Friday, October 9, 2015

What’s in a Name?

This one really works only in German, but I’ll render it into English. “What’s the dog’s name?” the new maid asks. “Herkules,” says the mistress. “Herr Kules?” responds the maid. “I’ll just call him Kules.  I ain’t gonna call no dog Mister.”

How clever is Agatha Christie in calling her sleuth Hercule Poirot. First make him Belgian, French would be too clever by half. Belgian is close, but less grand, especially when followed by the homonym for “poireau,” which is French (and Belgian) for simpleton. So, a heroic naïf? Not bad.

Names matter. Your name and being may somehow intertwine. Not, I dare say, if yours is a very commonplace name, say Peter, Paul or John. Or, if feminine, Jane, Joan or Jean. But even those may have implications, as one may derive from the linguist Eric Partridge’s invaluable little book, “Name This Child: A Handy Guide for Puzzled Parents,” on which I heavily rely.

Like in so many other things, there are fashions in names (even fashions in crime, as we learn from ever more frequent mass shootings, most often in schools). So, recently in France, there has been a Thierry lurking in every other corner, and, in Germany, a Juergen or Joerg. In America, there have been fewer pronouncedly trendy names, although David has been a bit of a contender, especially among homosexuals. This presumably derives from Michelangelo’s statue of David, which as male paragon corresponds to the Venus de Milo as female. Partridge explicates David as “the man after God’s own kind,” and adds that it strikes few as stemming “from the Hebrew verb ‘to love.’” But its bearers are surely aware of its derivation.

My own name, John, acquires its vast popularity not so much for deriving from the Hebrew “gift of the Lord,” as from the name of the Evangelist, as Partridge suggests; but then why are Matthew, Mark and Luke not equally frequent? This may well have to do with euphony. In English, at any rate, John has an awesome thud, which the other three lack. There is something propulsive about the Italian Giovanni, as also about the German, Johannes. The French Jean, on the other hand, has a calm quality. Are French Johns more pacific than German and Italian ones? I wonder.

The feminine Jane, Joan and Jean are equally appealing because of a long, resonant vowel sound and minimal consonants. They are all derived from Johanna or Joanna and the Hebrew for “God is gracious,” though Jean is mostly Scottish, Jane mostly English, and Joan, presumably, equally both.

These all used to be known as Christian names, of whatever religion their bearers. But with the coming of P.C., the term“Christian” has become insufficiently multidenominational, and “first names” has supplanted it. So too the once fairly popular first name Christian has become relatively rare, as derived from the Latin of ‘follower of Christ.”

But, with no great consistency, Christopher remains popular, derived from the Greek for “Christ bearing,” and stemming  from the well-known legend of Christopheros, which has no basis outside of myth.  Mythic too, too, was the gift-bearing and bringing Saint Nicholas, for obvious reasons beloved of children, who would affectionately have him be Saint Nick, or, coming by way of the German, abridged into Santa Claus. By neither name, however, did he exist.

Other names too come from the German, as, for example, Heidi. The German name comes from Heide, meaning moor, and surely not from another meaning of the word, pagan. Moors, as lovers of Emily Bronte must know, are very romantic places. But the abbreviation as Nick brings us to the enormous popularity of nicknames having nothing to do with Santa.

Indeed, Anglophone first names are often nicknames, indicative especially of the American craving for familiarity with one another that nicknames imply. So it is that even a president will want to be known as Bill rather than William Jefferson Clinton and even the Rough Rider Roosevelt welcomed Teddy for Theodore. So a Bob comes across more friendly than a Robert, a Jim more egalitarian than a James.

You may wonder then why so many nicknames minimize their being such, as John becomes Jack, Alexander turns (among others) into Sandy, Elizabeth into Betty, and Margaret into Greta, Peggy, and Meg (among others), none of them manifestly derived from the formal, longer version. I suppose that the key here is trying to have it both ways: like yet also unlike, the latter suggesting individuality within relatedness.

But as tendencies create countertendencies, so there are clearly parents who don’t want their offspring made smaller, stuck with a diminutive even in adulthood.. Hence we have names like Karen and Ingrid, Austin and Otto, which cannot be diminished. Yet an obvious nickname has, as far as I know, never miniaturized an Al Gore or a Max Beerbohm in the public eye.

Now what about surnames that, especially often in the South, have been turned into first names? They have the distinction of sounding special, without being weirdly excogitated as are nowadays those of many blacks. (They may be bona fide African, but how many of us would know that?)

To be sure, even many surnames have achieved  a certain ordinariness, when a playwright can be Taylor Mac, and a chanteuse Taylor Swift. They seem to beg for some kind of felicitous appropriateness, yet I doubt whether either one of those Taylors can do more with a needle than sew on a button.

