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What's in a name?
Spanish prince christened in 1999

By David Cannadine

Alfred became Alistair Cooke. Hillary first refused to add Clinton, only for it to supersede her own. A name can shape one's persona.

In a few weeks' time, I'll be receiving the proofs of my latest book, which is due to be published in July. Modesty forbids me from revealing its title or its contents, and in any case, I've been appearing between hard covers for well over a quarter of a century, so it won't be as exciting an event as it was the first time I was on the brink of getting into print.

Even so, the arrival of the initial set of proofs of any book is something of a landmark in a writer's life, although it's invariably accompanied by feelings of disappointment as well as of pleasure.

I hope I'm not the only author who feels this about his own work, but the disappointment is two-fold: regret that the proofs aren't better (which is the publisher's problem, and can be fixed), and regret that the book isn't better (which is my fault, and to which there can thus be no solution).

I've sometimes thought that it's probably easier to make a reputation if you have an unusual name

But authorship also has its compensations and consolations: indeed, it must have, since more than 200,000 titles are published annually in the UK alone. It may be true, as Dr Johnson once remarked, that only a fool doesn't write for money; but many of those 200,000 authors will make little if anything from their labours.

So I hope that for them, as is certainly the case for me, one of the greatest pleasures of authorship is seeing your own name on the title page, where mine will be, yet again, when my proofs arrive: David Cannadine. Of these two, my first name is relatively commonplace, but my second which I think derives from Shropshire is rather rare. Indeed, I've sometimes thought that it's probably easier to make a reputation if you have an unusual name, rather than one that's in general circulation, such as Jones, Smith - or Brown.

Middle initial or not?

When I published my first book, back in 1980, I don't think I gave a moment's serious attention to how I should describe myself on the title page, yet there were several alternatives available that I should at least have considered.

The Chicago Daily Tribune called the 1948 election wrongly, with headline Dewey Defeats Truman
Harry S Truman with newspaper that jumped to wrong result in 1948
I could, for example, have inserted my middle initial, which is N, for Nicholas, and published as David N Cannadine. Americans are especially fond of middle initials, among authors and presidents alike, as in the case of John F Kennedy, and the historian who chronicled his life, Arthur M Schlesinger Jr.

Before Kennedy, the previous Democratic president had been Harry S Truman; but unlike Kennedy, he had not been given a middle name as such. The "S" didn't actually stand for anything.

For those of us who are authors with three full names, another alternative is to spell them all out on the title page, so I would then appear as David Nicholas Cannadine in apparent emulation of the best-selling historian, George Macaulay Trevelyan, and the popular economist and pundit, John Kenneth Galbraith.

But Macaulay is a very different sort of middle name than Nicholas, and for Trevelyan it was a badge of dynastic identity, whereas in my case, Nicholas, by contrast is... well... just another name.

As for Galbraith, one reason he spelt out his name in full was that he was invariably known to his friends as Ken. But there would be no point in my following suit, because although I've been called many things during my life, so far as I'm aware, I've never been known as Nick.

Double barrels

In any case, someone who uses three names these days, instead of the more customary two, is more likely to be a woman, who wants to keep her own name, while at the same time taking her husband's as well; and the most famous living example of this practice must be Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at a debate
Hillary Rodham, then Hillary Rodham Clinton, now Hillary Clinton
When Bill and Hillary first married, Hillary insisted on retaining her own surname: so it was as Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham that they first took up residence in the Governor's Mansion in Arkansas.

But when Bill Clinton was defeated as Governor in 1980, his Democratic advisors insisted that Hillary should use his name, so as to prove to the electorate that they were married to each other. Twenty years on, this has given her the sort of name recognition that is either her greatest asset, or her greatest liability, as she battles with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.

Since I've never been known as Nick, let alone as Nicholas, that ruled out another alternative on the title pages of my books, which would have been to describe myself as D Nicholas Cannadine, as in the manner of F Scott Fitzgerald, or J Edgar Hoover, or TS Eliot's rather sad poetic creation, J Alfred Prufrock.

But although that was never an option, it still left me with at least one more permutation, exemplified by Eliot himself, which was to abbreviate and initialise both of my forenames, and to publish as DN Cannadine. Indeed, when I was growing up and beginning to read serious history books, such tight-lipped bylines were very common, and they were used by two of the most famous historians of the time, whose lectures I would later attend at Cambridge: JH Plumb, and GR Elton.

She was a free-thinking radical, living with a married man, who needed the protection of a pseudonym
Why Marian Evans published as George Eliot
Yet in neither case were things quite as straightforward as they seemed. Plumb's forenames were John Harold, but he was always known as Jack; and when he was knighted in 1982, his friends naturally supposed that he would be called Sir Jack. But the new chevalier thought that Sir Jack Plumb would make him sound like the proprietor of a string of betting shops, or of a chain of holiday camps, and he insisted on being known as Sir John Plumb for the remainder of his life, even though everyone continued to call him Jack.

As for Elton, his forenames were Geoffrey Rudolph, but he didn't start out that way, for he'd been born in Tubingen in Germany, where he was the product of a famous middle-European Jewish intellectual dynasty, and he began life as Gottfried Rudolph Otto Ehrenberg.

