Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Names matter. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but if it were called buzzfunk we might think twice before sticking our nose into it, and all that sweetness would go to waste. I doubt whether I could love a woman named Mildred, no matter how appealing otherwise.

The name problem obtains in art as much as in life. The main reason a fine musical can get away with being called “Matilda” is that she is a tiny tot and a genius besides. A grown-up Matilda could only go waltzing. But I worry about the lovely Spanish tennis player Garbine Muguruza, who is not doing as well as I would wish. She suffers from a double whammy. Mu suggests a cow, guru a dubious Indian pundit whom one should not get involved with. As for Garbine, its odor of garbage really hurts. Still, she is one of tennis’s three graces, along with Ana Ivanovic and Julia Goerges.

And apropos tennis, isn’t it auspicious that Djokovic anagrammatizes into “Oh, which joke?” because whatever joke it is, it’s better than humorlessness, of which Novak can definitely not be accused. As for “no vac”; in tennis, as long as you can absorb enemy balls with your racket, no need for a vacuum cleaner.

But these are names where the meaning may affect us; what, however, about sound? Grgich Vineyard wines had to be as good as they are for their name not to be off-putting. As a title, Emma can just about get away with it, thanks to Jane Austen’s skill; Jane Eyre” would appeal even if Charlotte Bronte were less talented. “Roderick Random” scores with those ruggedly alliterative Rs, but “Martin Chuzzlewit” has kept me away nomenclaturally.

Dickens, to be sure, is a virtuoso namer. I used to have a Dickens dictionary, which has since somehow vanished, much to my chagrin. Just reading Dickens titles can be a pleasure; who wouldn’t enjoy an autumnal field the color of copper?

Disturbingly, there are fashions in names. When one of them gets to be very popular, it loses some of its charm. Thus Alexandra and its shorter version, Alex (for women), have become a bit too frequent. The same goes in spades for the pullulating variants of Christine—you know, all those Kristens, Kristins, Kirstens and the rest, which inspired a splendid New Yorker cartoon. The same goes for the male Christopher, which not even an initial K can quite redeem.

Of course, there are the obvious ones, like Peter, Paul, Michael and John. They somehow escape stigma because they are the aural equivalents of comfortable old slippers—you are hardly aware of them. But David was a seeming fashion not long ago, and now Jason certainly is. Luckily fashions pass.

Some names are too recherché. Take Colin and Reginald (OK in England) or Julian, almost. But what are we to make of a young black I spotted on TV called Aristotle Jones? Does the latter mitigate the former, or the former overshadow the latter? Or take a young black woman, also on TV, whose Christian name is Camry? Slightly better than Automobile. I suppose. Aristotle, to be sure, can be safely paired with Onassis; it suggests millions put to thoughtful use.

No fashion has been stronger than, a while back in France, Thierry. If you stayed for the final credits of a French movie, Thierrys followed one another like ducklings in a row. (Thierry does sound nice, but not in excess.) What saves in French the ever-popular Jean is that it gets wedded in a hymen, with or without hyphen, to Jacques, Claude, Luc, Paul, Pierre or what have you, and so escapes monotony.

Clever authors have tended to have a way with names, particularly in titles. So Daniel Deronda is far better than its appended novel. Moby-Dick is quite amusing, which cannot be said for the dreary, overlong novel, however much you inflict it on unsuspecting students. Moll Flanders rolls delectably off the tongue, and nothing beats Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Even what may be the most ludicrous novel ever written, by one Mrs. Amanda M’Kittrick Ros, has an affecting title “Irene Iddesley.” But it cannot salvage such writing as, “’Mighty Heavens!’ exclaimed Sir Hugh Dunfern, are you the vagrant who ruined the very existence of him whom you now profess to have loved? You, the wretch of wicked and willful treachery, and formerly the wife of him before whose very bones you falsely kneel?” and so on and on, giving, among other things, a bad name to alliteration.

Oscar Wilde, for instance, was expert with names. Who wouldn’t want to investigate the picture of someone called Dorian Gray? How creatively Wilde exploited the map of England with euphonious names such as Worthing, Windermere, Chiltern and the rest he appropriated. And then there is Shakespeare.

What an inspired namer! I recommend the book Shakespeare’s Names by Laurie Maguire, published by Oxford. But even without reference to Maguire, could there be anything more apt than Dogberry, Bottom, Starveling, Peaseblossom, Shallow, Pistol, Prospero or Miranda, Latin for worthy of admiration?

