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Name Game

by on March 16, 2022

Name Game

by Marco M. Pardi

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open for comment.

I have long been interested in how people devised and carried on their names. I was a couple of months short of six years old when I first encountered “American” names. But then, those encounters seemed to have been the first with a “foreign” name for some of the other kids. Seventy three years later I still encounter people who, on hearing my first name or last name, trot out some play on a historical figure or on a word, then bray like demented donkeys over their presumably original cleverness. Flat affect settles that, though I discovered that only sometime after my youth.

So I listened to names, not with the intent to make fun of them but rather to understand how they originated. Of course, at that time I also took interest in why we use the words we do for anything. Coming to the South years later I learned that some people never seem to get the names of some basic things straight. For example, some fellow students asked me if I had a spare “ink pen”, or I thought they said pen. I finally asked one what other kind of pen there is. She answered, straight pin, safety pin, bobby pin and was thinking of more when I pointed out pen versus pin. It turned out she was far from the only one with this issue and others like it. Another “Southernism” I learned, which is now mainstream as the name of a popular game, was “corn hole”. In the late 1950’s I was talking with a couple of boys from Alabama as they were discussing the difficulty of getting reliable contraceptives. Finally one of them said, Well you can just corn hole. I asked what that meant and was told that people with outhouses for toilets put a bucket of water and corn cobs cleaned of their kernels in the outhouse. After a bowel movement they use a water softened corn cob to clean themselves. The anus is thus known as a (noun) corn hole and anal sex is referred to as (verb) corn hole. This valuable, and disgusting, information had been stored in a deep recess in my mind until recently when I saw advertisements for a game using an inclined board with holes cut in it for contestants to play a game called “corn hole”, throwing a bean bag in hopes of getting it through a hole. Stunned? Yes. Then I thought it was a joke. But it seems to be quite popular. One part of me wants to think that someone behind this game actually knows the origin of the term and is playing on the ignorance of the public. Another part of me insists that common usage has become so crude that no one objects to getting the kids out on the lawn for a rousing game of anus toss.

But returning to names for people, I began to realize many common last names denote or derive from an occupation. Carter, Smith, Baker, Boatwright, Wheeler, and on and on speak to some point in the past when the progenitor of that family line was a practitioner of that trade. I even had a primary school classmate with the last name Pilot. No, I didn’t ask him if his ancestor prosecuted Jesus but I did wonder at what, specifically, was being piloted so long ago. Much later, I had a college student with the actual last name Outhouse. In that case, and several others like it, I wondered how the child bearing that name survived and why they didn’t have their name changed. Long before I met that student I had wondered, given what I had gone through with my name, how some people maintain their name when it is clearly susceptible to cruel misuse. Another student announced in class that she was in the process of having her first name legally changed. She felt that, named Shequitha, she had no likely prospects of even getting an interview for a decent job. She specifically called her name a “ghetto name”. She was probably right about the interviews. But the African-American population in general has names, particularly last names, which go back only a few generations and came from someone else. During the 1960’s leaders like Malcolm X exhorted fellow Black Americans to reject their “slave names” and forge new identities and lineages based on heritage. A problem arose when people did not know how to acquire a name from one of the more than 500 different sub-Saharan cultures and began making up names or borrowing from other cultures such as classical Greeks, Romans and modern day French.

Of course, borrowing names from other cultures can be tricky. A former Secretary-General of the United Nations was a Burmese man known by the singular name Thant. In referring to him one commonly used the Burmese honorific U, somewhat equivalent to Mister. But those unfamiliar with the Burmese language took this to be his first name, thereby often introducing him as Mr. U Thant – or Mister Mister Thant.

Watching what is currently happening in Ukraine, and by extension in the surrounding countries accepting refugees, I am reminded of the aftermath of WWII. As the Soviet armies swept westward across Europe many thousands of people feared being stuck behind what Churchill later called “The Iron Curtain”. They dropped everything including identity papers if they had them and fled west, ahead of the Soviets, hoping to make it into the sector controlled by the Allies. As they did so they were settled into D.P. Camps (Displaced Persons). The Allies and the Soviets reached an agreement that each side would return to the other side those who ethnically and actually belonged there. Multi-lingual intelligence officers circulated among the D.P.s listening to conversations and interviewing those they suspected of being on the wrong side. So, fearing their names would betray their ethnicity many shorted or otherwise altered them. They spoke as little as possible and attempted to speak the languages of the areas they claimed to be from. Western officers, knowing what awaited those they sent to the Soviets, often accepted the obvious ruse. But then, with each such acceptance of a person with an altered name something happened: Fission. That is, a lineage which may have been many generations old suddenly stopped and a new one arose. And, especially when they were resettled in another country they altered their names again to “fit in” among the locals. Or, their names where altered by Immigration officials simply too tired to struggle with the spelling of a name they could not understand. I’ve met several people who confided to me that their current name is such a derivation.

