Name Games

My name is spelled "Smythe" but it's pronounced "Throat-Warbler Mangrove"


Shirley Shirley bo-birley
Banan-fanna fo-firley
Fee-fi, mo-mirley
—Shirley Ellis, "The Name Game", 1964

Saw this mentioned on the news last week. Here are the top three names for newly-adopted puppies and kittens, by sex:



Female Male Female Male Lola Bentley Lola Dexter Stella Diesel Stella Cooper Luna Tank Izzy Louie

Right off the bat, there's a wealth of snark mineable from this list. I mean, "Diesel"? "Tank"? Really? What kinds of dogs are these? Are these live animals or Cylon raiders? And apparently "Bentley" is the name of some poor kid featured on "Teen Mom." Yikes.

But what caught my eye is that the two favorite names for female puppies and female kittens are, in the same order in both cases, "Lola" and "Stella!"

It gets worse. If you extend the list to the top five female-puppy-and-kitten names, both lists then also include "Izzy" (Where does that come from? How many cat people have Jewish uncles?); if you go to six, "Luna" then appears on both lists, and if you consider the seven favorite names for female puppies and kittens, six of them appear on both lists: Lola, Stella, Luna, Izzy, Nala and Lulu.

This seems disappointingly unimaginative, and perhaps somewhat sexist. There is little such duplication among names for male puppies and kittens; only two names ("Marley," no doubt from that movie, and "Louie," an outstanding pet name) appear on both lists.

My cat's name is "Equinox H. Cat". "Equinox" because I brought him home on the autumnal equinox in 2001. Taxonomically, his family name is Felidae, but they changed it from the Greek at Ellis Island. For the middle, I wanted to name him after some autumn-related mythical character, but found a dearth of male harvest deities, which probably makes sense when you think about it, fecundity being a principally female province. Staring at the word "harvest" in my Google search box, however, the "harve" jumped out, and I addressed my newly-adopted kitten: "Harvey"? He meowed back, thus a name was chosen. (There's also the Jimmy Stewart movie, of course.) I call him "Harvey" because "Equinox" is pretentious even for a cat. And harder to say.

(Can you "find" a "dearth"? The whole point of "dearth" is that there's nothing to find. Well, never mind that for now.)

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
— Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene 2

(Let us not forget that Julie was suggesting Romeo ditch his family — his wealthy family — and run off with her to live a poor and humble life. The whole "Deny thy father and refuse thy name" bit. Yeah, right.)

I caught the film based on the Levitt/Dubner book, "Freakonomics" last week (it's making the rounds on HBO). The first segment talks about names and the economic and career consequences of your name. Names have status; they have actual economic value. One very troubling experiment described in the film was conducted by Northwest University. They sent out 5000 resumes in matched pairs. One of each pair used a "white-sounding" name like Greg or Emily, the other a "black-sounding" name like Lakisha or Jamal. The "white-sounding" names got 50% more callbacks. So much for post-racial America.

Another vignette told of a father that named his two sons "Winner" and "Loser." Loser, who today goes by "Lou", became a Detective Sergeant with the NYPD. Winner, contrary-wise, has spent most of his adult life in custody of one type or another owing to an inconvenient habit of not-entirely-legal activity. (The brothers are not on speaking terms today.)

And yes, it is true, African-Americans seem to have a fondness for unique names and unique spellings, including Uneek, Uneque, and, mundanely enough, Unique.

What kind of judgments do we make if all we know about someone is his name is Taylor? How about Jasper? Aloysius? Elizabeth? Mary Jane? Brandi? (Or Brandee.)

Jeffrey? Jeff?

A Democratic strategist/pundit named Krystal Ball was among the many criticizing Rush Limbaugh for his on-air insults of Sandra Fluke. In response, a California Republican Party functionary called her a stripper and a "slut" based on her name (she's since apologized). Seems to me the only thing you can conclude about Krystal Ball from her name is that her parents were hippies.

Before I moved to California, I never needed to ask someone, "Where did you get your name from?" I lost count of the people I've met who've chosen names other than the ones their parents gave them (I wasn't keeping all that close count, anyway). I was a radio DJ in college, and professionally for about a minute and a half. As is common in show business, many people in radio use "air names." (Radio DJs are considered the next-to-lowest spot on the show-biz totem pole. Occupying the lowest spot, of course, are mimes.)  Some people felt their names were a little klutzy or too long (you want a simple, one-syllable/two-syllable or two-syllable/two-syllable name; easier for you to say, easier for the listener to remember — like "Rick Stuart" or "Cousin Brucie"), some just wanted a pseudonym.

I just used "Jeff Mark." I've never really been comfortable with a pseudonym, but it was at about this time I started using the shortened version of my name for official purposes. Today, the only documents with my full name are my birth certificate and Social Security card. My Dad started out "Herman Philip Mark", but later used "Philip Herman." I used to think it had to do with my Mom having a brother named Herman, but he apparently made that shift before they met. When he moved to Israel in the 70s, he switched it again and now uses the Hebrew-ish version "Haim" (even though he lives in Florida). His father's family name was originally "Markevich" (the spelling is questionable, they came from that part of Europe that didn't use the Roman alphabet). And in a classic case, the Ellis Island guy, unable to spell my Grandfather's actual surname, wrote down "Mark." As a result, I've spent my life telling people, "No, Mark's my last name." My sister doesn't have that problem.

