What’s in a name?

What a silly line, even if it is Romeo and Juliet (Act II, ii, 43).Still, I’ve had my doubts about Shakespeare ever since I discovered Hamlet wasn’t a farce. Like ‘Fine feathers… ’, which sometimes do make fine birds, names can be critical. Imagine being blessed with one of the following:

  • Mrs Belcher Wack Wack
  • Newton Hooton
  • Goody P. Creep (undertaker)
  • Preserved Fish, Jr
  • Mrs Screech (singing teacher)
  • Larry, Harry and Jerry Derryberry (not, alas, brothers)
  • Gaston J. Feeblebunny
  • I. O. Silver
  • Zezozose Zadfrack
  • Mr Vice (890 arrests, 421 convictions)
  • Cardinal Sin (Catholic Primate of the Philippines)
  • Virginia May Sweatt Strong
  • T. Hee
  • B. Brooklyn Bridge
  • Concerto Macaroni
  • Cigar Stubbs
  • I.C. Shivers (ice man)

– all recorded and authenticated in John Train’s Remarkable Names of Real People. And some choice names from my own (mostly unauthenticated) records: Brain (… ) and Head (1861-1940) were eminent neurologists. The head of the Motor Industry Research Establishment used to be a Mr Morris. One of my sisters was at school with a Miles Inigo Gapper and his sister Flavia, and one of my children’s cookery teachers is called Mrs Eatwell. Really. (I also have a colleague named Max Loosli who wanted to name his consultancy business Loosli Managed Projects, but that’s a little contrived.)

It’s hard to imagine going through life with this sort of burden and getting out alive. Anyone named Quasimodo is surely destined for bell ringing and bad posture. Mr Train also reports that the early Puritans favoured names such as Fly Fornication, though he does not say whether this was intended as an exhortation to rectitude or the most ambitious perversion ever conceived. Anyway, eat your heart out, Charles Dickens.

Just as bad are names that sound like a prize-winning petunia.

But it’s not all negative – names may have the most tonic effects. As Mr Train points out,

General Ulysses Grant… what panache! Led by a Hiram – the General did in fact start life as Hiram – the boys in blue would have cracked; Gettysburg would have gone the other way. Under President Oscar Lincoln the Union would have sundered.

Maurice Bonaparte? Melvin Churchill? However, that is not to deny that whenever names are deliberately manipulated, the intention and the consequences are almost always bad. Of course, if I’d been born Marion Morrison or Archibald Cox, I dare say I’d have changed it to John Wayne or Cary Grant. But more than mere aesthetics, these are ideological names ‑ WASP names. Issur Danielovich Demsky changed his name not to some other Lithuanian Jewish name more manageable to Hollywood tongues, but to Kirk Douglas.

All in all, parents should be licensed before being allowed to name their offspring.

Campaign for the Rectification of Names (or Telling It Like It Is, as we used to say around 1972). Why don’t we have one? See Fung’s history of Chinese philosophy.

Ministry of Defence. Peace keeping. Military intelligence. Airline food. Free enterprise.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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