How to Name Your Baby

Pierre Le Tan's drawing of Katz Meow, from John Train's Remarkable Names

As most parents know instinctively, there is a curious magic in names. Call your little one Elmer, and he will be less likely to succeed than if you plunge in with a Charlemagne or a Napoleon. (Had the Emperor been christened Gaston he would surely have remained stuck as an obscure officer of artillery.)

General Ulysses Grant … what panache! Led by a Hiram (the General was in fact christened Hiram), the boys in blue would have cracked; President Oscar Lincoln would not have held the Union together. There would have been no Bicentennial. And speaking of panache, one knows that if Rostand had not celebrated Cyrano de Bergerac but Paul Blanc he would have flopped in the provinces and never made it to Paris, let alone to immortality.

The bizarre confections now chosen by many American families for their infants are not as remote as one might think from the customs of an earlier day. Before the Conquest the inhabitants of an English village would devise a novel first name for each child that came along, like yachts or racehorses, so no family names were needed. Thus, only a handful of English kings before William the Conqueror – or Bishops of London, as one sees from their tablet in St. Paul’s – bore the same name as any of their predecessors. After 1066, however, England’s new Norman masters required that all given names be drawn from a hagiology of about two hundred recognized saints. Then as now, the choices were not distributed evenly over the whole spectrum, but clustered around a few particularly popular ones, e.g., William. This meant that in all but the smallest hamlets, duplications occurred, so surnames became necessary.

America is heading the other way, toward the elimination of the family, particularly in the younger generation. Today’s kids, one gathers, were devised by parthenogenesis, or perhaps in the lab, without paternal intervention. “Dad, this is Jennifer and Nicole.” Parent, sotto voce: “Jennifer and Nicole who?” Child: “Huh?”

As the family sinks into anomie, and family names with it, a broader repertoire of given names will be required for identification. Possibilities include the following twins: Ivory and Larceny (Chicago); and A.C. and D.C., Bigamy and Larceny, Pete and Repeat, all from the Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics. From the same source come Lavoris, Teflon, and Truewillinglaughinglifebuckyboomermanifestdestiny. Others include Chorine, Coita, Dewdrop, Faucette, La Morte, La Urine, Margorilla, Mecca, Merdina, Phalla, Twitty, Uretha and Zippa (girls), and Arson, Blasphemy, Blitzkrieg, Bugger, Cad, Constipation, and Overy (boys), all from H.L. Mencken’s Supplement II: The American Language: The American Language. Dinette and Lotowan are from The Social Register and Buzz Buzz and La Void from Peter Farb’s Word Play. A recent visitor to Jamaica has authenticated Little Tits. (Desiré Tits published a book in Brussels in 1945.)

Further examples – always, please, with documentation – will be gratefully received, and should be addressed to the Office of Nomenclature Stabilization, 135 Mianus River Road, Bedford, New York 10506.

Most undocumented submissions prove to be inaccurate or nonexistent. My favorite in this category is that of Mrs. Wilson of Hewlett, New York:

There was one name I came upon in the Nassau County telephone book. That is the only one I’d care to remember but of course I’ve forgotten it. It bordered on the pornographic. How any mother latched that first name on that last name, I couldn’t imagine. I have no idea what either was.

I have made the surprising discovery that what one might call the free-form nutty name – Oldmouse Waltz, Cashmere Tango Obedience, Eucalyptus Yoho – is the one indigenous American art form. (Another contender, the totem pole, is also found in New Guinea, and is extinct in America anyway; jazz, said to have originated in New Orleans funeral processions, derived from existing European and African elements.) Some foreign names, notably English, have a poetic ring, but almost never as a result of fantasy. In an English or Chinese name of the richer sort, logic underlies every element, as in a heraldic device; it’s not, as with Membrane Pickle, Odious Champagne, Fairy Clutter, and Lobelia Rugtwit Hildebiddle, the free music of imagination.

Take one of my favorites, a timber merchant of Sandusky, Ohio, Mr. Humperdinck Fangboner. Like a good Times crossword, the surprising parts join to produce an extraordinary whole. Fangboner, to start. Not the cutting edge, the spearhead: Fang. A clear warning – Don’t Tread on Me. And the strength of the reinforcing Bone. Nothing supine or spineless there. It has the sinister force of Dickens’s Murdstone. Then consider the sprightly yet harmonious overture: Humperdinck. First, the ominous Hump, evoking the ship of the desert . . . tracks across the shifting dunes, whining houris, glowering sheiks, petrodollars; or the hump of the hunchback, conferring good fortune on whoever touches it; or indeed the erotic sense of hump: fevered couplings of houris, of camels, of hunchbacks . . . but enough. Soon comes the sprightly grace note of Dink, in, as it were, allegro spiritoso time, with its refreshing contrast to the somber weight of Hump and Fang – a spoonful of sherbet between two rich plates of a sumptuous banquet.

And then, like the resolution of the primary and secondary themes of a symphony, the full Humperdinck, suggesting musical genius, Hansel and Gretel wandering in a wood . . . so fitting for one called by destiny to deal in the products of the forest. Finally the magnificent consummation, the whole orchestra, tutti, fortissimo, in C major: HUMPERDINCK FANGBONER. A recondita armonia . . . evocative as a verse of Mallarmé, a haiku of Basò.

I find nothing comparable to these American fantasies in other cultures, except here and there in fiction. Dickens, to be sure, the Mozart of the funny names business, showed a marvelous power of onomastic invention, but it fell to the New World to plant its flag upon the heights to which he pointed the way. America, not old England, brought forth Katz Meow, Positive Wassermann Johnson, and Unable to Fornicate, just as so many of the visions of Jules Vernes were finally reduced to practice by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. ■

Excerpted from John Train’s Most Remarkable Names, 1985