What’s in a Name?

I’ve always been a big fan of funny and unusual names, whether real or fictional.  I think in real life, the name you are given shapes who you are and will be as much as anything else.  For example, if you were given the name “Thaddeus” or “Reginald”, odds are you won’t wind up working in a factory.  By the same token, if you are named “Merle” or “Hank”, you probably won’t end up in the cologne or fashion industry.

In literature, coming up with the right name for a character can be everything.  For example, had Charles Dickens  settled for “John Smith” instead of “Ebenezer Scrooge”, odds are the character would be long forgotten.   Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” and J.D. Salinger’s “Holden Caulfield” are two more famous characters whose name is a large part of their power.  “Nick Adams” is the perfect name for Ernest Hemmingway’s alter ego,  because it mirrors his style – short and sweet and simple but masculine.  Moby Dick opens with the famous “call me Ishmael”, which wouldn’t be the same if it started “call me Herman.”

Sometimes the sound of the name is what is important.  “Alas, poor Bob” wouldn’t be remembered, but “alas, poor Yorick” is.  “Hazel Motes” is the perfect name for Flannery O’Connor’s tortured and anguished inventor of “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” in her novel, Wise Blood.  “Humbert Humbert” is as strange a name as, well,  “Vladimir Nabokov”

For funny names, it’s hard to top the names given to Groucho Marx’s characters in the Marx Brothers movies.  Note the importance of middle initials in the names “Otis B. Driftwood” (from A Night at the Opera) and “Rufus T. Firefly” (Duck Soup).   The role of a distinguished college professor calls for a stuffy and formal name, with the middle name spelled out – hence his character in Horse Feathers is given the impressive name of “Quincy Adams Wagstaff”.  The not so scrupulous horse doctor of A Day at the Races is given the name “Hugo Hackenbush.”

The Marx Brothers were pioneers in the surreal comedy that would, some thirty five years later, be the inspiration for the television series, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, which became a repository of wonderful silly names.  There was the boxer, “Kenneth Clean Air System”, the athlete who was going to jump the English Channel named “Ron Obvious”, the secret agent and master of disguise “Teddy Salad”, and the housewives who dropped in to visit Jean Paul Sarte named “Mrs. Premise” and “Mrs. Conclusion”.  The premise of their movie The Life of Brian centers around how silly it would sound had Christianity been created around “Brian” of Nazareth instead of “Jesus”.

There is, of course, the famous Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First”, with the unlikely lineup including “What” at second base, “I Don’t Know” at third base, “Why” in left field, “Because” in center field, “Tomorrow” pitching, “Today” at catcher, and “I Don’t Give a Darn” at shortsop.

Then there are real life names, some famous, some not, that I’ve collected over the years, including:

  •                 Robert Strange McNamara   (Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War)
  •                 Gaylord Pipcorn (A classmate of my Mom’s)
  •                 Finley B. Leech (A banker from Zion, Il., who’s name I saw on a pen once)
  •                 Millard Fillmore(13th president of the United States)
  •                 Mr. Ledger (my accounting teacher at Gateway Tech)
  •                 Moon Unit Zappa (daughter of musician Frank Zappa)

My Dad, who was a truck driver, always told the story about a fellow driver who, while in Cinncinati or Cleveland or some city somewhere, got stopped by a cop for crossing the street against traffic, in the middle of the street rather than at a light.  When the cop asked him his name and he replied, truthfully, “Jay Walker”, the cop just about took him in for insubordination.

Then there are names that are bad puns.  In my career in I.T., we frequently had to come up with test data, and some of the people I’d create included:

  •                Jim Nasium                                                          Physical Education Teacher
  •                 Chuck Wagon                                                      Cook
  •                 Sally Mander                                                       Oceanographer
  •                 Ellie Phant                                                           Dietician
  •                 Justin Case                                                          Detective
  •                 Sam and Ella Poisoning                                    Outlaws
  •                 Hank E. Panky                                                    Philanderer
  •                 Bill Board                                                             Advertising Executive
  •                 Noah Body and his wife, Annie Body            Philosophers
  •                 Scott Free                                                            Defendant
  •                 Jack Squatt                                                         Curmudgeon
  •                 Ken Tuckey                                                         Back Woodsman

I’m hoping to come up with a work of fiction in which all of these characters play a part.  It’ll be historical fiction, centering on the exploits of that famous explorer, “Puns De Leone”.   I’m open to negotiations on the film rights …




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