How Old is Susan?

The Unknown SusanSome years ago, Alan Weeks and I got obsessed with frequencies of names.  Alan did the analysis and found that the most common names in North Baddesley were Patricia and Margaret.  Later, I took this further by predicting demographics on the basis of name frequency: there is a fashion in the naming of children, as in so much else, so you can make a reasonable prediction of age based on popularity of name.  (Margaret was most probably a child of the 1930s or 40s, Patricia peaked in the 40s or 50s.)

This becomes relevant to play-writing in the business of naming characters.  Names need to match the ages of the characters in the era in which they are set.  So, for example, in England, peak Susan happened in about 1955.  That means that for a play set in 2014, you would expect most Susans to be in their late fifties to early sixties.  A Susan who is eighteen seems out of place.  Now, of course, if you want to disturb your audience, then giving a character an unexpected name may be a legitimate ploy, but if you want immediate acceptance, then the name, age and era need to match.

Being fashion accessories, names are cyclic.  Violet went out of fashion in the 1920s along with Doris but seems to be staging a come-back.  Sam (for men) peaked even earlier, alongside Phyllis (not for men!) and started a major return in the 1980s.  Being cautious about this, there are always a few outliers.  There are the out-of-era names given in honour of an ancestor, and there are the names that don’t really fit in any era: I was idling after a tour of Monterey Bay Aquarium when I overheard a mother admonish her child with “Stop that, Amadeus!”

Fashions for names vary enormously with geography.  I was careful to specify England with respect to Susans.  I once called on someone named Phyllis, expecting to be greeted by a nonagenarian only to find a Scotswoman in her early thirties.  Names in the USA are more diverse and are not synchronised with England; hence I was once discomforted to find myself working with a Doris who was younger than me.  It becomes even more difficult when dealing with names from non-Anglophone countries.  There was, for example, my business correspondence with a Dutchwoman called Anne; turned-out to be a bloke with a moustache.

6 thoughts on “How Old is Susan?

  1. It’s interesting how we have an expectation of a person, based on their name, before we’ve met them, isn’t it? We’re such subtle creatures.

    It’s one of those things you try to mitigate when choosing a name for your own children, let alone choosing names for characters – although when you’re naming your children you’re second guessing the future, rather than looking backwards to the past. I remember trying out names – imagining them said by a teacher, by a lover, by a prospective employer or by another child.

    Some names seem to have a personality all of their own, but they all seem to carry the weight of their own vintage with them. You don’t hear Jane being shouted much in the playground these days, but, out of the 6 women in their mid-fifties in our street, 5 are called Jane (the other is called Jenny). I’d say there are certain characteristics that they share too – being born into the first wave of feminism, the liberation myth of the pill and having been teenagers in the punk years and the Greenham Common years. It all rubs off, doesn’t it.

    Thank you for writing your blog. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful resource.

    1. Ah, so that’s where all the Janes from my youth went: you’ve been hoarding them.

      Another of the considerations (some) parents make when naming a child is how the name will be used by their peers. One of my school contemporaries was named Ian Nigel Kerr, so, on the basis of his initials, we called him Blot. A couple of friends have the surname Coffin and had to be dissuaded from calling their daughter Lydia.

      There may be more resonance with your own blog, Elaine, if I get on to the subject of lyrics. Nothing planned yet, but the topic comes to the fore from time to time with musicals and musical plays.

      1. Yes, we have a large Jane vacuum set up at the end of the street. Whenever an unsuspecting Jane walks by, we collect her and put her in an enclosure with the others.

        I’d never heard Coffin as a surname before – Wikipedia tells me that lots of Coffins in America are Quakers. Well, well.

        You’re very sweet to be thinking of reasons to resonate with my blog. It was originally aimed at singers from other countries who sing in English – in international contests – and who haven’t been taught how to bend and stretch the language in song. Things to think about attached to songs they probably don’t know. I’m finding myself being drawn down alleyways of English language, but more from the point of view of the sound of it and the effect on the listeners’ emotions. Not sure I’d be much use to you as far as words on the page go.

        But thanks for the thought. I came to your blog because I found it interesting – it appeared because I think somebody I followed follows you – in the usual WordPress conga.

        Since commenting earlier I was thinking about how the wrong music in radio plays can break the listener’s attention. I remember hearing a play on Radio 4, set in the 19th Century, in a country where Spanish was the national language. A woman in the play kept singing Besame Mucho – sometimes on the BBC all ‘foreign’ things seem to be interchangeable. I happened to know that Besame wasn’t written until World War II, so listening to this 19th Century lady singing it just destroyed the veracity of the piece. It’s hard to ignore things that don’t ring true, isn’t it?

      2. Not sure I’d be much use to you as far as words on the page go.

        Ah, but you are (sometimes) asking the same questions of singers as I want to ask of writers: does this word sound right in the context (because I am dealing with writers whose words will be spoken or sung). Sometimes it is a question of the right name, as per this thread and also in your question; sometimes, in historical drama, there’s the matter of when a word or concept entered the language; sometimes it’s whether a particular word resonates in the given context.
        It’s not only foreign songs that trip up unwary producers (or, as I remark here, writers). It can be any subject where members of the audience have more knowledge than you do. The late Peter Tinniswood, for example, seems to be something of a bird watcher; his writing is full of avian references. In an episode of one of the Uncle Mort radio series, produced by the estimable Pete Atkin, the narrator mentions the alarm call of a blackbird. The producer reached for the sound effects recording marked “blackbird” and thus played the blackbird’s very different song.

      3. I look forward to reading it.

        The marvellous Pete Atkin – thanks for bringing him to mind.

        Sifting through my own posts, the one about Tim Minchin and the power of the properly ordered list might be of interest (or might not! – I’m not trying to push the thing on you – the list is Mr Minchin’s, not mine, but it’s interesting how the order of the list affects its emotional charge)

        All best wishes

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