Or take something like Falstaff, which comprises both fall and false, and perhaps, ironically, staff, as someone not to lean on. There is the Latin adage “nomen est omen,” and nothing could be more of a signpost than so many of these names. Let me quote from Laurie Maguire’s above-mentioned book, a section labeled “Onomastic Legibility.”

“We no longer assign names with the expectation that the name’s origin will reflect or influence the bearer: Kirk Douglas need not be a Scotsman who lives near a church (‘kirk’) and a dark blue river (Gaelic ‘douglas’). None the less, the popularity of book titles such as Names to Give to Your Baby complete with lists of etymologies, biblical and literary precedents , suggests a degree of residual if temporary onomancy, and parents’ acknowledgment that they chose a name because they liked its associations . . . is simply a variant of etymology (the name still has an origin).”

I cannot help wondering about the names of the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, and his wife, Patience. How does the man distinguish between someone’s wishing him well or merely addressing him? Or between reprimanding his spouse or merely addressing her? Surely Europeans must have problems with the wearers of such names.

Then again, in the Times of August 17, 2014, we read about the wedding of Monica Singh and Adam Kleinman. No one will mistake the bride’s name for a command, or the groom’s for being a little guy. But the person officiating was one Freedom Freedom, a Sikh priest, which sounds like a sick joke. Do such names have a prophetic quality? Does President Jonathan have more good luck than the rest of us? Does the Reverend Freedom Freedom enjoy greater liberties than most other humans? Indeed twice as many?

This is not meant as ridicule, only as puzzlement. Surely the significance of names clings to the bearer. Take the French word lolo. An earlier dictionary defines it as “(Child’s word.) Milk.” A newer dictionary offers “1) Fam[iliar], milk. 2) Boob.” The meaning seems to have progressed from the substance to the source. But I have heard perfectly educated persons attribute lolo by false etymology to a derivative of the twin endowment of the beautiful and bosomy Italian actress, Gina Lollobrigida. (The twin l’s in Lollo all the more apt.) Or why else did the meaning of lolo, even with a single L, extend to tits?

Names, I repeat, matter. Brian Friel’s superb play, “Translations,” takes place in the 1830s, when the British Army Engineer Corps carried out an ordnance survey of Ireland (I quote Seumas Deane) “mapping and renaming the whole country to accord with its recent integration into the United Kingdom.” So place names were renamed to suit English versus Irish ears. Granted, we deal here with place names, but are personal names such a different matter? Consider the following.

Not so long ago in American film and theater, Jewish names had to be transmuted into Aryan ones. So Israel Baline became Irving Berlin; Hyman Atluck, Harold Arlen; Burton Levy, Burton Lane; Jerrold Rosenberg, Jerry Ross; Jules Stein, Jule Styne.
So much for composers. Likewise choreographers: Jerome Rabinowitz into Jerry Robbins; Milton Greenwald into Michael Kidd. And especially actors: Jacob Julius Garfinkle into John Garfield; Harold Lipshitz into Hal Linden; Joel David Katz into Joel Grey, and so on.

It wasn’t always a matter of de-Semitizing. Foreign-sounding names were turned into something more Anglo. Thus Vladimir Dukelsky became Vernon Duke, and Salvatore Anthony Guaragna turned into Harry Warren. And sometimes it was a case of mere greater euphony. So the lovely Donna Mae Tjaden became Janis Paige, and Rosita Dolores Alverio turned into Rita Moreno.
Since the coming of political correctness and ethnic pride, nowadays the more a name suggests a minority, the better. To hell with euphony and hello outlandishness. This new tolerance is all to the good. But there remains the fact of non-American and non-European names striking us as funny.

Chinese names amuse us, rightly or wrongly, by their very brevity. Thus the veteran Chinese star of women’s tennis, Li Na. We may or may not know that in China last names come first, and are flummoxed about whether to call her Ms. Li or Ms. Na. The confusion has gone so far that she is always Li Na, all bases covered, and even her very mother has taken to calling her LI Na.

Conversely Indian names amuse, or at least bemuse, us with their polysyllabicity. In a recent Times article I came across Babloo Loitongbam and Gaikhangam Gangmei. I leave it to you to hunt down the possible English associations. Bad as ridicule may be, it is better than murder, as practiced, for instance, by extreme Islam.

And, when you come down to it, is Lollobrigida any less funny than Loitongbam? It would have been even funnier had the actress kept her birth name, Luigina, which she reduced, despite loss of alliteration, to the sexier Gina. I myself am, as it were, following the example of Bernard Shaw, who dropped the initial George, by dropping as much as possible my redundant middle name, Ivan. Also, some would say, the Terrible.