Why Martin is still a usable baby name, and Ivan isn't

Mass murderer Martin Bryant - left - and serial killer Ivan Milat.
Mass murderer Martin Bryant - left - and serial killer Ivan Milat. Photo: AP

Unusable baby names - we all know them. The ones irrevocably associated with tragedy, evil and misfortune.

With good reason, almost no-one uses the name Adolf in Germany, despite it being a reasonably common name until about 1932. Even though it was a little outmoded by then, Adolf still ranked number 71 for baby boys. When Hitler came to power, it experienced an upsurge in popularity for a few years, then plunged as Hitler enacted his devastating agenda.

Australia's no-go names

Locally, the name Azaria has been etched in to the hearts and minds of not only Australians, but the entire world, after the two-month-old infant was taken by a dingo from her family's tent as they camped at Uluru in August 1980.

Her mother Lindy Chamberlain was wrongly charged with Azaria's death (and father Michael charged as an accessory after the fact), with the court case, public vilification and subsequent exonerating of both parents playing out in the media. It wasn't until 2012 that Azaria's cause of death was accurately recorded as being caused by a dingo attack, and her death certificate reissued.

As pretty as the name Azaria is, few parents want to associate their newborn children with the family tragedy.

Most of us wouldn't blink an eyelid at a baby boy called Martin. Even after Australia's worst massacre at Port Arthur, where Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded a further 23. It sparked the Howard government's gun amnesty and subsequent restrictions on semi-automatic weapon licenses which still exist more than two decades later.

So exactly why is it that the first person most Australians would think of when presented with a baby called Ivan, is the serial killer Ivan Milat?

Internationally...

It's a topic that's reared its sinister head over on UK forum Mumsnet, with members hashing out why the name Myra is still completely unusable, despite it being ripe for attention from those naming babies.

The OP asks why Myra is unusable and Ted or Theodore (as in Bundy) isn't.

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Child killer Myra Hindley rendered her distinctive name unusable for more than fifty years in the UK, though it seems Rose hasn't suffered the same fate.

Rose ranks 60 in the UK top 100 in spite of the notoriety of serial killer Rose West (also known as Rosemary). Fred (Rose's husband and fellow serial killer) is nowhere to be seen on baby name lists, though Freddie is deemed acceptable, coming in at number 16.

Myra well and truly fits the bill for modern parents - unusual, short and according to some, 'beautiful,' but the crimes of Myra Hindley (and Ian Brady), have confined this short and sweet name to the most horrific of history books.

So what's the reason?

The key, identified by Mumsnet name buffs, seems to be how common or unusual a name is, which makes sense when you apply other unusual names to fame of one kind of another. Uma belongs almost exclusively to Uma Thurman, Elvis is rarely seen beyond the context of the famous Presley.

While Martin as a first name is no longer common for the babies of today, it's not uncommon among older generations, so is more likely to be in use by every day people than the more exotic Ivan.

Martin is also a common surname, making it blend all the more into society as those with the last name create associations with the name that are current, friendly, pleasant. 

For most people who don't know any real life Ivans, the name is associated with 'Ivan the Terrible' (famously violent Tsar of Russia of the 16th century) and Ivan Milat.

It's why we're unlikely to see Ivan hitting the top baby name lists in Australia, despite starting with the appealingly unusual letter 'I' relished by hipster parents, with fashionable favourites like Iggy, Ines and Ione.

The perception of notorious names is also dependent on location. In the UK, Ivan might have less hard-hitting connotations than Fred. Here in Australia, the name Fred enjoys a measure of popularity.

One thing is for sure, once the taint of tragedy is associated with an unusual name, it will take generations to recover, if ever. Populations take their national tragedies personally, carrying them deep in the public consciousness.

Babies are a fresh start - our future - so parents name them either to fit in or stand out, taking care not to tar them with the brush of recent historical tragedy.