Whether you realize it or not, names are a part of language, and a by no means unimportant one. I am not even referring to such a somewhat esoteric phenomenon as a proper noun becoming a common one—e.g., Sandwich, Mackintosh, Wellington boots—but to proper names improperly used and a threat to correct usage.
Consider the shocker when a prize-winning racehorse bears the misspelled name American Pharoah. Pharoah, alas, is a fairly common misspelling of pharaoh, but it does not usually get this kind of publicity and fame. The Times of May 23 has an article, “American Pharoah’s Misspelling Mystery,” that sheds light on the matter.
You cannot, of course, blame the horse itself, which, however much horse sense it may possess, does not know with what moniker it has been blessed or cursed. Its chief owner is a rich Egyptian, Ahmad Zayat, owner of Zayat Stables, and you would expect an Egyptian, of all people, to know how to spell pharaoh. But oh no. To be sure, I wonder how many Americans can spell Roosevelt correctly.
Still, no matter what Ahmed Zayat may or may not know, surely there ought to have been a decent speller in his stable—his son, Justin, perhaps. It turns out, however, that not even the Jockey Club took steps to rectify the error. As James L. Gagliano, the Club’s president and CEO put it, “Since the name met all of the criteria for naming and was available, it was granted exactly as it was spelled.”
It now emerges that the Zayat Stables hold an online contest for the naming of their horses, and thus there was the invitation to the public in 2014 to name their crop of two-year-olds. And who won the contest for naming this future champion? It’s all there in the Times: Marsha Baumgartner, of Barnett, Mo., depicted in the paper with her husband, Dave, and described as “a 64-year-old registered nurse in a tiny central Missouri town.”
Unfortunately, though there is a register for nurses, there is none for illiterates. If you inspect the picture, you will find two typical unglamorous Midwesterners of the small-town variety, she even, as one suspects from her chubby cheeks, overweight, but when it comes to learning and refinement, clearly lightweight.
When asked, she commented: “I don’t remember how I spelled it; I don’t want to assign blame. I looked up the spelling before I entered.” That she won’t assign blame is understandable, given on whom it would fall. It also figures that she doesn’t remember how she spelled it, since she managed to forget the spelling in the comparatively short time between looking it up and sending it out.
There is also the question of where, if she isn’t fibbing, she did that looking up. Does she own a reputable dictionary? Or did she find the word in some other worthy publication, say the Sears catalogue or the Farmer’s Almanac. “Pharaoh,” I suspect, is one of the most misspelled words in America, whether the perpetrators are from the ranks of born-again Christians or college students.
What I find somewhat more surprising is discovering that the Jockey Club found the name within the rules, “which include an 18-character limit (Pioneerof the Nile was rendered that way to conform to the guidelines) and a ban on obscene or offensive phrases.” Personally, I consider “pharoah” not just offensive, but actually nothing less than obscene. And, speaking of “less,” Melissa Hoppert, author of the Times article, states that up to six names per horse can be submitted, although “the average is two or less.” Though “fewer” would be correct here, even that seems problematic where “one or two” would be more natural.
T. S. Eliot has written compellingly about the naming of cats, and thus influenced the nomenclature of the musical of that name. Nobody has weighed in on the naming of horses, which strikes me as bizarre in the extreme. But then again, no more so than the naming of some people.
Consider if you will the name of a promising black tennis player, a young man named Frances Tiefoe. Yes, Frances, not Francis. Now whatever may have prompted the parents to give their son a girl’s name—ignorance being the most charitable interpretation—you would think that he himself, with or without friendly advice, would see fit to have his name legally transgendered.
Well, some tennis players do have odd names: no fewer than two women—one white, one black—are called Madison (Keys and Brengle), and one can’t help wondering whether it is derived from a president or an avenue. But a male Frances is unique.
Why does any of this matter? Because where famous persons or equines are concerned, such misguidedness becomes influential and widespread. And the instigators don’t even need to be famous. I doubt whether the first person who mispronounced “grocery” as “groshery” was a celebrity, yet behold the result.
Egypt, for example, is an unlikely culprit. But look: not only Pharoah, but also Pioneerof the Nile. Does it have to be an Egyptian river? Were there no pioneers of the Amazon? Never mind, though. Misnomers will always be among us, only let it not be on account of a prominent horse or sportsman. Granted Tiefoe is not yet celebrated, but he could well become so. And then what might be the names of his future male colleagues: Mary, Josephine, or, tomorrow, Tamara?