Albert Henry I'm Not, Thanks to Aunt Lil

Inevitably, my daughter Sarah and son Robert ask me how they got their names. "Sarah," I tell daughter No. 3, "means 'lady' or 'princess.' And 'Elizabeth,' your second name, was the name of both your dad and mom's grandmother."

"Robert means 'kingly,' the same as your dad's first name," I tell my son later. Robert likes this connection. In his fertile mind, we are people of royalty, majesty, dominion, and benevolence.

Then Sarah asks me how I got my first name. "I owe it all to my Aunt Lily," I say.

In our family, it was a tradition (where do these traditions come from?) that the names of the male members of the family would include at least one of the following: Albert, Charles, or Henry. My grandfather was Albert, my father was Charles Henry, and my elder brother was Dennis Charles.

It was decided that I would be named Albert Henry.

Now Aunt Lil was my godmother, and so had some say in the naming of her nephew. She also had some very individual considerations about names. For one thing, she hated names that could be easily truncated. ("Look it up!" I tell Sarah upon seeing her raised eyebrows.) More than that (and her own name notwithstanding), Aunt Lil, as she preferred to be called, avoided all names that ended in an "ee" sound.

"No!" my aunt told my mother, her older sister, "if you name him 'Albert,' he'll be called 'Al' or 'Bert.' Worse, they'll say 'Bertie' or 'Hank' and most definitely 'Hen-reeee,' " she said, emphasizing the last syllable in the manner of a mother calling her son in to supper.

My mother came up with alternatives. "William"? No, that would end up as "Bill" or "Billy," "Will" or "Willy." My aunt was adamant. Frank would become Frankie; even George would stretch to Georgie. (My father didn't like George anyway, as he was told it meant "tiller of the soil.")

My mother suggested that names properly ending in an "ee" sound would end up without it. "Gregory" becomes "Greg," for instance. No, that would be cropping it again, and my aunt would have none of it.

"Well," said my mother, showing signs of a rapidly lessening patience, " 'Albert Henry' will be christened on Saturday, so you have three days to come up with something."

My parents didn't hear from my aunt until Saturday morning. She arrived on the doorstep after walking the eight blocks from her house to my mother's. (There were no cars or telephones.)

"Well?" my mother asked.

"I have a short list," my aunt said. "I have my favorite, but you can choose."

She gave my mother Adam, Alex, Dale, Neil, and Roy.

My father also had his peculiarities about names, and "Adam" was out, as I wasn't the firstborn. "Alex" was unacceptable, as my very working-class parents felt it was a name more suited to a class or two above their own. "Besides," they thought, "people will want to call him 'Alexander' when they call him, and it's too much of a mouthful."

My mother didn't like "Dale" because it was too much like one of those asexual names that could be given to a boy or a girl. "Neil" came close, but perhaps my parents felt the name smacked of subservience.

That left Roy. It was my Aunt's favorite. I became Roy, but they tacked on the Henry, not wishing to break the tradition. My younger brother, born in Wales during my mother's visit to me as a wartime evacuee, was named "David" but got stuck with the Albert. (He has never - repeat, never - been called "Davey.")

As the vicar doused my forehead and announced to the world that I was Roy Henry Barnacle, my aunt leaned over and whispered to my mother, "There! Let them try to mess around with that!"

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