Obviously, there is no such critical need for this fission to occur among the Ukrainians who have fled Ukraine. Some may choose to do so simply out of personal comfort but it is highly unlikely to be forced upon them.

There can be other reasons for name changes. For many years the President of what was then Yugoslavia was known as Tito. His actual name was Josip Broz, but as a communist in hiding from the Nazis he followed standard Party procedure and adopted one pseudonym after another. Tito stuck. There is even a legend about the name, suggesting it is a Croatian term meaning “Do it” and deriving from his habitually decisive commands to his subordinates. Another legendary name was Joseph Stalin, or Iosif Djugashvili. Known throughout the world as Joseph Stalin, Djugashvili is thought to have taken the pseudonym Stalin, meaning steel in the Georgian language, to identify himself with Lenin. Hence, the legend arose that he was “the man of steel”.

It seems that sometimes there is a feeling that behavioral characteristics pass down through families. Names have been changed to avoid association with some well known ancestor. Some of us don’t particularly mind. My mother’s side of the family includes inter-marriage with the Machiavelli family. I’m pretty sure that’s not obvious to people who have met me. Oh. So now it is. Okay.

In the Intelligence Community, case officers assigned to Embassies under the guise of Cultural Attache or Economic Attache or something else but tasked with the recruitment of locals as agents never disclose their true names to agents. They use pseudonyms in case the agent is a “dangle” – an operative for the other side, or the agent is caught and interrogated. So, you’ve got to live much of your life under an assumed identity.

On a more common level I’ve often wondered at how American women feel when they are expected to take the last name of a husband at marriage. I could not imagine such a change for myself, yet we as a society seem to take it for granted. In the 1960’s and 1970’s an increasing amount of women refused to do so, retaining their “maiden” name. Others hyphenated the names as is common in some European countries. But then the phenomenon of on-line banking arose. Many banks and credit unions include “Mother’s Maiden Name” among their required security questions. Wise people do not make such information public.

The fact that women change their last names at marriage makes them hard to track. John Smith is John Smith no matter how many times he marries and divorces. Not so with many women as, even after a divorce she may elect to keep the marital name “for the sake of the children”.

Furthermore, I’ve heard dismay, even anger, within families that do not produce a male heir to “carry on the family name”. I did not do so, nor will I. After the trauma of divorce and loss of custody I determined I would never risk putting another child through that horror and I got a vasectomy. End of the line as far as my contribution to the family lineage. But I care more about children than I do about a name and lineage on a paper.

How about you, Reader?

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25 Comments
  1. William Boyd permalink

    My concern about names centers particularly on the “loss” of emigrants’ surnames–excepting the perceived need to fit in. From what I observe such loss may often be due to the conflict between the standard orthograph​y​ here in the States and that of ​the country of origin. Coming to mind “La Liberte,” the surname of a good friend from my CDC days, whom everyone–well, nearly–called him [Lal-uh-Berty]. He didn’t object or at least had learned to numb himself to the assault. Then there’s the case of “Baldocchi”: Not knowing Italian, I’m at a loss as to how to render this professor of biometeorology’s surname, whether guess it’s Spanish with a “ch” as in Charley…

    Loss also may be attributed to the inexperienced ear of the immigration officials at Ellis Island (c. 1900); to wit: a friend from my Ohio State days, last name “Hunter,” which his grandpapa uttered in response to entry questioning; hailing from Scotland, where grandpapa’s surname reflected his layperson contribution at the local Jewish synagogue as the “Cantor.” Might not one’s descendents desire retention of such an honorific as the family name?

    As a “Boyd,” I indeed feel fortunate in that one traditional spelling of the family name, “Beuid” was not subject to the whims of the U.S. Immigration “service.”

    BB

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  2. Thank you, Bill. Your analyses and comments are always informative and helpful. Yes, Ellis Island was a fission factory for many, especially those with complicated last names. I also have trouble with the Italian example you cite because, in my understanding, it’s a dialectical issue and varies from Hard C to the CH you reference.

