An Exploration of the Nature of Names
By Francis A. Lackner, Jr.
Read to The Chicago Literary Club
November 1, 2010
Sir Cloudesley Shovell. There’s a name to conjure with, and if you didn’t know that Sir Cloudesley was a decorated naval hero and Member of Parliament who sailed straight into the Scilly Isles in 1707, lost 1400 men and his entire fleet, and thereby set the British Navy to figuring out how to accurately determine longitude, you might think his was a name made up for a Oscar Wilde farce. But the search for longitude is another story, well told in a paper by Richardson Spofford some few years ago.
So, what’s in a name? We are encumbered with them for better or worse at birth by parents who may or may not share our aspirations or intentions. We can’t change them without a court order, but we adopt nicknames, handles, and aliases at will. How do we come to have the names we do? What are their sources, their conventions, their rituals and meanings? What is their future use in an age of computers connected across continents and cultures?
Names are the convention that we humans have used since before the time of Ur to identify single, individual objects or people, as opposed to a group that is represented by a mere noun. George Washington is synonymous with the American Revolution and cherry trees; Abraham Lincoln likewise with the Civil War and split rail fences. Their names are emblematic of their age and the issues that surrounded them. General MacArthur famously returned to the Philippines, but can you name any of the others who waded ashore with him? If I mention the names of Alexander, Aristotle, Cleopatra, Hitler, or Genghis Khan; Gandhi, Louis XIV, Attila, or Charlemagne, do not specific images come to mind? The name salutes the individual, and gives them a place in history, sometimes even becoming the emblem of a people or an age.
Conversely, nations, political parties, religious groups, or ethnic clans in conflict seek to de-humanize each other. One way of doing that is to demonize the name of the opposing leaders. Another is to reduce the group to a common derogatory noun: Germans in both World Wars were commonly referred to as “the Hun.” I am sure you can supply other ethnic slurs, but the point is to remove the individuality and character of the object being vilified and thereby make them worthy of killing or conquering.
People who study Anthroponymy, the study of the names of human beings, tend to be linguists, and therefore to love complex words, derivations, and arguments. I propose here not to give a scholarly treatise on naming conventions, nor to list the fifty or hundred most common baby’s names, but to have a look at one of the elemental features that makes us unique as humans, and to have a bit of fun along the way with some of the more amusing examples to be found.
Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance man, scientist, artist, inventor, military engineer, and, incidentally, the most famous son of the town of Vinci, for his name translates to the perhaps less euphonious “Leonard from the small Tuscan hill town of Vinci”. When you hail from a small town, single names will suffice, whether Leonardo, Giuseppe, or Alfredo. When you leave your enclave, the larger world needs a reference to separate multiple individuals of the same name. Using the town of origin is one way to separate individuals, hence Vinci identifying the Leonardo in question. In researching this paper, I discovered that the name Lackner is derived from the (very) small German town of Lacken in southern Bavaria, thus putting my family name in this group and accounting for the relative paucity of folks with that name in the general population. The trade or occupation of the person is another means of identification, leading to a legion of Carpenters, Smiths, or Masons, or more recently, Joe the Plumber, a well-known figure in the last presidential campaign. Some cultures identify with a family lineage: John-son, William-son, not to mention all the Norse lineages in Scandinavia. Areas on the fringes of Europe may still retain the single name tradition, such as Iceland and the Faroe Islands, not to mention the currently popular Afghanistan.
This convention sufficed into the late Middle Ages, since the great mass of people were illiterate, and a single-name arrangement sufficed. With the coming of the Renaissance and the explosion of literacy that accompanied it, this changed. People needed to have distinguishing names, and thus family names were introduced, even required. As time went on, the addition of a middle name became more common as a means of further distinction, in some cases honoring a saint, in others a notable ancestor. By the twentieth century, the common practice in the Western European tradition was for three names: a common forename, an honorific middle name, and the family surname. The forename is frequently shortened to a nickname or diminutive; the middle name is represented by its initial. The forename customarily also indicates the sex of the individual.