As I've learned more about the Bible, and its history, and the history of religion, of Judaism and all that, I've come to the realization that — in the Old Testament at least — most of the words that we think of as "names" aren't names so much as descriptions or titles. If you dig down into the original ancient Hebrew, for example, "Adam" derives from a word that translates to, simply, "the man" (or possibly "the human", i.e., genderless). "Abraham", which translates to "the patriarch," derives from "abba", Hebrew for "father." "Moses" translates to "deliverer" or "redeemer." The Hebrew for "Jacob" is "Ya'akov" (my Hebrew name), which derives from ancient Hebrew from "the usurper"; Jacob, you'll recall, conspired with his Mama Reba to con his twin brother Esau out of his inheritance, in return for the biblical equivalent of a relief pitcher and two minor league players to be named later.

Indeed, it seems that "names" as we know them started out (millennia ago) as our descriptions of each other. Recall that in the Kevin Costner movie, he's given the name "Dances with Wolves" when, in the throes of a psychedelically-fueled initiation ritual, he runs up a hill and actually dances with a pack of wolves.

Names have evolved slightly differently for those of us in what we laughingly call "Western Civilization." Most of the rest of the world use a sort of three- (or more) part construction: a clan or village name, a family-based name, and a "personal" name. Gaius Julius Caesar was of the clan Julii, who claimed descent from Venus herself. Russian tradition called for Boris Sergeyevich Yeltsin to be formally addressed as "Boris Sergeyevich"; the "Yeltsin" wasn't used. "Sergeyevich" means "son of Sergei"; his son's middle name would be "Borisevich" (daughters would get "Borisevna"). Russian surnames are generally forms of adjectives which may have originated as descriptions; "Romanov", the Russian imperial family's name, means "the Romans" ("Tsar" being the Russification of "Caesar"). Arabic names hold to the clan-and-village format but can get very long. Asian names play an entirely different game, partially due to the ideographic written languages, but you can still find a traditional three-part structure emphasizing one's family, clan and/or neighborhood.

But over the course of the 8th through the 14th Centuries, in a process not well understood, Western Europe's usage changed. "Robert of Lancaster" became "Robert Lancaster," "James, son of Gregory" became "James McGregor." With the collapse of feudalism, better identifications needed to be made among the increasingly mobile and educated non-aristocracy. Thomas the barrel-maker became Tom Cooper; Henry the jewelry maker became Henry Goldsmith, his jewel supplier became Jacob Diamond. Tolkien played with this transition: Bilbo was of the Baggins clan of Bag End in the Shire, but he's also known as Bilbo Baggins; character names in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth reflect it as well. This new form of family name proved so useful and became so popular it was codified in England by Henry VIII, spread through Europe, and seems to be in the process of being adopted throughout most of the emerging modern world.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Nancy Johnsen Horton March 07, 2012 at 08:36 PM
My cat is named "Louisa May Allcatt."
Mark Irons March 08, 2012 at 04:53 AM
"Irons". You think my ancestors were metal workers or in debters prison? Your blog reminds me of another Jeff, or actually Geoffrey...Nunberg. On pet names one wonders how some names end up being so popular. Never had any pets to name, but most of us would set out to be original, so it's interesting that a relatively odd name like Tank has such common usage.
Jennifer Loring March 08, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Sometimes people think my name is Lori - they hear the last name and get confused. As for our pets, my husband named the first cat Ninja, which is funny because he looks a lot like your cat and strikes the same, very un-ninja like poses. Then the second cat meowed back at the proposed name of Neo (because he was new - imaginative, no?) and the third cat, the only girl... Nikita. Like the Cosby children but with cats. But to break up all that alliteration, we have a parrot named Henry, after a house plant I once had.
Jeff Mark March 08, 2012 at 10:25 PM
When I was doing contract admin, when I needed to leave a voicemail message, I'd start, "Hi, this is Jeff Mark, I'm with the Department of Energy..."). The callback would inevitably ask for "Jeff Markham, with the..." I've come to the conclusion that no matter what your name is, somebody's gonna screw it up. Sort of a Murphy's Law for names.
Jennifer Loring March 08, 2012 at 10:41 PM
BTW, your description for this post is genius.
Jennifer Loring March 08, 2012 at 10:45 PM
I've also been called Stephanie, Melissa and Jessica. I think it's a syllable thing. I love not correcting people and having them find out later what my name really is. Then there's choosing an alias, which is always a challenge. So far I've only ever used Hazel Nootsmaak. Continental, yet still somewhat down-to-earth.
Jeff Mark March 08, 2012 at 11:42 PM
Credit where due, stolen from Monty Python.
Frances Montell March 10, 2012 at 02:22 AM
I don't even want to know what you would think of our family pet, a white cat named "Pooh." (See, I was in an elementary school production of The Mikado that featured characters named Nanki-Pooh and Pooh-Bah, and my younger sister was into Winnie the Pooh and...)
Jennifer McGaffey March 10, 2012 at 03:26 AM
I follow T.S. Elliot's rules (in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats) - a cat has a casual, everyday name, and one for special occasions (and then one we mere humans don't know, but I don't have to worry about that). Both my cats already had their casual names when they arrived (rescues) - Boots and Troy. Boots is, in full, "Puss in Boots with Mittens" (snowshoe Siamese markings, with longer white stockings on the back legs and just white on the paws in front). I haven't figured out Troy's name yet, though it's something like "Who dragged who, at the wheels of what, how many times, round the walls of where?" And if you want to waste some time - http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/ is popular baby names by year. Lots of fun watching names cycle through... I'm Jennifer, which was very uncommon when I was named. The next year and for several years thereafter it was one of the most common girls' names in the US - there were always several Jennifers in the class or two after me, in school. I use jjmcgaffey online, for most of my usernames, and get called Jim as often as not...which I find mildly amusing. I correct those whom I might be dealing with again later, but don't bother for random comments. My mother's grandfather arrived at Ellis Island named Tunis Baklaar (baker) from the town of Barkalow. He left as Tunis Barkalow...someone wrote it in the wrong box. Ellis Island errors are fun to find.


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