    Wow. I would like to know the meaning of Beuid. Do you happen to know it?

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    • Bill answered: Beuid is Celtic. It is a term of reference for an elderly blond haired man. I’m guessing the value is in the elderly as most cultures viewed them is sources of wisdom and cultural history.

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  3. Gary permalink

    I went to law school with an Iranian guy. I can’t remember how he spelled his name, but it was pronounced “half-ass”. He used to complain about the rising he got. One day a fellow student noticed his textbook open to a case decide by Superior Court Judge Dumont. Dumont was circled. Sure enough, half-ass got his name changed to Dumont.

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    • Thanks, Gary. Yes, there must be many people who have felt the need to change their name as they move from one language area to another.

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  4. jkent33 permalink

    Your story subject has always been a matter of ridicule and mischief in my case being named Willey all my life. Its a rare day that I don’t get a snicker or second look, with their eyes looking upward, when I pronounce my last name. It is always repeated “wilie” as in Wilie Coyote. Sometimes if I’m in the mood for some education. I say its actually pronounced Willie. Sometimes, I reply for what its worth, I’m the big willie, not the small willie, that you may be more familiar with. I go a bit further saying if you have a vowel proceeded, by two consonants, you sound the consonants long and soft as in willie not wilie. The good thing is nobody forgets my name.

    We started life in Europe in Ireland and Scotland. Then on to the UK in Kent, England. I had my crest painted by a member of the Fellows of Ancient Societies in 1973. (Or so he said.) It came with a lengthy heraldry that was verified by several of the organizations offering info about where we begin life. We along with the Graham family were bequeathed property in Northern Virginia from King George III King of England. Research revealed we landed in the northern most part of the Atlantic coast making our way down the St Lawrence freeway settling where most of the Grahams and Willeys called home for a short period. They were met with misfortunate killing many in a land slide. We continued west along the great lakes settling in Chicago where we changed the name to Wiley. (I suppose they were maybe the subject of ridicule as well.) At several annual get togethers in WV, we learned the Wiley publishing company were part of the original settlers. My family made it farther to WV, settling in the southern part of WV. I learned they were religious zealots preferring to live in homes without windows. But they were also conservatives who chose to fought for the north in the Civil War. The one characteristic that is present in many of my relatives is their physical size. They were quite large exhibiting gigantic strength. Stories, I discovered about going to fairs they walked around carrying a variety of farm animals, winning bets about how long they could continue their feats of strength. My grandfather worked in Russell, KY making railcars. He suffered an accident in his early 30s cutting his left leg off below his knee. He made his own prosthetic leg he used until his death at the age of 70. He was around 300 pounds making him stand out in a crowd. I try to justify my personal increasing weight saying its genetic, all to no avail. If all I had to focus on was my name it would be a sad day indeed. Therefore, it a moot point. Today to cut down on the increasing identify theft and robo calls I use the name, Jerry Kent. (Kent being my middle name.)

    After all, its as you say: its a name game anyway!!

    Thanks for sharing you personal history regarding your name as well. With your recent breech of your security. Maybe its time to revive your Machiavellian ancestral behavior to handle the evil doers!

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    • Thank you, Jerry. As ever, you surprise us with a colorful and very well researched history. I’ve seen a family crest on one side of the family, done in Italy and signed by a Pope centuries ago. And my brother had one done, also in Italy, on this side of the family, Of course, I have no way of verifying any of it. I really doubt that any company based in the U.S. could do an honest trace, and have never been greatly interested.

      Some people who have run afoul of me in the past have experienced the Machiavellian side, but I’m quite sure they didn’t know to ascribe an attribution beyond strong suspicion. And that gets you nowhere.

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  5. Dana permalink

    Marco, as you know one of my challenges has been deciding what my permanent surname will be. If I ever manage to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, that potentially provides the opportunity to change one’s name at no extra cost. Of course the change request must also be approved, probably by USCIS and DHS. Naturally that’s to ensure the name it isn’t for certain reasons, like evading debt or taxes.

    I’ve been married twice and changed my name both times. Who I am today would not do that. Perhaps hyphenation is an option for those who plan to procreate. As for those who do marry and change their last name, perhaps some feel their own names weren’t ones they actively chose. It is a pain acquiring new I.D. cards, and dealing with bureaucratic red tape is no fun. There is a lot to consider when making what I feel is a fairly impactful decision.

