Saturday, 18 April 2009

No more Sex, Death on the wane

IT was, by any standards, one of the great Test matches. Four blistering August days in the long hot summer of 1976 and a line-up of all-time greats on both sides.
Even the umpires, Bill Alley and Dickie Bird, have a kind of legendary status.
England opener Dennis Amiss, returning to the international scene at age 34, made a double-century – and still ended up losing. On the other side Viv Richards, ten years younger and with most of his greatness yet to come, struck a mighty 291.
It contributed to a huge West Indies first-innings total of 687 for eight declared. Having made a respectable 435 in reply, England ended up being asked to repeat exactly that score to win.
They fell short by 232 runs as Michael Holding returned the astonishing match figures of 14 wickets for 149. And all with a day to spare.
And why is that amazing game of cricket chiefly remembered? Not for any of those feats I’ve just listed, but for one moment of radio commentary.
Brian Johnston may have remarked: “The bowler’s Roberts, the batsman’s Knott.” If he did it might have been mildly amusing, but no one would have remembered for more than a minute.
But with Holding bowling to Peter Willey, Johnners’s comment became an instant classic. (Willey, curiously, was the only England batsman in that Oval Test not to lose his wicket to Holding.)
Names can be such a source of amusement. A source which may be under threat if we are to believe a very odd report by Richard Webber of King’s College, London.
For his survey, Webber compared data from 2008 with the British census of 1881. And he found that the instances of people with “amusing names” had fallen by up to 75 per cent.
And if it’s OK for a geography professor to play around with funny names, it’s good enough for me.
Apparently there were just 785 people in Britain last year called Cock, as against 3,211 in 1881. The number of people called Balls fell in that period from 2,904 to 1,299.
The number of people named Smellie decreased by 70 per cent, Dafts by 51pc, Gotobeds by 42pc, Shufflebottoms by 40pc and Cockshotts by 34pc.
Best of all, you might think, the number of Deaths fell by almost half. And all that in a period when the population of Britain roughly doubled…
Professor Webber doesn’t mention it, but I’m pretty sure the surname Sex disappeared completely during that time.
So what happened to all the Smellies, Cocks – and Sexes? Were they more likely than the rest of us to meet Death? Or less likely to breed?
There may, I suppose, be a slight element of the latter, which I’ll come to in a moment. But really, Webber seems to be stating the obvious when he explains: “If the number goes down it’s either because they changed their names or they emigrated.
“In many cases, people probably changed their surnames as they came to be regarded as in bad taste.”
Which, I believe, is why the last Mr Sex resorted to Deed Poll.
Back in about 1900, Mr and Mrs Bottom of Durham obviously felt they couldn’t do anything about their name – but did they really have to call their daughter Ophelia?
The poor girl got stuck with it too – she was a spinster of about 80 when I encountered her. And I couldn’t help wondering whether she’d have grown up differently, perhaps had more luck finding a husband, if she’d been plain Jane Smith. Or even Jane Bottom.
We all know of people whose names provoke a laugh. And they don’t have to be the obvious Ivors or Ivans.
Hazel is a lovely name for a girl. Unless your surname happens to be Knutt.
What could possibly be wrong with the name Jenny? Or Taylor? But put them together and some wiseacre is sure to corrupt it to ‘genitalia’ – as an old friend of mine found to her constant annoyance when she was at school.
You could draw the moral that you can’t be too careful when choosing names. Or maybe that kids will find something to pick on whatever you do.
My experience as a writer of sports headlines for the News of the World tells me that you can make some sort of pun out of almost any name. And if you can make a rude one, you can be sure some schoolkid has beaten you to it.
In some ways, I found the obvious “jokes” on my surname that followed me around at school a relief from the unkinder personal comments that provoked other nicknames. (No, I’m not going to tell you what they were.)
I don’t know whether my friends Dykes, Huggins and Haw felt the same. Or Peter Willey.

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