If Your Name Were Smellie, You'd Change It, Too

On Our Soapbox Blog

People with last names like Shufflebottom, Smellie and Cockshott are on the decline in Britain, while names like Zhang and Wang are on the rise.

But not everyone is changing potentially embarrassing surnames.

"There's a Cabinet minister whose last name is Balls," Richard Webber, visiting professor of geography at King's College, London, tells host Scott Simon. "Where he comes from, it really is a common name. Nobody would think there's anything particularly strange about being called Balls."

Webber says a name that is "quite normal where you live, suddenly seems strange to other people."

He says there are quite a lot of names, like Shufflebottom, that end in "bottom."

"Bottom really describes a valley floor with level fields surrounded by hillsides," he says. "The term 'bottom' is just the name you would give to a valley if you lived in Yorkshire in the north of England."

Webber says since the census in 1881, the number of people with funny-sounding names seems to have been cut in half.

Webber's favorite name: Baltitude.

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