I have been childishly amused for the past few weeks by the plight of a friend who, on recently landing a senior job in the US, was told he must embellish his name with an extra initial.
In spite of sounding like the collective dotage of an over-powerful boardroom, the demand is underpinned by decades of evidence-based research about how our names sculpt the way others see us. Academia has produced a litany of papers about things like why calling your son Maximilian makes him more likely to get ahead in banking than floristry. In the friend’s case, the addition of a letter and full stop is supposed to convey gravitas.
Sadly for the scholars, they have been beaten to the discovery by a less noble bunch. Town planners have championed the “what’s in a name” concept for years. Long before we got into this hyperactive management of the brand “I”, they had figured out something very simple; that if you make an area sound like something, it becomes it.
Take London’s Mayfair. Everyone knows Mayfair is expensive – Monopoly has seen to that. But it also sounds expensive. There is something ineffably opulent about the way the two syllables tumble out together, each almost defined as its own word. Even if it miraculously became the new playground of the global elite, South Penge could never confer on its denizens the same air of effortless wealth. Similarly, a disco in the Devonshire village of Westward Ho! would almost certainly be more fun than an equivalent knees-up in neighbouring Northam.
Street names can be even more indicative. Shoot-Up Hill in north London, for instance, is self-explanatory to the point of overstatement. Sadly, because of this, it is never likely to ascend much above the limitations of its name.
It is not just a UK thing. In New York, the Upper East Side, even to someone without any knowledge of the city’s wealth typography, sounds like the kind of place frequented by people who think nothing of reupholstering their toilet brush in starched ermine. Lower Hell’s Kitchen, by the same token, does not.
In some ways, the US rule of having an upper-lower distinction, with its implied altitude superiority, is a sensible one. It follows the seemingly obvious point that the higher you go, the more rarefied the air. This isn’t quite the same as the air being better. Especially in cities, where the oxygen sullied at street level rises into a low-slung pollution halo, the idea of the O2 being better at the top is nonsense. It’s about a much more base yearning for exclusivity; my air is higher than yours, therefore fewer people breathe it. I am better than you.
Developers have wised up to the power of this faux geography, pushing the boundaries of the Trade Descriptions Act, by suffixing things like “on-the-water” to developments where a septic tank is the most significant aquatic feature. Another favourite trick is to use “The” to give a definitive prestige to an otherwise unimpressive scheme. So, Blandsville with Houses From £175,000 becomes The Blandsville On-the-Water with Houses From £190,000.
Of course, place naming doesn’t always go right. The psychological impact on those hailing from places with names such as Bell End, Worcestershire, or Toad Suck, Arkansas, is unimaginable for most of us. It also creates practical difficulties. However worthy the subject matter, a public speaker from somewhere like Intercourse, Alabama, is always going to be laughed at once they’ve been introduced.
For these and places which simply want to attract a new kind of citizen, I think local authorities should be given greater renaming powers.
Imagine the possibilities for a village, town or city that wanted to shed a tainted or maligned image. Slough could become somewhere cool and interesting-sounding. It could even take on a foreign-sounding name to add sophistication.
Really savvy local authorities might even think about flogging off the naming rights to their towns, in the way football clubs have their stadia. Gillette™ , Yorkshire or Black & Decker®, Co Durham, both have a certain ring to them and could bring in some extra revenue for things like speed-hump building programmes.
Yet it is difficult to get it right. History is littered with examples of unsuccessful renamings forcing an ignominious return to the abandoned original, such as Royal Mail’s ill-fated go at being the edgier-sounding Consignia.
Perhaps the most sensible route was taken by the pop star Prince. He became nameless after changing his name to a symbol no one could pronounce. He then reverted to Prince, claiming to be freed from the undesirable relationships associated with the name.
For somewhere like Croydon, this kind of strategy could be a real game-changer.
Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent
More columns atwww.ft.com/perspective
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