My name is not nobody

Promising start
The name of the doubt.

As you may have read in September, I am for a couple months the lucky dad of a young little fellow called Arthur.

Finding the name of your heir is probably one of the most complex tasks in early parenthood. You cannot afford to be wrong... (Un)fortunately the pregnancy lasts for nine months, which means that you have three quarter of a calendar year to make up your mind. But also as much time to hesitate.

Dilemma after dilemma, books after books, long list after long list, arguments after agreements... It is a never ending story. Well so to speak, because ultimately, one day the little one is here and you have to call him by something. On that note, it was interesting to discover that in the UK, your baby can remain unnamed for a couple weeks, so you can buy yourself some time (I love this expression).

The naming brief.

As a couple of migrating French, we had some kind of a brief for our child's name. First it had to be a boy's name... Probably too lazy to cope with the burden of stabbing in the dark, we had asked for the sex of our child and reduced the task by 50%. But then we wanted: a French name that was also international; a name that would be pronounced roughly the same way in the main European languages; a name that would not carry any chav connotation (I am sorry to say that English names have a negative connotation in France, due to the success of 90210 and the tsunami of Brandons and Dylans that followed); a name which would not create puzzling initial... And certainly a proper name, not a word turned into a name.

In the end, we opted for Arthur, a name which ticked all the above-mentioned boxes on top of having seduced us both. Our son is named after King Arthur, this Briton who successfully fought the Saxons in the 6th century. Being a French King seems to be a key factor of success to achieve great things on this side of the Channel. Think about William the Conqueror or, closer to us, Eric Cantona. French emperors are to that extend less likely to succeed...

Around the clock.

We were convinced that we had thought of everything. Acronyms, permutations, abbreviations... In French, in English, in Italian and Spanish. No flaws could be found. And yet, one of the first things our parents said to us after "oh my God, he is so cute" was "we hope he won't be too often called Arthur!". This was said with a smile, as if there was an intelligent pun or a spoonerism in the sentence. But we were completely missing the trick(another proof of our lack of intelligence it seemed).

At some point, we had to ask. It is painful to be parents and yet to have to admit your ignorance and go back to your own parents just like you were five again. My mother explained me that there was an idiom when she was younger: "se faire appeler Arthur" ("to be called Arthur") meant then "to be told of". She could not recall the origin of this expression though.

After a little investigation to crack the riddle, we finally identified the potential origin of this idiom. And I could not refrain to share it on this blog, since it is tightly connected to cultural difference...
So flash back. We are in the early 40's in France. The German army is occupying most of the territory. To prevent both the sabotage work of the Resistance and the night bombing from the Allys, the Wehrmacht has instored a national curfew. After 8 o'clock, no more light. And German troops patrolled to enforce this policy.

On the one hand, the traditional German uprightness, on the other a world famous habit to "interpret" the laws. You can easily imagine the German soldiers banging at the door of a café, pointing at their watch to explain to the locals that they ought to finish their Pernod in the dark. They would probably add to the pantomime some basic German orders to make their orders crystal clear, something like "8 o'clock!"... Eight o'clock, Acht Uhr in Goethe's language.

For the non-German-speaking, and probably inebriated, fellows on the other side of the machine gun though, Acht Uhr actually sounded pretty much like Arthur. So being summoned "Acht Uhr" was like being told of by your teacher. "Hey Paul, they called you Acht Uhr/Arthur, so you'd better swallow that last glass and head home before it gets worse".

Since the expression have survived, at least amongst the baby-boomers who were "called arthur" by their parents every time they burnt a bra or sprayed slogans on the walls. As a representative of the Generation X, I had never heard of it. My son is not even two month old and he teaches me some cultural insights. That is promising, a bit like that gesture he gave me the other day. No doubt about it Arthur is French, and that he will be called Acht Uhr in the next few years.

To read further:


  1. well Arthur does not sound exactly the same in French and in English but my accent is getting better and better.
    Let's see if the little one understands that an English speaking person talks to him in the next months ;o)

  2. Nous avions rencontre le meme challenge pour le choix de prenom.
    Au final, les Anglais ne comprennent pas les double-barrelled name, et pensent que le Anne de Louise-Anne est un middle name. Ma fille pensait que L est son prenom anglais et L-A sa traduction francaise...

    Du moins en Angleterre, Arthur n'aura pas de souci, il aura une paix... royale!

  3. @Chocoralie: my beloved wife is experiencing your daughter syndrom regularly. They keep on calling her Anne-Marie, so she tends to turn her name into an english equivalent maryann! I dropped the accent on cédric for long.

  4. Anonymous5:09 pm

    Enorme et ducoup le petit Arthur m'a également appris qqch... Well done. Nous sommes passés par la même phase et les anglais me demandent encore et encore comment se prononce Maïssa, car nous avions "oublié" que le tréma n'existe pas en anglais. On dit alors "2 little points on the i" ou bien alors, et tous les anglais comprennent "umlaut" (la version allemande de tréma).
    Vive l'internationalisation et ton blog ne manquera pas de sujets, je puis te l'assurer...

  5. Thanks for the explanation of "se faire appeler Arthur", always heard it in France... and still do!