Now, no tradition is complete without a few exceptions to point the rule. In the southern United States, the nickname is frequently also the forename, with the middle name retaining an honorific function: Dolly Rebecca Parton; Larry DeWitt Brady. The Spanish have a tradition that honors the family names of both father and mother, in that people bear one or two given names, followed first by the surname of the father, then the maternal surname. The maternal surname is an honorific, however, and is not used when addressing a person and the family name is the father’s. For example, Anthony Quinn of Hollywood fame started life as Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca, where Quinn is the surname and Oaxaca the maternal honorific.
The Eastern, or Asian, tradition reverses this order. From Hungary eastward, the custom is for the family name to precede the common name of the individual, and since many names from these traditions are not familiar to Western ears, the results can be unfortunate in translation. Most of the region covered by the Eastern tradition also uses non-Western alphabets, so any of any names seen in the West are at least doubly translated, largely obscuring the meaning to Western eyes.
These conventions have, no matter the culture in which they originate, become codified either in law or cultural practice. Parents choose the names of their children, using fairly strict protocols, and their selections cannot be changed except through the writ of law. Their choice is confirmed with great solemnity in rituals such as baptism when the officiating priest asks “By what name does God know this child?” The coming of the Age of Aquarius released many of the bonds shackling parents, and the coming of the Computer Revolution has allowed users to create their own noms-du-Internet, but more of these developments later.
Some names become so identified with the characteristics of the bearer that they are transformed into common nouns. Thus, ‘maverick’, referring to an independent thinker who refuses to conform to the accepted views on a subject, is derived from a reference to an unbranded steer. That latter definition derives from the name of Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher of the 1830s and 1840s who allowed his cattle to roam without a brand and then collected all unbranded cattle at the end of the season, to the frustration of his fellow ranchers. The full story may be found in a Club paper by William Bross Lloyd, a Maverick descendant, entitled “A Maverick Year” at the Newberry Library.
Other examples of common nouns derived from the names of individuals include ‘dunce’, a derogatory diminutive ridiculing John Duns Scotus, a Scottish theologian (and hence also an example of a surname derived from a place name) and one of the most influential thinkers of the late Middle Ages. The common name for your trousers, ‘pants’, is derived, of course, from the Italian Commedia ‘del Arte character Pantalone, a Venetian character distinguished by the padded leg coverings he wore. But, Pantalone’s name is itself a derivation from “Panteleon”, a Roman physician and early Christian noted for the miraculous cures of his patients. The game of tossing a pie-plate-shaped object between friends was invented by Yale students, but the name of the game and object derives from the name of the woman whose pie plates were so favored by the Yalies, Mrs. Mary Frisbee. You may be familiar with the derogatory term ‘wimp’, from J. Wellington Wimpy of burger fame in the comic strip Popeye, but the same author also gave us the term ‘goon’, from Alice the Goon, and probably the automotive Jeep, a World War II invention, likely taken as a code word from Olive Oyl’s pet Eugene the Jeep, whose sole vocabulary consisted of the word “Jeep!”
My father, Francis A. Lackner, was sent to a western dude ranch with his brother Herman when both were in their early teens. Up to that point, he was known to family and friends as “Boo”, but in the course of the return trip from that camp decided that this was not a proper adult nickname and came up with “Franny” instead, which is how he was known to the world for the rest of his life. Equally, Herman, born simply as “Herman Lackner” decided that he had been short-changed a middle name and adopted a middle initial “H”.
These are simple examples of names changed by a life transformation. I have spoken in a prior paper about the need for a transforming event in life to create a responsible adult from a frivolous child; a change of name is not infrequently a sign of that transforming event. Saul of Tarsus, a notable harasser of early Christians, was visited, you may recall, on the road to Damascus and became Paul, the early and equally energetic Christian proselytizer.
