Tom, Dick, Harry and Paul


Photo by Paul Williams

Brisbane songwriter Sue Wighton has a zany song about the daft names people give their children, with a droll chorus that starts: ‘Whatever happened to Tom, Dick and Harry?’ It’s a good question.

It would never have occurred to me as a song subject, but Sue is an ex-school teacher, so that explains a lot. She will have seen her share of exotic baby names like Joaquin, Griffin, Phoenix, Jasper, Peregrine and Fox. I’m only indulging myself with boy names here – as this essay progresses, the why will become obvious. If you are truly fascinated by the subject of unusual girl’s names, US website explores the A to Zee of names like Aria, Darby, Kaia, Marisol, Yani and Zaylee.

Yani’s not that unusual – I actually know one and if you like choir singing, you probably do too.

But as for the children of celebrities forced to wear names like Heavenly Harari, Pilot Inspektor or Sage Moonblood, some, on reaching adulthood, may apply to change their names to Fred Smith or Bob Wilson.

I thought about this (a while ago), when doing the crossword in the Sunshine Coast Daily, which just happens to be on the same page as Showbiz News. Somehow my eyes always drift to the top of the page. Here I learned that Kim Kardashian and husband Kanye West were going somewhere or other with their daughter North West (u-huh). The Kardashians have since spawned two more children, dubbed Saint and Chicago. They also have a Pomeranian named Sushi, although that is something of a non-sequitur.

It reminded me of that movie ‘Captain Fantastic’, about an anti-establishment chap and his wife who raise six children off-grid in the American wilderness and bestow upon them “unique” names like Bodevan, Gellian and Vespyr.

My childhood was blighted to a degree because the family moved to New Zealand, where my common enough Scottish middle name produced howls of laughter and derision. So yes, I empathise with people whose parents have dubbed them names which may provoke schoolyard bullying.

As Christian names go, Robert or Bob is common enough, though its use today is well below its peak in 1930, when matinee idols Robert Mitchum and Robert Taylor inspired those with child at the time.

Rankings of the top 50 boys’ names in Australia, are led by William, Jack and Oliver. Tom (6) is still in vogue and Harry (30) is still a popular choice of name for British babies, thanks to the next generation of Royal princes.

But Richard (Dick) wasn’t sighted, possibly because a generation of fathers called Richard took offence at their name being shortened to Dick and its sniggering variants.

Aussie parents don’t go too far out on a limb with baby-naming – Jayden, Braxton and Jaxon are the only ones that look odd to the eye. Religion still has some influence, apparently, with Matthew, Luke and Noah in the top 50. Mark, however, is missing, so too Saul and Paul.

You can always pick people whose parents hero-worshipped movie stars of the 50s by their names – Kirk, Victor, Marlon, Burt or James.

Folk were much less adventurous in the middle part of the 20th century. dipped into the US Department of Social Security archives to inform us that Michael was the most popular boy’s name from the 1960s to the 1990s (since supplanted by Jacob). Lisa (1960s), Jennifer (1970s, Jessica (1980s and 1990s) and Emily (2000) lead the girls’ list, although that’s the last I’ll have to say about girls for now.

Pop Sugar’s 2018 take on this subject was to come up with a list of ‘unique’ boys’ names including Aaro, Abbott (truly), Ackley, Alber, Arian, Banner, Benton, Binx, Bowie and Brantley. A few cool ideas there if those with child want to have a look.

Christian names tend to become popular/trendy through celebrity, be it TV, movies, music or other forms of artistic endeavour. The name Paul reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the US in 1969 (1.4% of all boy’s names), coinciding with the popularity of folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, who had universally known hits through the sixties until breaking up in 1970.

Few people would know why I chose to write a song about the famous Pauls of the world, other than to recount the story of the six Pauls we knew in our home town at the time.

She: “I saw Paul up the street.”

He: “Paul Who?”

It became a thing and the strange song got a hold of me and wouldn’t let go. This link takes you to our soundcloud page where you can listen to the song and others.

I stayed away from religion – I just assumed everyone knew there have been eight Pope Pauls and Paul the Apostle was just too obvious.

It’s a fair guess Paul Keating’s parents did not foresee the “small and/or humble” Paul (the Latin meaning of the name) become a wily Federal politician, the “World’s Greatest Treasurer” and eventually Prime Minister. And he still won’t go away, bobbing up on national current affairs programmes waxing eloquent about leadership and policy.

This website reveals everything you’d ever want to know about the name Paul. I wish to hell I’d found it before starting on my song!

I don’t much see the value in explaining all the references in Paul Who – some things deserve to remain a mystery, and besides, it’s fun to read between the lines.

I make an exception for a reader from Portugal who apparently downloaded the album on ITunes. He sent me a short email: “Who is the “making gravy guy”? I replied in detail about How to Make Gravy by Australian writer Paul Kelly. The story, as you know, is a letter from Joe to Dan, who has the responsibility of making Christmas go smoothly as he (Joe) will be behind bars for the duration.

The hidden agenda in ‘Paul Who’ is the cult of celebrity, mostly dominated by men. There’s only one Sheila (Aussie parlance) mentioned here, because of her notoriety on the extreme fringes of politics.

For what it’s worth, I thought a song dedicated to all the Pauls out there was long overdue. This website reckons 1.37 million boys in the US have been named Paul since 1880, though it tapered off in the 1970s. The most people given this name (26,968), was in 1957. Those people are now 62 years old. In Australia, Paul has fallen off the top 100 list, although Dylan is still there.

Curiously, if you are curious, the name Muhammad and all its variant spellings came in at number 1 in the UK (ranked 100 in Australia). The suspicious old journo who lives under my left hearing aid whispered “urban myth” so I dug a little bit more.  The Spectator did the work for me, analysing the official statistics, saying that even when the variations in spelling are taken into account, Muhammad/ud/ed is still the single most popular boy’s name in England and Wales (though to be balanced, closely followed by Oliver, Jack and Harry). In Australia, Oliver tops the list of boys’ names. So, of course, In England and Wales, as in Australia, ‘Christian’ names far outnumber ‘Islamic’ ones.

No need to worry, Pauline and Fraser….



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Frankie's dad
April 19, 2019 12:35 pm

In the late 70s Richard must’ve been still current when I had three Richards in a class I taught. One I called Richard, turned out another didn’t mind some variation like Richie, and the third one I called by his surname, old public school style. He quite liked it, and his mum, who thought it was amusing, took to calling him that herself.