Most surnames were clearly not conceived as firsts. They may have begun as middle names, as when Mary Flannery O’Connor became Flannery O’Connor, Lula Carson Smith, Carson McCullers, the (McCullers through a brief marriage), and   Nelle Harper Lee, Harper Lee. Note that these are all women with family names moving into firsts, so as to retain something of their original bearers’ identity as marriage changed their surnames—if they got married, which many of them didn’t.

Moreover, surnames are not gender-limited. As being male carries with it certain privileges, so not having a markedly feminine first name may increase one’sstatus. So Leslie is a handily bisexual name, though originally a merely female one, it allows for a woman, if only by unacquaintedness, to pass for masculine.

Altogether, more significance is being attached to first names these days, so that there are organizations such as BabyCenter, whose head, Linda Murray, speaks of a database of 40,000 possible names, and says “Now parents are really trying to choose a name that is unique, that suits their child and that says something about their personality.” To be sure, if it exists in a database, it is not going to remain unique forever, but perhaps something close to it to it. Yet what about suiting the child’s personality, when the infant by the time of christening can hardly have developed much of one. To be sure many babies are said to look like Churchill, but looks are not personality, or else there would be no end of Winstons around.

Name changing was a big thing in the old Hollywood, where the idea was precisely to be less unique but more recognizably Anglo-Saxon, and thus not Jewish or Polish or Russian or Hispanic, or whatever smelled of immigration and therefore most likely impoverished lower-class. This affected primarily surnames, but first names too underwent that supposed upgrading.

So Nathan Birnbaum became George Burns,; Jacob Julius Garfinkle, John Garfied; Marion Levy, Paulette Goddard (the double D not very French, although French was acceptable, e.g., Charles Boyer); Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr; Lucille Fay Le Sueur (too fancy) Joan Crawford; JudithTuvim, Judy Holliday; Alfred Arnold Cocozza, Mario Lanza; Ramon Estevez, Martin Sheen; Sophia Kosow, Sylvia Sydney; and so on and on.

This was not limited to actors. So producer Schmuel Gelbfisz became Samuel Goldwyn; producer Robert Shapira became Robert Evans; director Mihaly Kertesz, Michael Curtiz; director Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Nicholas Ray; and again so on and on. But there was also an opposite current, whereby Hollywooders wanted to sound  grander, more fanciful, as when, Mary Leta Dorothy Kaumeyer turned into Dorothy Lamour; or Betty Joan Perske into Lauren Bacall, and so on yet again. In some cases it was a matter of mere euphony rather than anything more devious. Archibald Alexander Leach was Anglo-Saxon enough, but Cary Grant just sounded better and was easier to remember,

These name changes now prevail among couturiers, almost none of whom go by their original name. Of course Ralph Lifshitz prefers to be Ralph Lauren, but Michael Kors could have stayed just as well with his legal, less coarse Karl Anderson, Jr., perhaps just dropping the Jr.

Strangest of all are the changes of name among composers, music being all sound, and thus a sound owned from childhood would seem something to cling to even if odd or hard to pronounce. Obviously a nimble movie composer could well turn Israel Baline into Irving Berlin, although there was nothing Berlinese about him, but even those aiming a bit higher, i.e., mainly the stage, have often changed their names-- in the case of Broadway, away from their Jewishness. This is somewhat paradoxical, given that Jews, along with gays, have constituted the most faithful Broadway audiences.

And then there are the Simons. My father, Joseph Simon pronounced Shimmon in his native Hungary and Simmon in his Yugoslav businessman identity, and my mother, born Revesz or Reves, never mentioned our family’s religion, though other people’s was sometimes brought up and perhaps discussed. I never attended a church, synagogue or mosque, and this somehow seemed perfectly normal to me.

It is only when I met, fairly late in life, my favorite poet, Robert Graves, he asked me whether I was a Welsh or a Jewish Simon, asserting that those were the only extant kinds. An extremely learned man, his word, if I will be pardoned for putting it that way, was gospel. So, since Welsh was out of the question, this meant a Jewish heritage of some kind, though practice there never was. This made some sense in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, now merely Serbia, where if you weren’t Greek Orthodox, you were lumped together under the label Other, but just what kind of other hardly mattered, unless you chose to make it an issue. However, when we emigrated, for some reason religion became necessary, conceivably for one’s passport. And then, much to my amusement, one could—and my father did—buy oneself and one’s family into Old Catholicism, although what that was I had not the faintest idea. Roman Catholicism, however, for better or worse, it was not.

