2024

By Venetia Sherson

Newborn baby yawns

Photo: Tim Bish / Unsplash

There were no surprises in the 2023 list of most popular New Zealand baby names. Charlotte topped the bill for girls, Noah for boys. Both names have been in the top three choices for the past five years.

My name has missed the cut again. Also unsurprising. But, recently, it has become a talking point. In Saltburn, described by The Guardian as "the most divisive film of the year," the character Venetia (played by Alison Oliver) is a standout wacko in a house of screwballs. Sexy but damaged, she equally enthrals and repels viewers.

"Venetia is a masochist with an eating disorder," says her mother Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), warning Oliver (Barry Keoghan) against any possible liaison. He ignores her and a shocking sex scene follows, ensuring - at least among viewers - my name will never be forgotten.

Alison Oliver as Venetia in Saltburn

Alison Oliver as Venetia in Saltburn. Photo: Amazon Studios

Am I excited by this? Of course. I still get a lift when I see my name in lights. English novelist Georgette Heyer wrote a book titled Venetia, a bodice ripper about a "beautiful, capable and independently-minded young woman who lived next door to a charming rake." A friend bought me a copy.

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli published a book by the same name in 1837, reportedly written to help get him out of debt. It was a flop. In other mentions, a British warship, the HMS Venetia was sunk in 1940. There is an asteroid (No 487) with my name on it and an English girl named Venetia Burney (1918-2009) is reputed to have suggested the name Pluto for the dwarf planet discovered in 1930, when she was just 11 years old. There is also a smattering of Venetia's on Instagram and Facebook.

It is a fine balance choosing a child's name. Too normal and they'll be forgotten; too unusual and they're destined to forever be explaining how to spell it, or correcting mispronunciation.

Years ago, my husband passed on some feedback from a client about a story I had written. "Tell Valencia I enjoyed her piece in the New Zealand Herald," he repeated, poker-faced. I have been mistaken for other foreign cities. A letter was once addressed to Vienna Sherson. A former editor used to occasionally address me as "Venezuela" just to wind me up.

Venetia Sherson

Venetia Sherson is called everything from Vienna to Venezuela. Photo: Venetia Sherson

My mother said I was named after a battle in the Spanish Civil War, but I could find no evidence of that. She later changed the story, saying there may have been an actress on the London stage, where she herself once acted. But I think she may have confused me with my sister, named after the glamorous 1940s' film star Veronica Lake. A third sister is named Valerie.

"The first two 'V's' were coincidental", said Mum, who liked to bet on the horses. "When you came along, we thought we'd go for the trifecta." If I had been a boy, I would have been Vincent.

Like most people with unusual names, for most of my childhood I longed to be an Elizabeth or a Jane. Teachers mangled my name before they got the hang of it. One of my childhood classmates (named Tom) mocked me mercilessly. "How do you make a Venetia(n) blind?" he shrieked. "Poke her in the eye." Boom, boom. Today, in noisy cafes, I have grown used to a tentative barista yelling, "Ve-nett-ia?"

Faced with an uncommon name, some people also think they have the right to voice an opinion. "Oh, that's different," they say. "Where does that come from?" Then they forget and call me Vanessa.

But, while Venetia is uncommon, it is by no means remarkable these days. Ed Sheeran and Cherry Seaborn named their daughter Lyra Antarctica after visiting the frozen continent; Elon Musk and his partner Grimes came up with X Æ A-12 for one son and Exa Dark Sideræl Musk for their daughter (later changed to 'Y').

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY)  Ed Sheeran and Cherry Seaborn during The BRIT Awards 2022 at The O2 Arena on February 08, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by JMEnternational/Getty Images)

Ed Sheeran and Cherry Seaborn named their daughter Lyra Antarctica. Photo: JMEnternational/Getty Images

Other children are given spelled out numbers like Seven or have names of words spelled backwards such as Nevaeh (Heaven). Some parents deliberately - or inadvertently - spell names incorrectly. The British tabloid The Mirror quoted midwives who had witnessed some bloopers. One mother reportedly spelled Colin as C-O-L-O-N (aka the large bowel); another chose O-Shan, believing that was how Ocean was spelled.

Studies have shown unusually spelled, misspelled or non-traditional names can affect a child's destiny, including employment, social and economic outcomes. One of the first studies was conducted in 1948 when Harvard University looked at the life outcomes of 3300 recent graduates and found those with unusual names were more likely to have failed their studies or gone on to have negative psychological experiences. Other studies found men with uncommon names were more likely to drop out of school and be lonely later in life. In 2005, US researchers found names linked to lower socioeconomic groups, could lead to bias at school, which affected children's academic progress.

Elon Musk and Grimes at the Met Gala

Elon Musk and Grimes chose extremely unusual names for their children, X Æ A-12 for one son and Exa Dark Sideræl (later changed to Y). Photo: supplied

Nevertheless, since the late 19th century, parents have increasingly given their children less common names, suggesting increasing interest in individualism. In my day, David, John, Peter, Mary, Christine, and Elizabeth were common in a classroom. None appears on last year's Top 100 list.

Choosing a name can be a conundrum for parents, especially if their choices don't coincide. In the US, where every life event offers a marketing opportunity, baby-name consultants are popular. For parents who want to avoid pitfalls, a London research company offers a "name audit" service for parents. For around $2000, Today Translations will check out the meaning of names in 100 languages to avoid embarrassment for travellers.

For the most part, however, parents pore through baby-name books (more than 80 have been published in the past four years) or check databases such as nameberry.com. The Department of Internal Affairs/ Te Tari Taiwhenua, where names are registered, warns against some choices. It advises names will be rejected, including those that imply a child has an official title. 'Prince' was the most declined name in 2023 ('King' was the most declined for the previous 13 years). It also says to avoid numeric characters, swear words, symbols like backslash and names of more than 70 characters. A name dreamed up at midnight may not be suitable for a lifetime.

As for my name, I have grown to like it over time. Who knows? Saltburn has won multiple nominations for the Baftas next month, including outstanding British film. If it wins, Venetia may top next year's baby list.

Venetia Sherson is a Waikato journalist.