    My maiden name feels attached to who I was as a child and adolescent. It also isn’t the original spelling, which was changed when my paternal grandfather arrived in Canada from Europe many decades ago. I have one close family member I especially admire, significantly for their lifelong independent spirit. Some years ago they changed our family name to the correct and original spelling, and to my knowledge they are the only person to have done so. In Canada this requires filing a simple form and paying a small fee (less than $10). In my case it will likely be much more complicated as a Permanent Resident of the U.S. All of the unknowns and even fear my name change request will be denied is the main reason for my procrastination.

    When I divorced my children’s father I kept the married name. That felt right and I never doubted or regretted the decision since they were still in elementary school. I knew divorce is difficult enough for children without a mother suddenly having a name different from theirs.

    I’ve run the gamut with all of this for nearly a decade. It’s as though I’m caught between countries and identities. It’s possible I could be around another half century, which will be fully my own to decide how I present myself in society. I used to bemoan the challenge of this decision in a humorous way: “Why can’t I just be ‘Dana,’ much like Madonna or Cher?” Of course that’s a joke but I have seriously thought about dropping a last name altogether and using my first and middle names only. That too seems a bit odd. But change is hard, and once I finalize this step it will be for the remainder of my life.

    So I have decided I will very likely follow the lead of my paternal family member. This person has been strongly influential since I was an infant (truly). It would be meaningful and far more authentic than any other choice.

    There was a time I thought “Franklin” might be a unique choice for my last name, given my strong interest in him for quite some time. But it wouldn’t be authentic, even though I still appreciate his many accomplishments. Today I would rather consider something more familiar and connected to family members who have a meaningful place in my life. They are responsible for much of my childhood resiliency as well. A good choice for many reasons.

    Thanks for another interesting post. I have edited my original response as you might have noticed.

    And by the way, I think the corn hole game has probably been around for a long time, but I don’t yet know the original history. It’s doubtful there is anything deliberately vulgar in the manufacture or sale of the game even today. Sometimes it’s nice to be ignorant of some things, isn’t it?

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    • Thank you, Dana. You do have a perplexing situation which I’m sure other readers find as interesting as I do. In a way it feels like having a choice between ultimate liberation on one hand and cementing yourself to others on the other hand. I’m not sure what I would do.

      For some reason the mantra from The Prisoner is ringing in my head: “I am NOT a number! I am a free man!”

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      • Dana permalink

        Marco, the mantra from The Prisoner might be in your head because I have had that same connection. I know all of the opening sequence lines by heart, but “I am a free man” is the most relatable. Incidentally, Franklin means “free man.” That was one of the reasons I thought about choosing it several years ago.

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  6. Sorry it took me so long to read this one, Marco!! First: “a rousing game of anus toss” had me doubled over laughing – thank you for that!! I’ve thought the same many times, though it is quite a fun game to play!

    Second: when my husband and I got married, it was fairly clear that we were going to be turning the “traditional” American family on its head: he wanted to be the stay-at-home dad (eventually), and I would be the breadwinner. For people of a certain age (a shrinking population…), my “maiden” last name, Formica, was quite familiar, thanks to the products (especially laminate countertops) that carried it as a brand name.

    Therefore, with three days to go before our wedding, my to-be husband told/asked me, “you’re keeping your name, right?” In his mind, that name “recognition” was going to be useful for my earning potential (despite the actual Italian translation, of which I am certain you are aware :-)). For my part, I hadn’t spent even a minute considering changing my name to his (rather convoluted) German surname, and it was thus settled that I would remain Formica forevermore.

    It was only years later that I learned that the practice of a wife “taking” a husband’s name originated at some point in history when women were considered chattel – exactly as slaves were. Then I was extra-glad to be bucking that tradition and carrying my very own insect/countertop surname instead! It also made me appreciate the Macolm X (et-al) exhortation in a much more personal way.

    Third: yes! The child over the name, any day!

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  7. Thank you, Marcia. Your name is indeed formidable (the word formidable derives from the same root and meaning) and any entomologist would assuredly tell you that without “you” there would be no higher life on this planet.

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  8. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Wm Shakespeare

    Rose is indeed my first name, but it is not the one I used for most of my life. My mother was Rose (or Rosie), and so I was called Elaine. Becoming a military wife necessitated many an official signature, and so Rose E. was born. These days, and for many years past, I give and respond to that name; it is just easier that way. Comically, my favorite bartender calls me Rosie.

    It’s just a name, or a couple of names, but I am treated differently depending on which of those names is known and used by those with whom I am communicating. Family members and those who know me through my children still use Elaine, and their response to me is far more casual than those who know me strictly as Rose.