Here in America, where Simon must have sounded strange to my parents, they legally changed their name to Simmon, with the O pronounced more or less as in Simmons. This, however, seemed neither fish nor fowl to me, so I remained Simon and a thorough atheist. Latinos of all kinds pronounce it as rhyming with bemoan, which I have become perfectly used and resigned to. As the saying goes, what’s in a name anyway?

I once heard a radio program about strange first names culled from the Registry, and were they ever strange, but I regrettably did not write them down. Noel Coward, in a song lyric reminds us of the weird Marmaduke. If influenced by his name, what would a Marmaduke become? An eccentric, most likely. I certainly hope that a person named Peregrine would become a traveler, if not indeed a wanderer. Noel himself was so named because of his Christmas birth date, and I daresay it had an effect on him as lover of exotic holidays.


  1. I once knew of a soldier from the U.S. South whose first name was JW -- now THAT'S country (as in country and western).

  2. Obviously, a kid's name says almost nothing about the kid, but everything about the parent. Maybe, later in life, the guy or gal will conform to the restrictions/possibilities of his or her sobriquet, but I doubt it. I think a drug addict (or a hero) could be a "Steve" or a "Jason", and the name has no influence.

    On the other hand, if a person is named something strange, it could affect the way others perceive him, which in turn effects that person's character, however slightly. I realize I'm taking a huge chance using "affect" and "effect" in the same sentence, and don't have a clue which is which. Let's hope I got them correct.

    You could go a step further, and argue the same thing about the names of "things", not just people. Think of cities, objects, colors, thoughts, animals, etc, etc.
    Take, for example, the word "muffin". This is an old Slavic term for, "delicious, yummy cake", but we think of it as a. . . . .well. . . a delicious, yummy cake. Okay, maybe that's not a good example, but I can think of others when I haven't had so many beers. I'll get back to you guys tomorrow.

    1. As the great poet Steven Tyler once wrote, "You ain't seen nothin'/ 'Til you're down on a muffin/ Then you're sure to be a-changin' your ways"

    2. LOL!!! I just fell off my chair!

  3. In the book, if memory serves, Heidi's real name was Adelheid.

  4. Is Robert Graves really your favourite poet?

    1. A Renascence

      White flabbiness goes brown and lean,
      Dumpling arms are now brass bars,
      They’ve learnt to suffer and live clean,
      And to think below the stars.

      They’ve steeled a tender, girlish heart,
      Tempered it with a man’s pride,
      Learning to play the butcher’s part
      Though the woman screams inside—

      Learning to leap the parapet,
      Face the open rush, and then
      To stab with the stark bayonet,
      Side by side with fighting men.

      On Achi Baba’s rock their bones
      Whiten, and on Flanders’ plain,
      But of their travailings and groans
      Poetry is born again.

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  6. Actually John is the most popular of the four Evangelists because (a) John was the "beloved disciple" while the other three Evangelists were minor characters in the New Testament, and (b) John is the Gospel that is clearest about the divinity of Jesus.

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  8. I'll try this again.

    It's been a while. I hope Mr. Simon is doing well. I'm anxious for a new essay!

    1. Yes, I'd like him to take on ISIS like he took on Streisand's nose!

  9. Yes, or when he ripped Bogdanavich a new one. (I loved old Bogdanovich though. Those were some great movies.)

    Simon doesn't "do political". He stays with the artsy-fartsy stuff. Good for him. I hate politics. I equate it with pro wrestling.

    1. Yeah, 'The Last Picture Show' was great. I remember when I was 10, my suburban cineplex was showing 'Klute', 'The Last Picture Show' and 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller' at the same time. Adulthood looked like it was going to be so exciting. Alas.....

  10. Three terrific films! Right in my wheel house.

    What I miss is the Drive-in theaters. I wish I could take my kids to one, but they're gone. I have fond memories of those places.

    Once, when I was about 17, we put about 15 kids into the trunk of my car and I drove in alone and paid for one. The guy looked at me strange, but I just smiled and waved as I pulled in to the back row.

    I had to wait about 10 minutes to let them out because the people were watching me. My friends were yelling in the trunk, "We're suffocating!". What could I do? The dudes were watching me. I had to let them squirm for a while.

    After some time, they stopped watching me, and I let all the kids out. They were furious, but after we broke out the cooler of beer they were just fine. We almost got kicked out because we went in the concession stand drunk and showed our asses. Close call.

    Anyway, point was, the movies that night were "Butch Cassidy and (yada, yada)", "The Wild Bunch", and "Easy Rider"!!!! Three classics in one night! 15 people saw all of those movies for 75 cents!

  11. There's still a drive-in in Maryland, right outside of Balmo' -- I went there a few years back, viddied 'Zombieland' -- nice place, great concession stand:

    1. I'm glad to hear that. The drive-in theaters need to make a come back. Those things are as American as apple pie and baseball.