I can’t help it but I am an entrenched traditionalist—or, if you prefer, conventional soul—about names. I have no serious quarrel with those who invent names for themselves, but if you want a name hallowed by history, I say, “Stick to the tradition and don’t meddle or muddle with spelling or pronunciation.”
Let’s start with the name of the Countess of Essex, married to Prince Harry. She should be Megan, not Meghan, as she has it. Before an A, O, or U, the G is automatically hard, as in garden, government, and gutter, and as such does not require hardening by an extra H. Before an E or I, things can go either way: getting or gender, gibbon or gist. With Megan, an H after the G, is no option.
“Meghan” is manifestly de trop and illiterate. So much for the former Meghan Markle. You might try to excuse this fault by blaming the parents who perpetrated it. But an intelligent bearer, in this age of openness, could easily have corrected it, either legally or simply by usage.
Yet what can you expect from a couple that after prolonged pondering names their son Archie ? That is not even a full-fledged name, merely a diminutive for someone called Archibald. It derives from the Teutonic Ercanbald, meaning nobly bold.
Of course, you might argue that President Clinton, for example, would go by Bill, even if he was christened William Jeffferson Clinton. When it comes to preference, however, he might as easily have called himself Habakuk or Marmaduke if he chose to; the aura of William would cling to him anyway. Other politicos too have used nicknames for their first names, presumably making them more friendly and eligible.
Now take the case of that obnoxious female chef on TV, Rachael Ray. Rachael for Rachel is absurd. That second A is clearly derived by faulty analogy from Michael, but serves no purpose (e.g, different pronunciation) except to look pretentious. The fact is that both Michael and Rachel come from the Hebrew, the one meaning “who is like to God,” the other “a ewe,” “emblematic of gentleness,” as the great linguist, Eric Partridge, on whose book, “Name This Child,” all my wisdom is based.
Although English names come from all over, some even from old English, Scottish or Welsh sources, the ones that I would most consider affected are a number of women’s names ending in “ah,” where the problem is that they are, for the most part too historic. Too snobbishly faithful to their origins. The terminal H is particularly useless, given that, in English, it could easily be dropped.
Take Deborah, a bee in Hebrew, which to my eye would look better as Debora. Or take now Sara and Sarah, equally popular, though the first is all that’s really required. It derives from the Hebrew “Sarai, meaning quarrelsome, which in time became Sarah, meaning “princess,” influenced no doubt by “Sar,” a prince. Nora, or Norah, is largely from the Irish. Writes Partridge: “earlier Onora, a Hibernicism for ‘Honora’ or ‘Honoria.’” That final H seems to me the very acme of meddlesomeness, as in Norah O’Donnell, the new anchor for “CBS Evening News. The classic Nora, perhaps under the influence of Ibsen, strikes me as much the finer.” Hannah, according to Partridge is “a doublet of Anne,” whatever that exactly means, and seems to me, who have never encountered it, truly fudging the obvious and quite sufficient Hanna. Ann and Anne seem to me equally unsullied .
However, I rather like Anna, “the original form of Anne,” according to my master Partridge; not because of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, which I shamefully admit to never having read, but because of any personal associations--Nordic, Teutonic or Slavic--that I may have gleaned from readings or acquaintances. Thus the heroine of Lanford Wilson’s play “Burn This” is called Anna. Eugene O’Neill even gives us an Anna Christie.
As a tennis fan, let me conclude with two instances from the tennis world. Nick Kyrgios, the Australian ace of clearly Greek origin, has himself and the world pronouncing the name as Kyrios, the middle G unsounded. Why? It’s no tongue twister in its written form, so what has that poor G done to be avoided? Perhaps the danger of being an undesired mispronunciation in English as Kyrdgios.
More curious yet is the case of the African American Tiafoe (his parents immigrated from Africa), who calls himself Frances Tiafoe. He has been duly warned that Frances is a woman’s name, but that he had its masculine version, Francis, at his ready disposal. No, he insisted, Frances it must be. This though he doesn’t sport the least feminine trait, looking rather like a very butch male person. Francis, extremelyMy popular among Elizabethans, “derives from Old German, Franco, a free lord.” But isn’t there something a trifle too free about such gender-bending?
Readers, if you can shed light on either of these instances, kindly do so. My own full name John Ivan Simon, had that redundant middle name (Ivan is just another form of John) added by my father to make me sound, in his view, more American, what with the popularity hereabouts of middle names. To me, it seems more Russianizing than Americanizing, and I have been avoiding it whenever possible.