You likely remember that when Jehovah led Abraham and Sarah to the Promised Land that He promised that their descendants would become a great nation. What you may not recall is that this promise was sealed by a name change. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah; both taking an “H” from God’s own name, Jehovah, to signify their new status as God’s favored people.
Many European names, pronounceable only in their own culture, were changed at Ellis Island on entry to the new culture of the United States. Most of those changes were retained by the individuals as a sign of their entry into that culture.
Augustus Burleigh, whose paper on The Cairo Expedition was read here as a classic paper, moved from the old New England to the new Chicago in the 1830s, and in so doing changed the spelling of his name to the phonetic Burley, and so it has remained to this day, although his direct named descendants are spread from New York to California.
Other names, primarily forenames, honor religious figures: Christ, Mary, and Mohammed are frequently used in their respective cultures. Certain month names seem to be popular: notably April, May, and June. Some names are adopted from geographic place names significant to the parents. Native Americans customarily used the name of the first thing the mother saw after giving birth, and thus we have the name of the subject of Barry Kritzberg’s paper of last season: Wa-Tho-Huck.
Some names are more unique than others. Consider Armand Hammer, noted industrialist and philanthropist, whose name is taken from the baking soda of euphonious similarity. Or Kennesaw Mountain Landis, jurist and baseball commissioner, named after the Civil War battle, which was in turn taken from the mountain that dominates that battlefield. Condoleezza Rice’ forename is based on a misspelling of the Italian musical term ‘con dolcezza’ meaning ‘to be played with sweetness’. One Elizabeth Wrigley-Field has the hyphenated surname of her parents, professors Julia Wrigley and Hartry Field. Former Texas Governor James Stephen Hogg had the bad taste to name his daughter Ima, but at least she had the consolation of inheriting his considerable wealth.
One Asian culture has been the subject of many invasions and much colonial rule: that of the Philippines. Starting with the Spanish and concluding with the American influence, Filipino culture is a polyglot one, and the names that result can be creative. The Catholic tradition is strong, and commonly abbreviated, which gives us, instead of Maria-Concepcion, ‘Mari-Con’. Or there is the politician named Jejomar, a combination of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. There is also the multiple approach: one woman, asked the names of her children, replied, “Ting-ting, Popo, Testament, Peachy, Boris, Mary-Concepcion, and Dugong.” Perhaps the name of the latest President sums it up: Benigno Simeon Noynoy Cojuanco Aquino III, derived from the influences of the Spanish, Hebrew, Filipino, Chinese, Italian, and American traditions.
Actors and other performers may adopt stage names; writers, noms de plume; professional wrestlers, ring names; political figures may adopt aliases. Some do so for the notoriety or celebrity they fancy that the name connotes. Others seek to conceal a pedestrian or unattractive given name. Professional associations commonly require that no two members share a common name, and will force the latecomer to change, since a name is a trademark to a performer or celebrity, even after death. Political activists may find it expedient to conceal their true identity from legal authorities while still publicizing their causes: Deep Throat, Lenin, or Stalin come to mind.
So, the actress born Norma Jeanne Mortenson, but baptized Norma Jeanne Baker, later married to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, became Marilyn Monroe at the behest of Ben Lyon, a Twentieth Century Fox executive who first signed her to a film contract. Frances Ethel Gumm got her start at age 2 ½ in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota singing with her family; changing her name after the Gumm Sisters were nearly laughed out of Chicago following an appearance at the Oriental Theater; you may know her better as Judy Garland. Actor Maurice Micklewhite sought a new name for perhaps obvious reasons, taking Michael as a stronger forename than Maurice and adopting his surname from a movie marquee for The Caine Mutiny as he was passing by: Michael Caine. Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antoguella found that casting directors could not pronounce his multiplicity of names and became Rudolph Valentino. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, has chosen to keep her original name and achieved fame anyway. Archibald Alexander Leach, English circus and stage performer, found fame in Hollywood as a leading man with the name Cary Grant.