He came to England in February 1939, knowing scarcely a word of the language, and it was while serving in the army that he changed his name to that by which he later became known as the pre-eminent Tudor historian of his day.

Prudence is thy name

As the example of Geoffrey Elton reminds us, many scholars and scientists changed their names in the 1930s and 40s, having fled the terrors and the tyranny of Hitler, and having found safe haven in the UK or United States.

Mr Cooke himself
The urbane Alistair Cooke - Alfred as was
But long before that, writers were in the habit of doing the same thing, albeit for other reasons. Marian Evans published as George Eliot, not so much because female writers couldn't find a market for their work, but because she was a free-thinking radical, living with a married man, who needed the protection of a pseudonym.

When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote Alice in Wonderland, his name appeared on the title page as Lewis Carroll, so as not to harm his reputation as a mathematics don in Oxford. And Samuel Clements published as Mark Twain, which was the term used by boatmen on the Mississippi when they measured a depth of two fathoms with their line.

By contrast, some writers have not changed the whole of their names on going into print, but have settled for something rather less drastic, but on occasions no less revealing. One such figure, born exactly 100 years ago, was Alistair Cooke, whose name seemed to sum up perfectly the public figure he was: urbane, patrician, well-travelled and well-informed, and as much at ease in New York as in London.

Alice in Wonderland scene at Fortnum and Mason
Maths don Charles Dodgson didn't want to put his name to this
But this persona, and the name that epitomised it, were deliberate, self-conscious inventions: for Cooke had been christened Alfred, a no-nonsense, Lancashire sort of name, which was wholly appropriate for a boy born in modest circumstances in Salford. It was only as a scholarship boy in Cambridge that he transformed his name and himself from Alfred Cooke into Alistair Cooke.

Here, then, were two final options I could have considered as a budding author, nearly 30 years ago: I could have changed my name, partially or completely.

Since David is, indeed, relatively common, I might have substituted something more memorably exotic, and published instead as (for example) Dimitri Cannadine. But this would have carried with it connotations of Anglo-Russian cosmopolitanism, and a sort of faded, Checkovian gentility, that I couldn't possibly have sustained.

As for changing the whole of my name, that was something that never occurred to me, not least because in the different social climate of the welfare state, there was no need for the kind of reinvention that Alistair Cooke had thought necessary in his day. Once again, it'll be as David Cannadine, no more and no less, that I'll be hitting the bookshops early in July.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I know the American penchant for adding a middle initial. Therefore, after having written a "corrective" rebuttal letter to an American magazine, I was surprised to not only having it published, but also by the Sub-Editor's comment that I was being pompous by adding my middle initial. I wrote back, quoting the Truman scenario, and my reply was never printed !
Michael L. Smith, Sheffield, England

I am a married woman with a double-barrelled surname. My surname is rare even in Norway where it hails from and where my late father was born. The only ironic thing is that Gudim derives from 'home of God', whilst I am an atheist!
Laura Gudim Fry, Walton-on-Thames, UK

Rachel is my middle name: my first name is what I call an "out of generation" name. You know how you can date a woman by her name? Joan, Pamela, Sheila, Margaret - all now of a certain age. Edna, Gertrude, Violet, Ena - wouldn't be insulted to be called elderly ladies. Names do go in generations. My mother gave me a name from her own generation, and I always hated it, as it made me feel old. Growing up, I had a succession of nick-names, and now that I'm middle aged myself, I've settled down with my middle name (with thanks to Friends for making it so popular), but I do feel that having so many names while growing up has left me rootless and insecure. I'm only just used to being called Rachel: but having never answered to my first name, that doesn't feel "real" either. Sad, huh? Parents take note, give your child a normal, classic first name, with an exotic middle name that they can then choose to use if they wish to be different. Don't force it on them!
Rachel Cassidy, South Oxfordshire

I made the relatively minor change of putting Steve on my passport application instead of Steven. At least, I thought it was minor until the Passport Office phoned me at 11pm to check.
Steve, London

The S at the centre of Harry S Truman's name was given him by his parents. It didn't mean anything and because there was no full stop after it, it was taken as his middle name. However, after he had acted as a champion for the Swinomish Indians in America they made him an honorary chief and added Swinomish to his name. It then acquired the full stop since it was now an abbreviated name. This has been well documented and the records of this are to be found in the Harry S Truman Foundation archives.
Brian Stephens, Penarth, Glamorgan

Shakespeare had it right. That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. People should be allowed to choose whatever moniker they feel comfortable with. This having been said, I am just as glad Dad lost out on choosing the baby's name.
Candace (almost Hildegarde), New Jersey, US

I am a Lynch, and my partner, a primary school teacher, a Shirley. Right now she is Miss Shirley, but when we marry she will become Mrs Lynch. Miss Shirley sounds more like a teacher name, more warming and friendly than Lynch, so I want her to keep her name. She refuses. The battle continues.
Steven Lynch, Glasgow

The 'S' in 'Ulysses S Grant' also doesn't stand for anything. It's amazing the wonders a meaningless initial will do for your credibility.
Rachael, Oxford

Just two words for you: "Lembit Opik"
Robin Wilton, Westbury, UK


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