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Tuesday July 24 2018

Throughout the summer, we are revisiting some of our favourite Ron Ferguson columns. In March 2009, Ron asked 'What's in a name?'.

What’s in a name? That’s a question I’ve often asked myself, especially at services of baptism.

Parents who inflict excruciating names on their children – such as Eileen Dover – should be crucified in front of day-time confessional TV audiences. Imagine being named after the whole promotion-winning Cowdenbeath team of 1924! I’ll never forgive you, dad.

Names can bring derision, or even abuse. What about poor Al Nino from California? People blamed him for the weather! They confused the innocent retired pilot with El Nino [the climate fluctuation blamed for a destructive hurricane season in 1997]. Angry people phoned him, shouting abuse and accusing him of responsibility for storms. Al has never done anyone any harm in his life; now he can hardly leave his hoose for fear of attack by crazed Sunday School teachers and vicious brown owls whose trips have been ruined by a wee bit of wind (which is what feart people south of Orkney call a gale).

Names of places can be equally embarrassing. There is, near Cambridge, a small and inoffensive village called Ugley. It has never bothered any other hamlet, has never tried to invade the Western Isles or anything like that. Yet it is giggled at, simply because of its name.

The pressure eventually got to the members of the Ugley Women’s Rural Institute, who decided to change their name. As a consequence, it is now officially known as The Women’s Rural Institute (Ugley Branch). No, I’m not making this up.

I thought about the Ugley women when I read about the campaign by Tony and Lorraine Holden to get the name of their street changed. It has been called, from time immemorial, Sluts Hole Lane. They would settle for Ugley Women’s Lane any day.

What if you have a sensible name like Samantha, but staff in shops call you ‘hen’? According to a survey by Bella magazine – “Haw Bella, is that you hen?” almost half of those who replied said that they objected to being called ‘dear’. Mind you, it’s much better than being called cheap. When my wife was having knee surgery recently, I spent a fair bit of time at the hospital. The nurses called me ‘darling’, and the woman at the till in the staff canteen called me ‘doll’.

Staff from a number of public institutions have been instructed not to use pet names. I didn’t mind at all. (Women, though, seem to have stopped calling me ‘son’ over the past few years. I’m sure it’s just politeness.)

Incongruous names can cause amusement. As part of a general knowledge quiz, I once asked some youngsters to give me the name of an Old Testament prophet beginning with the letter ‘I’.

‘Ian’, replied one lad, cheerfully.

“Let us now read some verses from the prophet Ian.” Doesn’t quite have the same ring as Isaiah. Supposing the author of the fourth gospel had been called ‘Jock’. The Prologue from Jock’s Gospel: lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, does it not.

Would the history of Christianity have been different if the disciples had all been public school heroes with names like Nigel, Torcuil and Bunny? “And Jesus said until him, ‘Nigel, be a good chap would you, and take up thy cross and follow me…’” Maybe not.

Or again, how about: “And Erchie, Boab and Senga ran to the empty tomb…” No? Actually, if that had been their names – not common names in first century Palestine, admittedly – they would now be Saint Erchie, Saint Boab and Saint Senga, and their bright wee faces would be looking radiantly out of stained glass windows all over Europe.

Try to imagine a thundering Old Testament prophet called Sid. Hector would work OK, but not Sid.

What if Romeo and Juliet had been called Fred and Aggie? Think of the familiar scene on the balcony. Try declaiming these words out loud: “O Fred, Fred! Wherefore art thou Fred?” or “Sweet Aggie, it is my soul that calls upon my name!”

Nah, doesn’t work.

Naming can be inspirational as well as disastrous. Jesus looked at wobbling, impetuous Simon and renamed him Cephas, meaning a rock. The transformed man lived up to his new name.

When I was younger, I wanted people to call me Tarzan, but my ambitions are more limited now. Ugley ladies, call me ‘son’ and I’m yours.