Friday, June 4, 2010
What’s in a name?
A rose by any other name would still have aphids.
(Note: If you click on that link, you may learn more about aphids and ants and caterpillars than you could ever possibly wish to know. Consider yourself warned.)
But just think about it. Suppose the Beatles had been called the Noodles instead, or the Hiccups, or Loads of Dandruff, and suppose that instead of John, George, Paul, and Ringo their names were Motrin, Ithaca, Bactrian, and LaQuandary. And suppose one of them once said, “We’re more popular than Jesuits.” The last third of the twentieth century might have been completely different.
Names do make a difference, after all.
Billy Ray Barnwell, my friend, nemesis, and part-time alter ego, has written about names. Those of you who have not read Billy Ray’s work before should gird your loins now.
“Billy Ray Barnwell here, Mama always said fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but here goes anyway, some people have unusual names, don’t you think? for example the principal of the high school I attended back in Not Grapevine Texas was named Willie Pigg, he had a daughter named Barbara Ann and a son named Billy Dale, you’re prolly saying what’s wrong with that? well don’t look now but their initials were B. A. Pigg and B. D. Pigg, why would anyone do that to their children?, and back around World War Eye as the famous bandleader Lawrence Welk would say there was also a Governor of Texas named Jim Hogg, he and the lovely Mrs. Hogg had a daughter they named Ima, that’s right folks, Ima Hogg, and legend has it there was also a Ura Hogg but that has been emphatically denied, I have heard that in her old age Miss Ima Hogg reigned supreme as the grande dame of Houston society sort of like Alice Roosevelt Longworth the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt did up there in Washington D.C. with her little pillow that said if you can’t say something nice about someone come sit by me, but I don’t know whatever became of Miss Ura, if indeed there ever was a Miss Ura, I guess the jury is still out on that one. In the service I had a friend named Jim Parsley and I knew of a guy whose last name was Turnipseed and I worked with a Marsha Lamb, I don’t know what it is with animals and vegetables, oh and my first grade teacher back in Pawtucket Rhode Island, as the famous newspaper columnist Dave Barry says I am not making this up, was Miss Edith Wildegoose, I still have her wedding announcement that Mama cut out of the newspaper to prove it, yes I was born in Rhode Island but only because I wanted to be near my mother and she happened to be there at the time, but just as soon as I could convince my family, we moved to the South, well that’s a little joke but it’s not entirely untrue, I was six years old and pre-asthmatic when the doctor told my parents I would prolly do better in a drier climate, and since my father thought he might find work in the aerospace industry, we sold our furniture and packed up our clothes and left our third-floor apartment at 61 Larch Street and our landlord Mr. Lee Vitale pronounced Mr. Leave-a-TALLY and the Misses Irma Chisolm and Yvonne Schack at the Pawtucket Day Nursery and also Mrs. Mullins who taught me for one whole week in public kindergarten before I was moved into the first-grade class of the aforementioned Miss Edith Wildegoose at Hancock Street Elementary School and moved to Fort Worth Texas on a train, a trip that took three days and two nights. I can hear some of you saying Texas isn’t the South, it’s the Southwest, well it seceded if that’s any qualification, but getting back to odd names, let us not forget Tom Bledsoe, and Mama said she knew a girl back in Philadelphia named Violet Roach, and when I finally got around to taking Latin in college the teacher who taught me all about conjugating the verbs and declining the nouns and adjectives so that I finally understood Mama’s little joke and also realized that my uncle wasn’t saying “so messy phooey” at all, he was saying the principal parts of the verb to be in Latin, was named Elizabeth Beaver. I have heard that when people began using surnames several hundred years ago they might pick a nearby geographical feature like Hill or Field or Rivers, or their occupation like Carpenter or Taylor or Cooper which means barrel maker, or an identifying physical characteristic like Long or Short, we won’t delve into that any further, or an animal name like Wolf or Fox or Byrd, but why someone would choose Beaver or Roach or Wildegoose is beyond me, and it’s not just animals either, some names just sound right and some do not, take colors for example, we all have friends named the Whites or the Blacks or the Browns or the Grays or the Greens but do we have friends named the Yellows or the Purples or the Oranges or the Beiges? no we do not and in the great overall cosmic scheme of things there’s prolly a very good reason why we do not, and some people go out of their way to try to be cute, for example that guy who wrote the book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had characters in it