George Spelvin, Georgette Spelvin, and Georgina Spelvin are the traditional pseudonyms used in programs in American theater when the actor or producer does not wish to identify the actual name of the performer involved. Familias Spelvin have also been used as an inside joke in theater circles, and have even been written into shows such as the 1927 musical play Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman and George and Ira Gershwin. They have also appeared as decoys for ephemeral characters in stage mysteries, when that character never appears onstage.
The musical performer Prince, born Prince Rogers Nelson, in a fit of pique over a contract dispute, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, thus becoming in popular parlance “the musician formerly known as Prince” or TAFKAP. He finally gave in to practicality in 2000 and reverted to the original.
This brings up a whole selection of individuals who have adopted single names as a professional and legal name. Aside from Charlemagne and Attila, these include Madonna (born Madonna Louise Ciccone of Bay City, Michigan), and both Penn (born Penn Fraser Jillette) and Teller (born Raymond Joseph Teller), who possesses one of the few United States passports issued in a single legal name.
Ethnic considerations have proven influential in the stage name choices of past generations of the film industry: you may know Margarita Carmen Cansino better as Rita Hayworth. The Estevez family has split on the question of ethnicity: Ramon Estevez became Martin Sheen, and one son, Carlos, became Charlie Sheen; his brother Emilio, however, retained the family surname as Emilio Estevez.
Authors are equally adept at concealing their true identity. Some of the more well-known noms-de-plume include Mark Twain, adopted from his river-boating days by Samuel Clemens. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, brilliant mathematician and logician at Christ Church, Oxford, wished to conceal his career in children’s books and is perhaps more familiar as Lewis Carroll. Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, Baroness Dudevant, was one of the premier French novelists of the nineteenth century under the name Georges Sand, a name she adopted in a time when literary pursuits were not as open to women. Ellery Queen is not a person at all, but both the name of the author and of the principal character in the detective mystery series of the same name, and the pseudonym for two cousins from Brooklyn who actually conspired to write the series: Frederic Dannay and Manford Lepofsky. Rush Limbaugh, who now uses his real name, was known under the radio name Jeff Christie in his days as a top-40 disk jockey.
This consideration of stage names occasions a brief mention of the unusual names that started surfacing in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these seem vapid to this author and consign the bearer to an ethnic niche; they are adequately represented by the names Frank Zappa gave his children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa. Similar naming frivolities surface regularly in the sports of basketball and football, perhaps best represented by Chad Ochocinco, who legally adopted the number of his football jersey, 85, over the more pedestrian Chad Johnson.
The choice of forename for a child does have social and educational significance for the child as they develop. Studies have shown that the bearers of unusual names are slower to spell and read, perhaps due to the misguided attention of teachers and classmates who have trouble with the name as they are growing up. They are also less likely to be suggested for gifted classes and are more likely to be identified as learning disabled. Johnny Cash sang of “A Boy Named Sue”, but the gender connotations of names do matter. Boys with ‘girly’ names are more likely to have disciplinary problems. Girls with more masculine names lean toward math and science, while girls with more feminine names lean to the humanities.
This discussion of the sources, conventions and uses of names was occasioned by thoughts about personal transformations, and by a curiosity about the conventions of naming on the Internet and its social implications. Virtually without exception, Internet sites and communications require one to have what is commonly called a “user name”. In most cases, this can only be one name, since spaces and punctuation are generally not allowed. The interests of privacy from an occasionally malicious world indicate the use of pseudonyms and aliases. The characters involved in the development of the Internet have had a playful run with these handles, as they are commonly known, as they relate to the interests and character of the owner.
Handles have changed the conventions of naming, however, in that they are commonly chosen by the person owning them, rather than being assigned by a parent or other authority.
Handles are frequently a variant of the owner’s given name, running together a first initial and last name or the reverse, but these are rarely of interest or amusement. More interesting are handles chosen from an interest or characteristic of the owner, much in the fashion of nicknames such as Big John or Little Vic.
