Thursday, April 5, 2018

Names, Again

Here I am again with a blog post on names, names that I find variously interesting. Take, for example, Dove. It is the name of a very good chocolate and a very good soap, and a worthy but not so great American painter, Arthur G. Dove, described by one authority as “a curious and lonely genius.”

The gentle white dove is a symbol of peace, promulgated by both the Russian communists and Picasso, but it has latterly lost much of its currency. It tends to suggest the motley denizens of public places as pigeons, encumbering our progress and known derogatorily as rats with wings. Differently spelled, it served the dependable actor Walter Pidgeon, now mostly  remembered as acting opposite Greer Garson. Can the name  have influenced Pidgeon’s personality?

I’d like to think that the TV cooking show person Rachael Ray owes her annoying personality in part to her parents’ misspelling her given name as Rachael, which is nonsense. It is clearly derived by faulty analogy from Michael, and would make sense only if the name were Richael. Both names derive from the Hebrew, with Michael meaning “godlike” and Rachel “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle, which Ms. Ray certainly isn’t.

In saddling one with a wrong or misspelled given name, parents are manifestly to blame. But if a Rachael knew what is right, she could easily change her name legally, or simply by usage. In any case, my concern here is for what influence, if any, names have on personality.

Take my own name, John Simon, which long ago comprised a John Simon the Bad, which was me, and a John Simon in publishing, who was known as John Simon the Good, although people who worked with him found him otherwise. There were further John Simons: a Yale Law professor, a Cornell Romance Languages professor, and the so-called John Simon the Groovy, in charge of popular music at Columbia Records.

To distinguish me from the others, and because so many people in America have triple names, my father invented John Ivan Simon for me, although Ivan is John in some languages and so, strictly speaking, redundant. Still, Ivan stuck to me in some formal use, making me on my Harvard doctoral diploma Johannes Johannes, and still causing a sassy friend, Dona Vaughn, to call me John John, as if I were a Kennedy. Elsewhere I remain John I. Simon, which I am not fond of.

I am concerned here with names that have a single obvious meaning and thereby conceivably influence their bearer. I am not sure what Good Luck Jonathan does for a certain African potentate, but I wonder how one addresses him. If you are being formal, he is Mr. Jonathan, although that should be familiar, whereas Good Luck, sounds somehow ironic and disrespectful, if not downright condescending. Luckily, I am not likely to meet the gentleman.

Now take the name of Bermuda’s Public Service Superintendant (is that Chief of Police?), which is Sean Field-Lament. Does he lament the duties that come with his field? Maybe so, but does he need to inform us of it? Or is he called this only when things are going badly? On the rarer occasions, when they are going well, does he become Sean Field-Jubilation? Either way, doesn’t one feel ridiculous addressing him so? Better not have police problems when one is in Bermuda.

Consider next the Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee, now middle-aged. But how will one address her when she is, say, eighty? You will be accused of mocking or patronizing her what with that Young. To be sure, the word may have a different meaning in Korean, but here is where she lives and works. Or would she switch to Old Jean. But then to call her Good Old Jean would seem from nonintimates rather presumptuous.

And what about a man recently appointed by Trump to a high office and surnamed Pecker? With pecker a well-known synonym for penis, how did this man fare in school and later? Was he not made galling fun of, yet refuse, out of pride, to change his name to, for instance, Packer. And how about our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions? Every time I see his name in a headline, I first think it about some kind of, perhaps constructive, meetings, or even of Shakespeare’s “sessions of sweet silent thought,”until my mind readjusts itself to Jeff Sessions, who is neither sweet nor silent, though he may have some sort of thoughts when not recusing himself.

To think that there is among politicians today a man named Flake, and a rare good one at that, who must have endured no little razzing for a name synonymous with oddball. Unless voters in his state favor oddballs, provided they are not in the White House.

I come now to the most arrogant assumption of a surname these days by the man who calls himself smugly and smarmily John Legend. It is meant to make him out a living legend who combines the self-serving with the slimily ingratiating. Even his face seems shined with some sort of oil or ointment to enable his slithering into hearts and minds. I would suspect that, not knowing what God might look like, he makes do with the second-best, Christlike.

In that mode. Legend managed to get himself cast in the eponymous lead of NBC’s revival of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to bask in what has been watched by some 9.4 million viewers establishing him both as a Christ figure and as a superstar. Yet the New York Times review, though on the whole favorable and conceding the ability of Legend to sing, questioned his acting. It is in movies like the dismal Oscar winner“La La Land” that he properly belonged, contributing to his, if not quite heavenly, Hollywood aura. Legend is clearly a case of the proverbial cobbler illicitly ascending beyond footgear, to the delight of his benighted fans.

Sometimes a name works in a bilingual, or if you prefer macaronic, way, as in the case of the Austrian tennis ace Dominic Thiem, pronounced ”team,” which in English endows him with a kind of supernatural plurality. In German, it takes a Mannschaft to make a team, but the implication probably works in Austria too.

Many German Jewish ssurnames are flattering borrowings from nature in their meanings. Thus, for example, Rosenbaum (rose tree), Gruenberg (green mountain), Strauss (bouquet), or just as auspiciously Freund (friend) or Suesskind (sweet child). These names were apparently given mockingly by German border authorities to Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries with grating foreign names. Some, with more pronounceable monikers like Horowitz, managed to elude this enforced baptism.

At times it is a thing or condition that gets a favorably meaningful name. I think of what the Italian calls admiringly “odor di femina,” scent of a woman. This does not refer to perfume, but flatteringly to some less glamorous emanation from, let’s say, the armpit, that womanizers, however, value and are drawn to. It was the title of a not especially distinguished film starring the great Vittorio Gassman as some sort of Don Juan. A variation of that term was sported by that titan of advertising,, Jerry Della Femina, which, however, may not have anything to do with a womanly odor.

But then many names have a meaning quite irrelevant to their bearer. Thus the lovely French actress Francoise Fabian was surely no bean-grower or member of the Fabian Society And thus too our numerous surnames based on professions, e.g.,  Farmer, Miller, Porter and the like do not designate current occupations. So I too may escape what my name might betoken, a simple Simon. At any rate, that is what Simon sez.


  1. What’s in a name?

  2. Why no reference to your birth name, Jovan Simmon? P.S. Tonight I was remembering Ann Scovell Gordon, googling her, which led to your blog. I worked with Ann at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

  3. Very informative and entertaining, Mr. Simon. On the topic of politicians with unusual or apt names, I think Washington state's senator Maria Cantwell would have to rank at the top, though, in truth, her cant is in no way superior to that of her peers. Also, her name is reminiscent of Joe Cantwell, the fictional senator and presidential candidate from Gore Vidal's "The Best Man."

  4. Speaking of naming, I'm reading the third novel of the 'Studs Lonigan' trilogy, and the characters call a pot belly "an alderman".

  5. What in a name, Lubed Up Larry, what in a name?

    1. That's me. Uncle Kirky. I changed my name. Wad up, Joe?

  6. Nothing’s up. How’s about a bar fight thread? Me, I’m partial to Spencer.


    BAD DAY:





    1. All great movies. Seen them multiple times. I love Rio Bravo.


  8. Okay’okay'okay

    Around the point I must be a dancer,
    But is too much uncommon a kind of cancer?
    We don’t want names all ending in escu,
    But from apostrophic growth is there no rescue?

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  10. Was your name at birth in Serbia really Jovan Simmon, as Wikipedia indicates? If not, you should correct it.