Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley may have lost the first two Republican primaries to a rampant Donald Trump, but at least she’ll be buoyed to know she has my full support. Admittedly, my backing is tenuous: I just love the strangely underreported story of how her husband got his name.
On paper, Bill Haley wasn’t a quintessential pushover – he was a businessman and commissioned officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard. Yet when he first met his future wife, then Nikki Randhawa, he was told straight off the bat that his name wasn’t right. “You just don’t look like a Bill,” she said, as recounted in her 2012 autobiography Can’t Is Not an Option. She asked what his middle name was, he replied “Michael”: “From that point on, I started calling him Michael, and all my friends did the same,” she wrote. “Before we know it, he was universally known as Michael … He looks like a Michael.”
I love this story, from the brutal efficiency with which Haley remoulds her imminent beau, to the remarkably fluid way he goes along with her desire. I also love it because it speaks to a rarely discussed aspect of life: the feeling that certain people’s names don’t quite fit them. Try doing a reverse Haley for example on some famous Michaels and you get F1 legend Bill Schumacher or British actor Bill Fassbender. They don’t feel right, do they? Similarly, if Keir Starmer’s wife had the same craving for her man’s middle name, our likely next prime minister would be Rodney Starmer.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Rodney an unlikely name for a PM but popular culture undoubtedly plays a huge role here. The most well-known, totemic uber-Rodney in the UK is still Del Boy’s gangly brother from Only Fools and Horses (as played by Nicholas Lyndhurst): a slow, unconfident character, guaranteed to be called a “plonker” or “dipstick” every seven minutes. Popular culture can malign a perfectly innocent name, enough for it to not ultimately feel right: look to the dearth of Garys post-Glitter, or the probable extinction of human Alexas in the wake of Amazon’s smart speaker.
What’s more complex is when we get a personal and very subjective ick from certain names. Don’t ask me why but I’d shudder at the thought of dating a Barney. I’ve always been a bit dubious of anyone called Maude, while Christophers quite honestly chill me to the bone. It’s easy to think that these prejudices – let’s call them what they are – are just about personal experiences or negative connotations. But naming trends confirm that we collectively and generationally have the same broad prejudices en masse, as reflected in the names we choose for our children. It’s currently a source of much horror for Nineties kids like me that mainstays like Craig, Lauren, Gemma, Jodie, Jade and Bradley are hurtling out of popularity with new parents today, according to the last research bulletin conducted by the Office for National Statistics in 2020.
Given that names, either for personal or public reasons, sometimes don’t fit, I’m surprised that we’re not more relaxed and Haley-esque about the hitherto radical act of renaming. It’s possible that society is more open-minded about this than we realise. Just look at when famous people transition. Compared to the hysteric hullabaloo that occurred when pioneering British writer and poet James Morris became Jan Morris in the Seventies, it’s been heartening to see how quickly we adapt when celebrities transition mid-career now. The so-called “dead names” of notable people such as Kae Tempest, Elliot Page or Chelsea Manning quickly fade, only to dwell in the distant annals of Google. Meanwhile, their new identities are quickly accepted, just as Bill Haley’s friends accepted Michael in 1989.
The sense that names are being seen as less sacrosanct and more changeable is also born out by growing trends among married or partnered couples. For starters, more men are renaming themselves by folding their wives’ names into theirs, such as Brooklyn Peltz Beckham or Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But more adventurously, a trend is growing for what’s called name-blending. Instead of creating a traditional double-barrel surname, you actually smush together big chunks of your last names into an entirely new compounded super name – in the vein of celebrity portmanteaus Brangelina or Bennifer.
For example, if Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly got married, they might conceivably call themselves “Dartlin” or “McPonnelly”. The results are almost always a new and unique word, thrust into the world. Friends who have done this have reported that despite some unease from older family members, aggrieved at their name reaching a potential endpoint (most name-blenders I’ve spoken to have siblings who have preserved their name), the world is very welcoming to you if you decide to rebrand yourself. It’s truly not a massive deal.
There are a million reasons why people might have the desire to change their name, from links to childhood trauma or family estrangement to inadvertently having the same name as a celebrity (such as the buff, burly fitness instructor I once met called Wes Anderson). A deed poll in the UK is a relatively straightforward process and currently costs exactly £48.32. A mate of mine was given a ready-to-sign deed poll form on his 31st birthday in a pub, which sounds more reckless than it was, I assure you. It’s achievable, in other words, to reinvent yourself and be accepted as such in society – should you one day wish to become a Bill, a Michael or even a Rodney.