Handles are unique to a specific user of a specific website, but that is hardly to say that any one person has only one handle over the variety of their interests and the websites they visit. Any one individual may have several, or even many, handles in their use of various websites, some sober and business-like, some frivolous.
Likewise, one user, meaning a legally definable individual, may sign up at the same website several times with different handles to make it seem that their comments and interests are coming from multiple owners when in fact they are not. This practice, known as a “sockpuppet”, is much discouraged by webmasters since it distorts the appearance and statistics of the site.
Corporations and other “respectable” institutions like to choose “responsible” handles like the aforementioned first initial last name convention, leading to examples such as “jsmith” or “john-dot-smith”. Individuals wishing to appeal to that sort of institution tend to pick such handles when establishing a presence on the large public email sites such as Google or Yahoo.
The use of handles has arisen due to the nature of the Internet, but the Internet has equally changed the practice of naming, much in the manner that the rise of printing changed the nature and convention of naming in the Renaissance. We are early in that process, so it is hard to see where the conventions, both social and legal, will go.
Playful individuals who have no need for social responsibility tend to pick playful names like 2oddsox. This subject interested one of the leaders of a website for webmasters, and some of the results he gathered include his own: Limbo. This nickname was given him by an East African barman; in their culture, the first name is abbreviated and a sexual identifier added, ‘-bo’ for a man, ‘-ba’ for a woman. So his given name, Liam, was shortened to ‘Lim’, the suffix ‘-bo’ added, and he has been in ‘Limbo’ ever since.
‘Blobfisk’ came from a Swedish drinking game involving a staring match in which the only word one was allowed to utter was ‘blobfisk’. This was apparently so fascinating that the webmaster adopted it. Quoting ‘2oddsox’, “I stared around the room looking for inspiration for a nic, and just happened to look down at my feet.” ‘Juniperwasting’ is “a setting in a book I have been writing for the past six years. A school of higher learning of sorts.” ‘Trillianjedi’ derived his name from a computer program, “Trillian,” for which he wrote some improvements, perhaps making him feel like a Jedi Knight from the movie series Star Wars. Let me list a few other established nicknames, and let you speculate about their source: ‘Nearly Headless Nick,’ ‘Foxtrot,’ ‘Jinxmchue’. The list could go on but for time limitations.
What constitutes the identification of an individual? The personal name system with which we are familiar came into common use after the Middle Ages to identify discrete individuals, and where, by and large, one name represented one person. In the past century, we have added the Social Security number, any number of financial and other institutional account numbers, user names both fanciful and practical for internet sites, email names, and more, all representing the same individual, all for separate purposes. The birth name has legal standing in identifying an individual, yet so does a Social Security Number, and perhaps increasingly, various of the user names and nicknames that may be chosen or assigned. How do you assign liability and responsibility for an individual best known to the world as 2oddsox? As the cyber age enters the mainstream of institutional society, it will have to figure out how to assign responsibility in an area that has until now enjoyed the all the freedom of the Old West.
So, what of Sir Cloudesley? He managed to struggle ashore on the Scillies after the storm that sank his fleet, only to be murdered for the emerald ring he wore. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with great pomp. Parliament instituted a prize in his memory for the person who could demonstrate a practical means of determining longitude at sea. The Shovells do not seem to have produced any other family members of public note, but lately, Sir Cloudesley’s name has been appropriated by a British rock band.
Our name is our marker in society and in history. It is that which identifies us as an individual apart from the anonymous mob of humanity, whether it is in a group at work, a family genealogy, or our national history. However, at the collation you may simply call me Frank.
 The Time Keeper, December 7, 1987
 Anthroponymy; in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Anthroponymy&oldid=331969117
Situated in Muhldorf, Oberbayern, Bayern, Germany, its geographical coordinates are 48° 10' 0" North, 12° 7' 0" East.
 William Bross Lloyd, “A Maverick Year”, December 9, 1985
 The Week, December 4, 2009, pp. 48-49
 The Week, July 2, 2010, pp. 22