What’s in a name? The company charging £20,000 to “create” a moniker for your baby

Dollar-eyed businesses have sprung up to capitalise on the demand to give a child an original name.

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Last September, it took less than an hour between Prince William and Kate Middleton announcing they were expecting their third child and the bookies producing the odds on potential baby names. When Kylie Jenner took to Instagram to reveal her new born daughter’s name earlier this month, the post, simply captioned “Stormi Webster”, quickly became the most liked in the app’s history. A celebrity’s “name reveal” garners far more interest than the announcement of their offspring’s arrival into the world – unsurprising when the past year has seen the arrival of the likes of Rumi and Sir Carter, Chicago West and River Rocket Oliver.

Unique celebrity baby names certainly aren’t a new phenomenon – Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s daughter Apple will turn 14 this year, Paula Yates’ daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily is 21, while her half-sister Fifi Trixibelle is 34-years-old – but it can feel like they’re increasingly becoming the norm. Especially interesting is the current trend of avoiding all trends, when you consider that just 300 years ago, over half of all children born in Britain had one of six names – either William, John or Thomas for a boy; or Elizabeth, Mary or Anne for a girl. As recently as the 1950s, 30 per cent of kids in the US were given a top ten name; now that figure is at just one per cent.

As pointed out by the director of the American Name Society, Dr Iman Nick, this could largely be explained by an increase in diversity. Names frequently observed in certain ethnicities and cultures would have been less common in 1950s US, when white Americans made up 90 per cent of the population. Similarly, the internet, with its inherent globalisation, allows us to encounter names from cultures other than our own. An additional explanation, one cited by Jennifer Moss, the founder and CEO of babynames.com, is anti-bullying programmes. “One of the things that parents worry about is their kid being bullied because of their name,” she said. “Now, I believe it’s more acceptable to be unique and individual.”

Whatever the reasoning, the outcome was perhaps inevitable. As with all popular trends – just look to cereal, avocados and unicorns – dollar-eyed businesses have sprung up to capitalise on the demand to give a child an original moniker. One such company, Switzerland-based Erfolgswelle, professes: “we are not looking for children’s names, we create them”. And it does so for a mere £20,000.

So, who are the clientele willing to dig so deep in their pockets to avoid nine months spent trawling the baby name books? Marc Hauser, the agency’s founder, says, quite simply, people – mostly American or British people – come to him because they can’t come up with a name themselves. Or, they can, but their baby co-creator is less keen on said name, and they’ve found themselves locked in the kind of heated disagreement that can only be resolved by handing £20,000 over to a team of naming professionals.

The company was born in 2015, when Hauser, who already owned an agency creating brand and products’ names, seized an opportunity to expand his naming empire. I asked how many children his team – which includes reserachers, historians and translators – have named since then, but was told non-disclosure agreements prevent even a rough figure from being revealed. So I asked for an example of a name they’ve created, but, unsurprisingly, was met with the same answer. Hauser did, however, suggest watching his stint on the BBC’s The One Show, which challenged the team to come up with a name in just three days (usually the process takes weeks, the narrator informs us).

The clip sees the Spain family, who admit to having scoured through thousands of names in search of one that is “not so common”, yet “not too out there that everybody’s like ‘wow, she’s got a weird name’”, presented with three potential names for their newborn daughter: “Lenook”, “Catlaine”, and “Oneia”. The latter did actually end up as little Betsy’s middle name; presumably at the behest of her dad, given her mum couldn’t actually pronounce it. (“Her name’s Betsy We-ni-a,” she proudly told the camera, as her husband groaned. “It’s Betsy O-nee-a,” he said, with a pained expression, for what was almost definitely the 56th time that day).

There is no denying that Oneia, Lenook and Catlaine are unique names. They ought to be, Hauser’s team work to ensure the name exists nowhere in the 12 most commonly spoken languages, including on trademark registers. The beauty of creating a word is that a meaning can then be assigned to it, or, as Hauser says: “We develop a credible new history and mythology around the new name.”

To do this, he explains, the team often use snippets of existing words. “In the BBC production we used the Greek word for dream (Oneira) and we took away the ‘r’. The resulting name, Oneia, is clearly based on this Greek word for dreams. Now we can create the mythology around the name. For example: ‘Oneia was the Greek patroness of the daydreamers’. Therefore we can invent meanings for a new name based on the history of the fragments we use.”

He also reveals that Lenook is a combination of Lena and Anouk, while Catlaine is a hybrid stemming from Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon – a Spanish-born Queen of England, to fit the family’s surname Spain – and Àine, an Irish goddess of summer, wealth and sovereignty. Mythologies are only created for chosen names, and as such Lenook and Catlaine, both discarded by the Spain family, mean absolutely nothing.

Not that it matters either way, but I’m a fan of the name Oneia. It’s pretty, and original. It’s mad that it’s just been assigned a random meaning, but it’s a nice meaning. But, the extortionate price aside, there's issues with the service. I think my concerns are best summed up by a simple observation from Dr Nick: “The name a parent selects for a child is a deeply personal, and in many ways, a sacred act.”

How could anybody pay to give up the chance to name their child? But when this argument is relayed to Hauser, he agreed it’s sacred, but isn’t that the point, he asked, challenging me to invent a nice, unique name that would both fit with my surname, and work on an international level. And, although I’m not sure I’d be willing to part with such a large sum of money (if I had such a large sum of money to part with); I have to admit, as he said, “it's not child's play”.

Indra is the New Statesman’s senior sub-editor.

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