In days of yore the naming of a child was an august and earnest affair; a time for no small amount of thoughtful consideration.
In some cultures, such as the Hellenic tradition, offspring were (and continue to be) routinely named after a respected family member. In this way, a nominative chain could be observed: Arthur, grandson of Arthur, and so on.
The practice among native American nations was to name a newborn for an observed phenomenon close to the birth. Sitting Bull, for instance, or Crazy Horse.
In more recent times, names that had gone out of fashion, such as Archie or Ruby, have enjoyed a strong revival.
Another recent trend, however, seems to be the flippant, seemingly off-hand bestowal of diminutives, nicknames or pet names for one’s offspring in place of a proper, dignified moniker.
In one recent Sunday paper magazine spread alone, a Rowdie, Birdie, Buster, Captain and Sugar were photographed with their respective culpable dads (it was a Father’s Day feature).
Admittedly “Captain” has a certain cachet about it. And, indeed, if there is such a thing as nominative determinism (the effect one’s name has on future success and even chosen occupation) then you expect this child might aspire to management roles. He could go far.
Buster sounds like he might be a lot of fun. Throw a stick and he’ll bring it back for you.
Clearly, though, none of the parents of these off-handedly dubbed children have thought too far ahead about the ramifications of such a casual approach. Though indubitably cutesy now, a dinky-twee sobriquet is going to have some drawbacks in the workaday world these delightfully named children are one day likely to occupy.
What happens when young Captain wants to pilot commercial aircraft or join the armed services, Sugar aspires to be a nutritionist, and Rowdie hopes to be a Mormon rector?
Let us stop this madness, I say, this naming-as-competition hipster foolishness. It serves us ill.
Rather than continue down this path of egregious appellation invention to goodness-knows where, I urge young parents to turn instead to the formidable font of what’s already available. It is a trough of plenty.
I am plumping for the return to prominence of a name you don’t hear much among the Buster-Birdie set these days: Barry.
Good old Barry. Bazza boy. Basil. Baz.
A name almost onomatopoeic in its capacity to evoke (masculinity, competence, even hirsuteness) Barry had its heyday in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Many a Barry has made his mark on the world.
In entertainment, Messrs Humphrey, Manilow, White and Gibb are nothing short of legends. Icons. Titans, even. At least one of them has written the songs the whole world sings.
Australian rules champions Barry Breen, Barry Cable, and Barry Round must surely be members of the Barry pantheon. One launched the wobbly punt to secure St Kilda’s only premiership, one was a pioneering exponent of handball and a trailblazer for aboriginal footballers (and Barrys) – thank you Barry Cable – and Mr Round (nominative determinism in action again) is the oldest Barry (and in fact player) to earn a prestigious Brownlow medal.
Barry Jones is considered perhaps the most erudite politician to have served, in Australian parliament. His grace, humanity and equanimity put contemporary politicians to shame.
Since the 1980s hard-nosed journalist Barrie Cassidy has cast a critical eye over the vicissitudes and vicious character assassinations associated with said milieu above.
What caused the sudden increase in popularity of the name in the early part of the 20th century?
Some sources suggest the name, which has Irish origins, is a derivation of any of the traditional monikers beginning with or including “bar”, such as Barnabas, Finbar or Bartholomew. It means “spear” or “fair haired”.
Perhaps the eponymous character from Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (written in 1844) played a part in the name’s rise in popularity throughout the Anglosphere in the early part of last century.
In the book, the villainous anti-hero Redmond Barry flees Ireland after a duel, becoming a soldier and card sharp before marrying the foolish countess of Lyndon and taking her name. After years of high living and poor behaviour, his life ends badly – poor, prematurely senile, and in prison.
According to website Name Origins, the US reached “peak Barry” in the mid 1960s – around the time actor Barry Pepper and US American football legend Barry Sanders were born.
In Australia that figure would be closer to the mid 1940s, which was when my Dad, Barry Dillon, was born (1943 in his case).
Never has a bigger-hearted person entered the world, I don’t think. The youngest of nine born on a Preston Housing Commission estate, Dad managed to provide for a family (including a future doctor and a professional athlete), and to always be available for his kin, even when he was working three jobs to try and get ahead.
Every year I grow in admiration for the manner in which he’s always conducted himself – a personal code based on commitment to work, helping others whenever possible, intellectual curiosity, and always doing what’s right (which means this may/may not be strictly by the book).
I once worked on a building site where there were four Barrys: my Dad (Barry the labourer), Barry the brickies’ labourer, Barry the plumber and Barry the sparky. I can’t imagine you’d find too many workplaces like that these days. “Barry” has gone the way of Albert, Cyril or Stanley; signifiers of decades long since past.
You do, however, very occasionally hear of a new Barry sighting.
In the TV series The Flash, the eponymous character’s daytime persona is Barry Allen. But then again the comic strip originally appeared in 1956, and the superhero’s alter ego’s name was Bartholomew.
There’s Baz Luhrmann, but he’s no spring chicken either, and in his case Baz is a nickname (he’s actually Mark).
Barry is also a nickname for US president Barack Obama.
Occasionally you hear the word dropped into conversation (as in, “That’s a bit of a Barry”), but in this instance it’s rhyming slang for “shocker” ( it rhymes with Barry Crocker, another famous singing Barry).
It’s a shame that a name associated with so many high achievers has sunk to such a level of ignominy. But it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the Barry cause. Not at all.
I’ve always associated the name Barry with resourcefulness and capability. Dad can sew on a button, darn socks and stitch a repair in a cardigan. He can dig a trench straighter than a machine, cut down a tree and extract the roots, change a nappy, immaculately iron a shirt, dance, build a house, renovate on a budget, and sharpen your knives. He’ll have the crossword and Sodoku finished before you know it, as well as a pile of books of assorted genre and quality.
He can find common ground across socio-economic and cultural boundaries, finesse a handful of rags into “eight no trumps”, and write a letter in beautiful copperplate writing of which he’s justifiably proud.
So, nominative determinism has me thinking. I’m wondering whether Barry White would have possessed the ineffable cool to pen his odes to l’amour were his name Buster? Could Birdie Breen have kicked that wobbly point in ’66? Would Sugar Cassidy have become a hard-nosed political scribe? Doubtful times three.
In Barry we trust.