Monday, February 2, 2009

"The Immortality Of The Name"

Once, when she was younger, Rachel and her mother were driving past a mall when Rachel, always curious, asked her Mom this question:

“Why is a store called Robinsons?”

“What do you mean?”

“How did that store get the name Robinsons?”

Her mother explained. “Robinson is the name of the person who started the store.”

­“No!” scoffed Rachel dismissively, sensing she was being teased.

“It’s true,” insisted her mother.

“I don’t believe it!”

Her mother persisted.

“A person started that department store. And their name was Robinson.”

Rachel seemed literally stunned.

“You mean, there is actually a person named Robinson.”

“That’s right.”

Rachel sat quietly, wrestling with this astonishing new idea.

“What about Macys?” she finally inquired. “Is that a person too?”

“Yes,” her mother assured her.



Neiman Marcus?”

“Two people. They were partners.”

Rachel’s jaw dropped in voiceless incomprehension. These places she had frequented all her life. Can they really all have been named after people?

It’s fun watching kids learning stuff they didn’t know. Grownups are more knowledgeable, of course. But we may not be as knowledgeable as we think.

Sticking to the “things named after people” arena, we know or at least can look up the fact that in 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts deliberately repositioned district boundaries to the political advantage of his own party. This dubious strategy would be known forever after as “Gerrymandering.”

Joe Hooker was a Civil War general who, according to one source was “not a very strict military leader and allowed his troops to spend plenty of time in the company of paid ladies of the night”, thus, if not originating, then greatly popularizing the nickname, “Hookers”, which has remained in our vocabulary ever since.

Another Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, was famous for his unusual facial hair. Flip around his surname and his immortalization in the dictionary is immediately apparent. Sideburns.

There are many examples of this nature – personal tendencies evolving into words we continue to use today. The thing is, through general disinterest, and a spotty educational system, the link between many words and their original derivations has been lost in the murky mists of history.

Let’s try and find them, shall we?

You think, at some point, there may have been this troublemaking Irish family called the Hooligans? Siblings in other families start roughhousing, their mother cries, “Stop it! You’re behaving like a bunch of Hooligans!” Where could that descriptive have obtained its meaning, if it weren’t an allusion to some rampaging family that actually existed?

Not all Irish families fought, of course. One of them, liked to played pranks, their name chiseled in perpetuity – the Shenanigans. Everyone’s heard the words, “We’ll have none of your Shenanigans!” and we immediately know what that means. Is it not then likely that “shenanigans” derives from a family famous for their whimsical obsession with practical jokes?

Man, can you imagine what happened after the Shenanigans played a trick on the Hooligans? Must have been a real donnybrook.

The Donnybrooks. There's another family you wouldn’t want to mess with.

“Oh, come on,” you’re thinking. “You can do that with any family name.”

No, you can’t. Watch.

“You’re such a O’Houlihan!”


“Stop Schwartzing around.”


You see? It’s not every family. Only ones identified with exceptional behavior.

A perpetually noisy family – the Hullabaloos. A family, always making a fuss – the Kerfuffles. Okay, I may be crossing the line with those two – maybe. But those earlier ones definitely deserve looked into.

And it’s not just families. It’s also unique individuals.

Where do you think “finagle” comes from? Bernie Finagle. He messed with the books.

The guy who was always messing up? Seymour Botch. People fail in their efforts – they’ve “Botched” things up.

A woman driving people nuts by continually clearing her throat – Rebecca Phlegm.

We use these words all the time. But we never consider where they came from.

“Don’t dawdle!” – after Jennifer Dawdle, always bringing up the rear.

“Makeshift” – after furniture maker Walter Makeshift. Everything he built almost immediately fell apart.

Hugo Dumbfound – perpetually scratching his head – “Dumbfounded.”

Albert Haggle – he never paid retail for anything.

Peter Scalawag…

“No!” you scoff from wherever you are. “I don’t believe it!”

Suit yourself.

But remember. That’s exactly what Rachel said.


Unknown said...

I know that you're just making those up, so quit your pomerantzing.

Anonymous said...

Not only that, stop schwartzing around.

(I'm reminded of the adage that "Verbing weirds language.")

Anonymous said...

At the nadir of a radio broadcasting career I was once instructed by station management to, in the future, avoid employing the noun malarkey, because there might be someone in the listening audience named Malarkey who could be offended. This was the same station whose guidelines actually included the avoidance of reading the lost dog announcements anywhere proximate to a bakery commercial, because listeners would be left with images of hair in their cupcakes.

What always gets me are the eponymous diseases, where medical science honors the guy who first noticed the syndrome by naming it after him. Then for the rest of eternity the world ridicules all of his patrilineal descendents for having the same name as an illness or disability. Sometimes you just can’t win, even when somebody doesn’t have a particular infirmity. Like you get it both coming and going with things like Hodgkin’s Disease and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Did you ever notice they hardly ever name these things after the guy who actually had the disease? Sure there’s Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but that’s really ALS, so all the guy really got was a nickname for an acronym.

Imagine the schoolyard teasing the Geigers, Bunsens, and if course the Molotov kids probably go through. In Hollywood they sometimes even bring it upon themselves. I’m talking to you Vin Diesel. I’m just guessing that the James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli must have been both proud and chagrinned that one of his ancestors first thought of crossing a cauliflower with a pea.

Of course, African Americans have been getting even with the rest of us for years, saddling their kids with names we can’t figure out as distinctive and intentional, sounding as if they might be ethnically related, something they mistakenly thought the actual name was, or just a misspelling. Or it just might be a southern thing. I knew a Scots-Irish girl named Dinette.

For years I thought the parents of the great San Diego running back, Natrone Means just got Nathan wrong, until I discovered that Lake Natron in Tanzania was famous for two things, the eponymous element and soda ash, and as the world’s largest Flamingo breeding area. Sure there’s an extra “e,” but they get a Mulligan on that.

Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you meet a guy named Reuben? And then, God forbid you should have the same first name as some songwriter’s girlfriend.