What’s in a name?

by Patrick West

I predict a population explosion – of hyphens. Just wait until today’s kids start having kids of their own, and all those double-barrelled surnames are combined into appellations longer than War and Peace. But is this hyphenation trend also extending to first names? In our case, yes.

“Sounds beautiful,” everyone says. “But what does ‘Lan-Tian’ mean?” Glad you asked.

As writers, my partner and I take a keen professional interest in names. Between us, we must have provided epithets for thousands of fictional characters. But it’s a very different matter when you know that little Johnnie (or Beaufort, or Dougall, or Maximilian) will have the rest of their lives to blame you for a ‘dud’ choice.

We got it wrong from the start. We weren’t even considering girls’ names when, as the doctor so delightfully put it, our precious one was only “a few cells and a heartbeat.” A friend of ours had dangled a piece of string over my partner’s head and pronounced her verdict: male.

She was quite sure of it. “I’ve never been wrong. It swings clockwise for a boy and anti-clockwise for a girl.” The other day, we introduced her to our daughter. Cue rapid backtracking. “Or is it anti-clockwise for a boy and clockwise for a girl?”

No matter. Before the ultrasound convinced us to change tack, the best boy’s name we’d come up with was Kennedy. No offence to any Kennedies out there—it’s strong sounding, and you could do worse than follow in the footsteps of an American President—but we rather lost our enthusiasm upon consulting a dictionary of names: ‘ugly’ plus ‘head’ was not quite the meaning we’d hoped for!

There are many ways in which you can come to love a name. I grew up with the music of The Go-Betweens, and always had a soft spot for the song about a girl called Tallulah. When I got to the age of thinking about such things, I started to wonder if one day I could call my daughter that. The problem is, if too many parents delved into their musical past for sobriquets, we’d end up with a glut of kids called Jumping Jack Flash or Mustang Sally.

Seriously though, we needed a name that would mean something for our daughter, which she could grow into—not something tied up with the ill-spent rock youth of her father! A name just for her. And that’s how we came up with Lan-Tian. It means ‘Blue Sky’, and we chose it mainly because a blue sky is one in which you can see almost forever—a sky without clouds. A sky full of promise, hope and joy.

But we also wanted to provide our daughter with a name that reflects her twin heritage: Chinese/Australian. I’m born and bred here (under blue skies) while my partner is from China. You could say we chose a Chinese name, with an Australian meaning, for our baby.

We also christened Lan-Tian with the middle name Hu, as a way of remembering a very special person. Sadly, my partner’s mother is not here to meet our newborn. We hope Lan-Tian will become curious about the name she bears, and honour her maternal grandmother’s spirit through the example of her own life.

And that would be the end of the story, if there hadn’t been one more decision to make. Lan-Tian’s surname could be West-Yen or Yen-West. We decided on the latter—it just sounds better. My only reservation was that, with this order of name, our daughter would very likely be the last student called on the class roll. West is almost at the end of the alphabet, let alone Yen.

I comfort myself, however, with the memory of one of my favourite teachers, who used to surprise us every once in a while by reading the roll backwards from Z to A. Perhaps Lan-Tian Hu Yen-West will be lucky enough to have a teacher like that. With all these double-barrelled names about, then she’ll be able to go to recess a full fifteen minutes early.

And, not to put the pressure on, but let’s hope she meets a nice boy in the playground with a surname like Aaron-Appleby, so their kids can always be top of the class. 


© Patrick West

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem