Last year Kylie Jenner, the youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner daughters, announced she and her partner, the rapper Travis Scott, had had a son, whom they had named Wolf Webster (Scott’s given surname). A month later, she said they were reconsidering because it “didn’t really seem like him”.
“We had to quickly sign the birth certificate,” the entrepreneur and model, 25, told USA Today, by way of explanation. “And then I knew the second I signed that I was probably gonna change his name.” There followed the best part of a year of silence on the subject until yesterday when Jenner announced, hours after wowing Paris Fashion Week with an ultra-realistic lion’s headdress, that the child was now called Aire, as in ‘what a lot of hot’, which makes Wolf sound like John.
The French have a term, “l’esprit d’escalier”, for ripostes that come to you a moment too late. Something similar can be true of naming babies. A report a few years ago found that one in five mothers reported “namer’s remorse,” where they regretted the name they’d given their children. In some cases parents spend months thinking of the perfect name for the unborn sprog, only to decide, like Jenner, that the child who emerges has the wrong vibe. Others panic in the delivery room, only to feel differently in the cold light of day. Sometimes Kenneth looks more like a Gareth. Interestingly the most regretted names were not unusual ones, but harmless ones like Charlotte, Amelia, James and Thomas. The lesson is clear: go big and go home.
Then there can be unforeseen nicknames. One woman called her son Tobias, only to overhear a midwife saying “Goodbye Toby”, which so horrified the mother that she changed it to William at once. When it comes to first names, you have to think of how they will look as initials, possible Spoonerisms, common shortenings, nicknames and relevant celebrities, as well as how they work with any middle names or surnames. As surnames go, my own, Cumming, focuses the mind. Adults will tend to be polite, but any weaknesses will be sussed out at once by other children, who are exacting name auditors.
All of these stresses mean the 42 days allotted after birth for registering a name can pass in the blink of an eye. It is a tiring enough time without trying to second-guess the playground bullies of a decade in the future. Any later than that risks a fine. Beyond that, you'll need to change a baby’s name by deed poll, which requires a witness and costs £42.44.
Nor is there any guarantee that the parents will agree. It’s natural that later in life, as divorce and remarriage and even death take their toll, names are sometimes amended to reflect the new familial. More surprising are the couples who can’t agree in the first place. One friend’s father changed the name of his twin daughters on the way to the registration, apparently having had a change of heart, without consulting his wife. There are several anecdotes of wives nipping in to change the names of their children without their partners knowing, potentially even to this day. As countless university reinventions will attest, there is no need for the words on the certificate to have any bearing on what you are called day-to-day.
In other cases, an apparently innocuous name is overtaken by events. There are legion stories of babies called Isis, from a love of Egyptian theology or – more likely – fond memories of Oxford’s student magazine, who were discreetly renamed as the Islamic State hit the headlines. My colleague Rosa Silverman named her daughter Alexa in April 2016, unaware that Amazon was about to put a spanner in the works. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of babies called Alexa in the UK halved. No, she does not have another child called Siri.
Our son, Caspar, was born on November 4. It wasn’t until afterwards that my sister asked if we had a back-up plan if he was born on Halloween, or if we would have been happy for people to think we were obsessed with The Friendly Ghost. Naturally, one feels for men named Harry Potter. Less easy to understand is the case of the man who renamed himself Harry Potter by deed poll to get a laugh at a Potter-themed party, with the longer-term consequence of being endlessly stopped at borders.
Jenner is not the only celebrity to have backtracked on a name. The comedian Amy Schumer said that she and her partner Chris Fischer originally called their son Gene Attell Fischer, in tribute to their friend, fellow comedian Dave Attell, before realising the implications. On her podcast, she said: “Did you guys know that Gene, our baby’s name, is officially changed? It’s now Gene David Fischer. It was Gene Attell Fischer, but we realised that we, by accident, named our son ‘Genital’.”
One commenter on Jenner’s update asked how she was pronouncing the new name. “AIR,” Jenner replied. Scott and she already have an older daughter, Stormi, who turns five on February 1. I hope they have another son. The best name is obvious. In fact, it has been inescapable in recent weeks. They have an Aire, finally, but they still need a Spaire.