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Amazing name

20 June 2014


IN 2006, the name topped the list of most popular girls' names; but, in the 1960s, the only people you knew called Grace were probably aged spinster aunts - with one obvious exception. Now, in the wake of the catastrophic reception of the Grace Kelly biopic, the name looks set to be consigned to another period of neglect.

In State of Grace (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Grace Dent offered an entertaining account of the name, whose initial popularity came as part of a wave of virtuous Puritanism. Happily, the vogue for phrase names such as "Weep-Not", and "Fly-Fornication" was shortlived; but Grace, along with Hope, Joy, and the like, made it into our genealogies.

The Puritans were masters at using names as a form of moral and social control; but Dent gave us a vision of "Grace" which transcended pious wishful thinking. Her chief witness was Grace Maxwell, who began to reflect on her name when dealing with her husband's illness. Struck down by a brain haemorrhage, Edwyn Maxwell's recovery was regularly delayed by diagnostic error, and compounded by infections.

Her attitude towards the frustrations was summed up admirably in the phrase "I can't be doing with flappin'" - although it was clear that she is capable of a delivering a damn good flap when the occasion demands.

But the virtue of rising above the petty, and focusing on the important, is something that she demonstrated with touching determination.

Faith and Charity: two more names from the aspirational school of nomenclature. But are they siblings? A recent BBC poll sug-gests that they are, indeed, closely related; and, in The Daily Telegraph, the claim went further: "Religion makes people more generous."

Regular readers will know of my admiration for Radio 4's More or Less (Fridays) - the statistics programme that does the work of sceptical analysis that is seldom found elsewhere - and, last week, the team had a go at the issue, armed with its regular rallying cry: "Correlation is not causation"; in other words, to identify parallel trends among those who give to charity, and those who go to church, does not establish a causal link.

There are many problems with extrapolating conclusions from the BBC poll. One is the definition of charity: does that include buying a lottery ticket, or buying a charity Christmas card?

More subtly, there is the issue of the order in which you ask the questions. As fund-raisers will tell you, the effect of asking a succession of questions to which the answer is "Yes" can be powerful. In this case, if you have responded "Yes" to the question "Do you have a religious faith?" it is harder to reply "No" to the question "Do you give to charity?"

The BBC pollsters defended their methodology. But, in the light of other evidence, most significantly from the UK Giving survey commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation, which reports a much lower figure overall for households that give to charity, people of faith are perhaps less entitled to feel smug than the Telegraph and others might have encouraged them to feel.

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