named Truly Scrumptious and Caractacus Potts, of course those people were not real, but I think trying to be cute can create a burden for the child, for example George Lear who created Lear Jet airplanes named his daughter Crystal and so far so good but her middle name was, are you ready for this?, Chanda, that’s right, Crystal Chanda Lear, and my friend John Cornelius told me the other day he used to know a girl named Candy Machine but he may have been pulling my leg. Girls seem to have to bear the brunt of parental inventiveness, for example I know a family named Musselwhite where the sons are named Fred and Wayne but the daughter’s name is Fredonia, and I know another family named Furbush where the son’s name is Carl, common enough, but the daughter’s name is Tranquilla. Fredonia Musselwhite and Tranquilla Furbush and both of them are Caucasian, so you can stop giggling and rolling your eyes about the Sha’niquas and Champaydrons in your local African-American community. Two of my all-time favorite names are Ninnie Threadgood and Fannie Flagg, one is real and one is made up, in fact the one that is real made up the one that is made up, maybe we could start a contest and you can guess which is which, just send your postcard entries to me, Billy Ray Barnwell, care of General Delivery, Not Grapevine Texas, say either “Ninnie Threadgood invented Fannie Flagg” or “Fannie Flagg invented Ninnie Threadgood,” whichever one you think, we could have a drawing for the big prize, maybe a year’s supply of fried green tomatoes or something, this could be big, really big, but getting back to names, we all know families who fixate on a particular initial, for example I know a D group, Don, Doris, Darryl, and Dawn and I know a J group where the children are Jonathan, Jennifer, Jessica, Jeremy, Jason, Justin, and Julia, but the parents, go figure, are David and Sabrina. I also know a woman with a beautiful name, Amalfi, who told me her father was visiting in Italy and saw a highway sign that said Amalfi and he said if he ever had a daughter he was going to name her that, I told her if he had gone to Atlanta instead we would be calling her I-285 today, either that or Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Amalfi’s sister Sammie has a total of 21 names because her father happened to be the pastor of a small church and when his wife became pregnant every woman in the congregation suggested a name for the new addition and since the pastor and his wife didn’t want to show favoritism or hurt anyone’s feelings they used all 21 names, Amalfi can rattle them off without blinking an eye but I can never remember what all of Sammie’s names are, the whole concept is so overwhelming, so whenever I see Sammie I just make some names up and say Hi there, Sammie Imogene Esmerelda Hildegarde Florence Ophelia Desdemona Eleanor Bess Mamie Jacqueline Ladybird Thelma Betty Rosalyn Nancy Barbara Hillary Laura, well you get the picture, and we all have a good laugh, Sammie doesn’t mind, but one thing she does do is she gets married a lot, she has been married several times in what I believe is an unconscious attempt to have enough last names to bring the scales into balance. Then there’s the case of everyone’s favorite violet-eyed actress, the famous Elizabeth Rosamund Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky, I don’t know what her reason is, and let’s not even attempt to understand Zsa Zsa Gabor who is from Hungary and has been married so many times her wedding dress is prolly drip-dry. Speaking of Hungary, foreign names are a world unto themselves, for example people from India all seem to have names like Praline Lolafalana or Bajeeb Bagoshbaghali, don’t you think? and we have all heard about names that are prolly just jokes, you know the ones, let me write phonetically here, fuh-MOLLY, oh-RON-juh-LO, luh-MON-juh-LO (female, orange jello, lemon jello), it just gets worse, my step-uncle, that would be my stepmother’s brother, married a woman named Ovaline and I always called her Ovaltine, behind her back of course, and years ago when a friend of mine married his wife Udella, no kin to Udella Mabry, three little kids I know began calling her Umbrella, behind her back of course, maybe it’s something in their DNA, like I said earlier the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, and on that disturbing note this is Billy Ray Barnwell signing off.”
(End of excerpt)
RWP again. I told you to gird your loins. Maybe you’ll listen to me next time. Reading Billy Ray may cause you some confusion, but no one ever said life is fair (and if someone did say it, he or she was definitely wrong. Two weeks ago in our church, the guest speaker, a retired three-star Army general, said if life was fair he would look more like our pastor and less like Barney Fife. Then he said our pastor was the Tom Cruise of the Assemblies of God. I am not making this up).
If you know any unusual names you care to share that belong to real people and are not just products of your overworked imagination, the comment section awaits.
(Ima Hogg, ca. 1900)
(Crystal Chanda Lear)