Diary of a Mum: Battling Common Surnames and Dual Accents

By Holly Smith

Our ‘Diary of’ series is back with a bang, and this time mum Holly shares how even after writing a baby names book she still struggled to find the perfect name for her own daughter.

From having to choose a name to complement a common surname to accent issues, Holly shares her naming journey…

Before I started my own family I worked on a baby names book; doing all that research made me think I was something of an expert (I even appeared on TV to discuss celebrity baby names). However, when the time came to pick a name for my own daughter, I realised there were 2 aspects to choosing a name that were specific to my situation and which had a huge bearing on our choice: 

1. Choosing a name that went with ‘Smith’  

2. Choosing a name that sounded good in both my native Glaswegian accent and in the ‘sarf London’ twang of our adopted home.

Dealing with a common surname

The first part of this challenge was new to me, I had an unusual surname growing up and a relatively uncommon first name so I had never thought about the impact of having a popular name when it came to picking a name for my baby.

My husband, on the other hand, grew up with ‘Smith’ as a surname and Andrew as a first name (the patron saint of Scotland) meaning he was all too aware of what it was like to grow up having the same name as a number of other people.

So, the answer was obvious, we would choose an unusual name. However, we quickly came to realise that the really unusual names simply don’t go with Smith, they give the impression of a flavour palate that’s not been totally thought through.

Estella Smith or Ophelia Smith just didn’t work for me. We decided to dial back the ‘unusual’ criteria and tried to find a balance between unique and traditional that went well with our surname.

Names and accents

This is when we came up against the next unforeseen challenge in choosing a name for our little bundle; how names sound when spoken in different accents. My husband and I both come from Glasgow and so we applied the classic ‘[name] get in for your tea!’ test to our shortlist of names.

We soon found that names like ‘Alana’ sound lovely when spoken by one of the cast of Pride and Prejudice but less so when yelled in the style of Rab C Nesbitt. On the other hand, ‘Pearl’ doesn’t sound right to me when pronounced by someone who grew up south of the Border, there’s just too few syllables. And any name beginning with ‘H’ certainly doesn’t work in south London (as a Holly I’m now trained to answer to Olly).

Yet another consideration to add to the growing list of ‘things to think about when choosing a name’ (along with initials, potential nicknames, TV or film characters with the same name, popularity, not to mention actually liking the name!).

Finding the perfect name

Then one day, I was scrolling yet another ‘list of lovely baby girl names’, when there it was: ‘Penelope’. I said it to myself, I liked it. I whispered it to myself, I really liked it. I shyly said to my husband, “What about Penelope?”. He repeated it. He smiled and said “I like it”. Then we realised that we also loved ‘Penny’.

It worked in our accent. It worked in our neighbour’s accent when I sneakily got them to say it (I’m still proud of myself for working that one into conversation by pretending I had forgotten the word for a little copper coin, “oops baby brain!”). It went well with Smith. It had Classical origins and a meaning that we liked (patience). Finally, we had a front-runner!

Meeting our beautiful baby girl

I’m a big believer in having a look at your baby before making a final decision on a name but along with a couple of other options (which looking back never felt quite right), Penny remained a firm favourite.

2 weeks later than expected and after a rather dramatic entrance via an emergency C-section, I groggily looked at my beautiful baby girl and said “Hello, Penelope”. Now I can’t imagine her having any other name.

For anyone still desperately searching for that perfect name and coming up against unexpected road bumps, my advice would be to keep looking, keep testing out how names sound when spoken (by a few different people) and assess how they look written down. 

If all else fails, go and hang out at Starbucks and listen to the baristas shouting out the names for the coffee orders; it will certainly let you know the many ways in which names can be mispronounced and still sound beautiful!

Read more mum and dad diary entries in our baby names blog here.