There was a little piece in the paper about a forlorn attempt by a German woman who wanted to fix her surname to her husband’s, which was already double-barreled (should that be double-barrelled? I think so, in UK usage, but I’m not playing. The same with focused being focussed, which is silly, because it doesn’t have the same stress-pattern as concussed, any more than barrelled rhymes with rebelled. Eccentricity is one thing; illogic another). The woman, Frieda Thalheim, had gone to court about it – because, as I didn’t know, the Germans passed a law in 1993 banning triple-barreled names. She lost her case. So she cannot become Frieda Thalheim-Kunz-Hallstein. Now, I know that madness could apparently ensue with multiply-barreled names (I am enjoying flouting the spelling rules here), but this wasn’t a case of a child being given, say, twenty-six forenames, or all the names of a football team (as has happened), but a consenting adult. Why shouldn’t people call themselves what they like, after the age of 18? (I have to say that she may have made a tactical error in insisting on the hyphen; why didn’t she just have her name changed by deed poll, if they have such a thing in Germany, to Thalheim-Kunzhallstein?)
Double-barrels are always considered in this country to be just a bit high-falutin’ (as are more than two forenames, and definitely more than three, as in Charles Philip Arthur George, which seem quite pitifully thin names for a Prince of Wales – although note that Arthur, which has been hanging around in the royal family since the twelfth century, because of its cachet by association with the mythical Briton). But I see no harm in them, even if I wouldn’t have liked to have been called Bill Frail-Greenwell, which is what would have happened to me. My children would then have been surnamed Broomhead-Frail-Greenwell, which would have been extremely unfair (and they would have been known as BFGs, presumably, after Roald Dahl’s giant).
Of course, I see I am falling into my own trap, which is attacking sentiment one day, and supporting it the next. Spare forenames are a sentimental luxury, originally honorifics – they are a nineteenth-century thing – to remember or recognise previous generations, but now a way of compromising when one parent wants one name, and the other wants another. But as the population swells, at least they mean it’s easier to distinguish us from one another, and they are very useful for family historians (not a sound reason, of course). Sometimes, I suppose, they allow people to change their names if they don’t like them, without resort to a commisioner of oaths. My aunt was born Eleanor Mabel Frail, and known as Mabel throughout her childhood (like my mother, she was known by her middle name, as I am, and as my sister was), but changed her name to Eleanor when older. She also changed her surname when she went on the stage – styling herself Eleanor Frayle.
Perhaps we should all be allowed to change our names at the age of 21. It’s the one thing over which we have no choice. I am Thomas William, not Bill, although I’ve always been called Bill, for three reasons – my great-grandfather was Thomas William, and he’d just died; and his maternal grandfather was a William, and his father was a Thomas – and his father had been named for his maternal grandfather, another Thomas. So when I go the doctor or dentist, and they call me ‘Thomas’, as they do, they are actually tipping their hats to a potter who died in his sixties in Sunderland in 1838. Curious.