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New book reveals the origins behind famous people's names

When unemployed single mother Joanne Rowling sold her first book about a child wizard called Harry Potter to publisher Bloomsbury it was worried that boys wouldn’t buy it if they thought it was written by a woman.

The Harry Potter author was persuaded to adopt the unisex styling of JK Rowling.

As a result she was persuaded to adopt the unisex styling of JK Rowling – the K in honour of her favourite grandmother Kathleen. Not that Rowling minded: “They could have called me Enid Snodgrass. I just wanted it published.”

● We’ll never know whether Barack Obama would have made it to the Oval Office if he had been called Barry Dunham but it could so easily have worked out that way. His mother Ann took her Kenyan husband’s surname when they married but had the opportunity to revert to her maiden name of Dunham after they divorced when their son was three.

Meanwhile the future president was known as Barry until as a young man at college he decided to insist on people calling him by his full name Barack.

● The names of flowers first became popular for girls in the late 19th century with Daisy, Poppy and Myrtle entering common usage. They have recently made something of a comeback with Lily one of the most popular girls’ names in Britain, helped by the celebrity of the likes of pop star Lily Allen and Downton Abbey actress Lily James.

● The descendants of slaves in the US often still bear the surnames of the slave owners their ancestors worked for. If a slave was called John, for example, and the slave owner’s family name was Hatcher then he might be called Hatcher’s John or John Hatcher.

Boxing great Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay but changed his “slave name” in the early 1960s after joining the black nationalist group Nation Of Islam. From then on he took grave exception to anyone who refused to recognise his new moniker. Black boxer Ernie Terrell made the mistake of referring to Ali by his birth name during the build-up to their world championship fight in 1967.

Ali went on to hand out a 15-round battering and at various points during the bout screamed in Terrell’s face: “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?”

● There is a long tradition of naming children after where they were born, hence the infamous case of a child registered in New Zealand under the name Number 16 Bus Shelter.

● An estimated one fifth of British parents spell their child’s name wrong on the birth certificate and perhaps the most famous example of this is film star Keira Knightley whose mother got the spelling wrong when she registered her daughter’s name.

As a result of this high-profile error, Keira rather than the more correct Kiera is now the more popular version by a factor of three to one.

Barack Obama during his young days

Would Barack Obama have made it to the Oval Office if he had been called Barry Dunham?

● In a bid to solve the problem of miss-spelt names many registration authorities have introduced a “cooling off” period during which parents can change their minds about a name or correct any errors in the spelling. After one new father had registered his son’s name at Leicester Town Hall, his wife called later in the day to say that her husband had got confused and could she alter the register.

The problem? He had given their new baby the same name as their older son.

● Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashian brood of reality TV stars, gave all five of her daughters from her two marriages names beginning with K as a way of uniting the family: Kourtney, Kimberley (best known as Kim), Khloe, Kendall and Kylie.

In this she is (almost certainly unknowingly) echoing the practice of Anglo Saxon rulers in England who used exactly the same technique to cement family ties at a time when surnames were yet to be introduced. King Merewalh of Mercia, for example, had six children whose names all began with the letter M. His sons were called Merchelm, Mildfryth and Merefin and his daughters, who were all made saints, were Mildburga, Mildgytha and Mildrith.

● Parents are advised to avoid unfortunate combinations when naming their children. If your surname is Key, for example, it might be an idea not to call your son Donald – cruel classmates are bound to spot the potential of “Don Key”.

Combinations of initials can also be significant. Better to call someone Ian Paul Grant (IPG) than Paul Ian Grant (PIG). Psychologists who studied death records in California found that men with initials that spelt out positive words such as ACE, JOY and VIP lived longer on average than those with negative initials such as DIE, MAD and ASS.

● If ever a man was born to the job it was Buzz Aldrin. The maiden name of the mother of the astronaut who became the second man to walk on the lunar surface was Marion Moon. Aldrin claims he didn’t tell NASA this because “someone would think I was trying to get favoured treatment”.

Incidentally he was given the first name Edwin at birth but when the younger of his older sisters pronounced the word “brother” as “buzzer” the family shortened it to Buzz and the name stuck. Aldrin formally took it as his legal name in 1988, 19 years after he became a global celebrity.

● A number of parents come up with names for their children by combining their first names in some way. The first name of Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron was formed by combining elements of Charles and Elizabeth, the names of her father and grandmother respectively.

Golfer Tiger Woods was originally christened Eldrick, a name chosen by his mother on the grounds that it started with the first letter of his father’s name Earl and ended with the K in her own name Kultida.

Buzz Aldrin

The maiden name of the mother of astronaut Buzz Aldrin was, ironically, Marion Moon

● The names of some celebrity children have highly personal significance. Frank Zappa and his wife named their son Dweezil after Mrs Zappa’s “funny-looking little toe”. Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban’s first daughter is called Sunday because it was the day of the week the parents always spent together.

● Around 60,000 Britons change their name by deed poll every year. Journalist Matthew Rudd once switched to Brad Pitt using an online service that took 10 minutes and cost £33. He later changed it back again but observed: “Now my wife can boast that she has spent the night with Brad Pitt.” On another occasion all 10 staff at one Manchester pub changed their name to Wayne Rooney.

● The recently crowned winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, was born Robert Zimmerman but changed his name after stumbling across some poems by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

● In days of yore titles such as Mr and Mrs denoted high social status rather than age or marital status. This explains why one of the daughters of 17th-century English poet John Milton is described on her tombstone as Mrs Kathern Milton – despite having been less than six months old when she died.


First published in The Express, 26th November 2016.

Hello, My Name Neil Burdess is released today.

Neil Burdess

Neil Burdess