    Am I truly two different people? I was once told a story of two young men who were heard to be discussing someone they knew from their classes at Polk. My friend, who was listening to them, after some time told them, “You do know you are talking about the same person.” They had known me at different times there, and I had changed so much in the interim that I seemed not to be the same person at all. I think I like the new one more.

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    • Thank you, Rose. I find it interesting that my response to Elaine is different from that to Rose. Somehow, Elaine seems more formal. My family has always been very small in number and no one ever called my brother or me by any other of our names. Of course, we all had to put up with mispronunciations by others. In all my years I’ve allowed only one person to shorten my name, a Norwegian friend whose first name was so difficult he shortened it himself.

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      • I suspect any formality comes from the unfamiliarity of the name. Would it help to know I was called Lanie as a young child? I find that the name by which others know you often makes a difference in how you are treated by them. Names come and go, of course, but “country” names are often given less respect than “city” names; how many CEOs do you know who are called Bubba? In any case, I have settled on Rose as my moniker, and it is that name with which I now introduce myself.

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        • Your point about formality is interesting and deserves more thought. Also, I didn’t mention names which do not specify gender. A former colleague went by Tony. But, since his hyoid bone never dropped during puberty his phone voice sounded exactly like a teen-aged girl. I saw several people express shock when they came into the office to meet him for the first time, expecting a demure little girl and meeting a huge man.

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  9. I was under the same guise of carrying on my last name when I fought my custody battle to gain custody of my son. It was ugly, but I got lucky and won the fight, and I do mean that I got lucky. The judge was just about to grant the custody to the Mom when he asked a sort of simple question to which the Mom could have easily lied, but she decided to take a stubborn approach and argue with the judge. Back to the point, I realized that it’s just a word used to describe a particular human, the genetic pass down makes me happy enough and it in my opinion beats the test of time.

    My last name was often associated with “Bacteria”, so I can understand the pain. I thought about a name change but decided against it.

    The corn hole story was utterly hilarious and I literally laughed out loud. Thank you, I really needed that. We had a death in the family recently. Speaking of which, I would love to talk about it with you some time soon. I’ll send you an email.

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  10. Thank you so much. I’m so glad to see your comments. It has been a long time.

    I thought about naming the beanbag toss game “Up Yours”, but let that one pass, so to speak.

    I will look for your email and converse with you when you are ready.

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  11. FROM Madison:

    “On our wedding day years ago, my former spouse and I got tattoos of one another’s first name. It was their idea, and as a people-pleaser (a habit I still wage against), I went along with it. Now that we’re no longer together, I’ve wondered what to inexpensively do with it. This isn’t the only relatively permanent body modification I chose to please someone else, but thankfully it was the last.

    Today I realize how much a ring finger name tattoo signifies “ownership” even though I mistook the suggestion for “love.”

    I’ve thought about redacting their name with a single line. Not too painful, but more difficult to read. The idea seems sort of meaningfully symbolic.

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  12. Thank you, Madison. That’s a very interesting situation, and I bet not that uncommon. I’ve read that laser removal feels like having a rubber band snapped against your skin. Still, it’s pretty expensive – probably more so than having a tattoo artist obliterate what’s already there. I’m guessing your finger is too small to have a dog’s face tattooed next to the name. That would be more fun but maybe you wouldn’t wish that on a dog.

    I’m sure many others have tattoos pledging undying love to some now forgotten “soul mate”. Until laser removal became possible I always wondered how they dealt with departure.

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  13. From Madison:

    “I thought you might have an interesting reply. Thank you, Marco. No room for much else on my finger. This spouse wasn’t the best dog caregiver, but I did become full custodian of the wonderful rescue we adopted together. For now perhaps I’ll consider the tattoo a reminder of the nine years of loving canine companionship post-divorce.

    Incidentally this dog’s name at the shelter was initially going to be mine at birth, but my parents opted against it. I retained the shelter name and it was one of several reasons he came home with us.

    I’m relieved my adult children sincerely like their names. Choosing theirs was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.”

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  14. I named my daughter the Greek term for Wisdom. Throughout the years she has far exceeded the usual understanding of that term.

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  15. Gary permalink

    The fee for name changing in Canada is $!37.00 (CND). I know this because I just paid it so that my grandson could change his name.

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    • Thank you, Gary. I’ve heard that in the United States you can go by any name you wish so long as you do not use it on a legal document or in answer to a request for identification by a law officer.

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