A name is a powerful thing, a label that can help or hinder an individual’s journey through life. One careless entry on a birth certificate can shape a person’s fate, or at the very least ensure their schooldays are traumatic. As the theorist, Marshall McLuhan, once observed, the name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.
Sometimes, however, the folly is of an individual’s own making. A story this week charted the decision by a British man to acquire a striking new designation - Bacon Double Cheeseburger.
The reasons for Mr Cheeseburger’s (or is it Mr Double-Cheeseburger, which has a certain Royale touch?) decision are not recorded, but having ruled it out as a PR trick by a fast food firm, we must presume his given moniker, Simon Smith, was a passport to anonymity he could no longer tolerate. Instead, the 33-year-old stumped up £33 and filled in the necessary paperwork to complete his metamorphosis. “Bacon Double Cheeseburger was the first name I came up with,” he said. That much is obvious.
Mr Cheeseburger is not alone. Once the preserve of celebrities in search of a sprinkling of stardust, changing your name by deed poll is becoming increasingly popular. A record number of applications were processed last year. At the turn of the century, the annual figure hovered around the 5,000 mark; it is now stands north of 85,000. The procedure is easier than opening a bank account and, as long as you don’t include numbers, symbols, or punctuation, stay within a certain character limit, and abide by a few legal and religious restrictions, there are no obstacles to choosing any name you desire.
“One man changed his name to Happy Birthday. It gave us a chuckle but if that is what they want to do, it’s their choice,” explained Louise Bowers from the UK Deed Poll Service, one of the biggest firms. “Some people simply don’t like their original name. We’ve changed Cock to Cox and Smellie to Smiley.”
A degree of sympathy should be extended to those individuals cursed by the circumstances of their parentage, but the number of inspired name changes is thin on the ground. My favourite is the Scottish Meat Loaf impersonator, Peter Rossi, who with a few penstrokes, struck upon a marvellous name for his tribute act – Pete Loaf.
The roll call of eccentricity is otherwise clogged up by trite, tasteless and downright peculiar transformations. Over the last 12 months, one woman altered her middle name to Penelope Pitstop after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. One couple, who sound like they would host the world’s worst dinner party, elected to call themselves Mr and Mrs Amazing.
Other changes speak of a passion that borders on obsession; the father who curses his newborn son with the starting line up of his favourite football team, for example, or the parents who name their boys Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo in the hope that the sheer power of nominative determinism will propel them to a lifetime of riches and glory. The curios are the most eye-catching, The majority are simply the wish fulfilment of eccentrics, gifts for comiconomenclaturists. Sometimes they betray deeper insecurities and instabilities. Occasionally, they are evidence of a gifted logic at work.
Take the case of student, Adam Armstrong, who balked at the charges quoted by Ryanair for changing the details of his ticket after his father-in-law accidentally booked his flight under the wrong surname. Mr Armstrong simply changed his name accordingly and applied for a new passport, in doing say saving around £117.
What goes unreported in the reams of outlandish stories, however, is how the process can be a hugely empowering experience, one which can validate an individual’s difficult journey through life. In the transgender community, for example, settling upon a new name in line with an adopted gender can be revelatory, confirmation of just how unnatural an individual’s previous life seemed.
Then there is a safety and comfort a name change can provide to those who have been victims of domestic abuse and other crimes. The deed poll process may be perceived as a frivolous affair, but for those who seek a new beginning, it can be hugely liberating.
Names, then, exert a potent influence on our lives. There is something in the old Roman proverb, nomen est omen, both in terms of how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive our character and background. Ultimately, however, I like to think that we forge our own paths regardless of their pull.
Back in 1958, Robert Lane, a new father living in Harlem, chose to name his son, Winner. Three years later, he and his wife had another boy. His name? Loser.
Despite his inauspicious start in life, Loser Lane proved himself a star student and impressive athlete who went on to secure a scholarship and ultimately, a successful career in the New York Police Department, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant.
His older sibling was also involved with the law, albeit on the receiving end, racking up dozens of charges for burglary, trespassing and domestic violence over the years.
“When you’re young you don’t know that it’s a bad name, and by the time you hit school, everybody knows you,” Loser once reflected. “It was a regular thing.”
If Mr Cheeseburger ever decides to start a family, it is advice his children would do well to heed.