Monday, July 17, 2017

Names, Titles and Some Usage Notes

It is perhaps unsurprising that there should be fashions in first names, perhaps influenced by movie stars or more arcane sources. What is certain is that the fashion for Ryan is besieging us ad nauseam, starting with the obnoxious Ryan Seacrest on morning TV. But there are Ryans lurking or larking in every nook and cranny. Consider, for example, the three kids who alternate as Charlie in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on Broadway: two are outright Ryans, and one has Ryan for middle name.

True, some years ago there was the movie star Ryan O’Neal, father of the movie star Tatum O’Neal, but is that explanation enough? When it came to popularity, there were the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Tyrone Power, and several others, admittedly star daughterless, but none of them begetting a nomenclatural avalanche. Is it just that Ryan slips off the tongue more fluidly than any of the aforementioned three? Ryan may generate illusions of originality by not being a calendar name, but, again, neither are the cited three. Only Gary Cooper may have occasioned some Garys, a mere rivulet compared to the swamp of Ryans. But then why hardly any Carys from Grant?

There are even—horrors!—some female Ryans, but no Spencers, albeit quite a few Tracys, possibly inspired by “The Philadelphia Story.” The quasi-Irishness of Ryan may also account for its favor with Irish Americans, as Bruce may appeal to Scottish ones, and Tony, or Anthony, may be the bequest of Italy. But there are very few Fritzes or Adolphs, for which blame two world wars and Hitler.

On the female side, except for some by now out of fashion Marys and Marias, there are four single or groups of names that hold sway, though even added together no match for the Ryans. They are Megan (sometimes foolishly Meghan, since the silent H needlessly duplicates the G); Katy or Cathy or other offspring of Catherine; countless variants of Christine--mostly of the Kristen, Kirsten and Kirstin version--which may have seemed original until they became ubiquitous, eliciting even a New Yorker cartoon; and Jenifer, valiantly solitary, what with Jenny barely a ripple. There is, to be sure, the beloved J-Lo, who may play a role in this. I doubt very much that most parents were cognizant of its Celtic origins as Winifred or Winifrid, meaning, as Eric Partridge points out, “white wave or stream.” Altogether, etymology figures rather less than euphony when it comes to naming.

I wonder, though, why none of these is comparable to Ryan, which may also usurp its closeness to the Hibernian Brian or Bryan, meaning “strong,” and as such, I think, appealing to the shillelagh-brandishing Irish. As for Katy and its derivatives, may they have something to do with the beloved Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey? I wonder also why there should be four top women’s names as over the single one for men. Are the parents of females slightly less regimented than those of males? If so, why?

In my own case, I don’t worry about the frequency of Johns. Let me quote Partridge’s book “Name This Child”: “The name owes most of its vast European popularity to the Evangelist; its brevity and strength have contributed to make it, in the minds of the majority, the finest of all ‘Christians.’ From Hebrew: ‘God is gracious.’” Q that about God’s graciousness in the light of the Holocaust and Babi Jar, and see how welcome you will be to survivors. Apropos Evangelists, why does John outperform the other three? In any case, my only problem with John is that when I hear it in a crowd, it often makes me turn my head in vain. I also slightly resent all the Jons, whether or not they are abridgments of Jonathan.

To be sure, names and titles can be problematic. Take Shaw, who expressly stated that he wanted to be known as Bernard rather than George Bernard, yet to a vast majority he remains the latter. This despite the fact that all collections of his works and books about him have him as Bernard, granted that relatively few people actually read them. Those few include American producers and publishers  nevertheless clinging to George Bernard. This may have to do with fear that the great unwashed may assume Bernard to be somebody other than George Bernard and stay away. In Germany, where he was steadily popular in translation, he always was just plain Bernard.

And now: how many times , even in my blog posts,  have I insisted that Ibsen’s play should be “A Doll House,” and not “A Doll’s House.” The genitive “doll’s” merely suggests the house of the heroine, Nora Helmer. The nominative, ‘doll’ alludes to the children’s toy, the miniature, to which the patriarchal Torvald Helmer has reduced the Helmers’ adult home. Conscientious translators all stick with the nominative, but are far outnumbered by the genitivists. Even the successful current Broadway sequel by Lucas Hnath, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” persists in the error.

Again, how many people misspell the name of the distinguished Dwight Macdonald as MacDonald? Admittedly, the pronunciation is identical, but the spelling to any literate reader is an eye- or mindsore. Mispronunciatian, however, is flagrant in Chicago, where Goethe Street is largely pronounced as trisyllabic Go-ea-the Street.
In fact, if you correctly pronounced it the German way, a cabdriver wouldn’t know what you meant.

In France, however, the name Mozart is universally Gallicized into Mozarr even by intellectuals who know better, as a result of chauvinism rather than ignorance. But at least a cabbie knows where you want to go. And while we are on pronunciation,
how often does one cry out that the word is groceries, and not grosheries? And how come that in a prominent hospital I spent time in, not a single nurse said “lay down” instead of lie down? Should I protest in my correction, or just let sleeping dogs lay?