Overweening Generalist

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Of Montaigne and Names

"Whatever variety of herbs there may be, the whole thing is included under the name of salad. Likewise, under the consideration of names, I am here going to whip up a hodgepodge of various items."
-Montaigne, "Of Names," Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. by Donald Frame

I'll take some of Montaigne's "items" and riff my own hodgepodge off of those. If you're gonna ride on another writer's coattails, you could do worse than ride on Montaigne's.

"Item, it is a trifling thing, but nevertheless worth remembering for its strangeness, and written down by an eyewitness, that Henry, duke of Normandy, son of Henry II, King of England, held a feast in France where the assembly of nobles was so great that when they divided up for sport into groups according to the similarity of names, in the first company, that of the Williams, there were seated at the table a hundred and ten knights bearing that name, without counting the ordinary gentlemen and servants."

Aye, and the Williams - in Unistat - are so very much with us. It comes in 4th, currently, among popular surnames. My own surname ranks just ahead of it. I have two very dear friends who live together and their last names are Williams and Brown. Oddly, there is no Smith that I can think of in our social circle, but no one's catching the Smiths in Unistat for awhile, as my surname, while doing pretty well in 2nd place, is still 500,000 behind the Smiths. You could empty New York, Los Angeles and Chicago (around 13 million people, according to a 2011 guess based on the 2010 census) and replace every citizen with only those people whose last names fit in Unistat's Top 10 (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez, and Wilson) and the number comes out to around 13 million.

                                                Robert Smith of The Cure

Now, I've always been envious of my friends with odd surnames, because my name has always felt too garden-variety. It's not a good writer's name. There were three of us with the same first and last name in my junior high school. Meanwhile, my best friend's last name was Hogshead, which really catches your eye, eh? Hogshead feels old-timey British and it's a unit of measurement: it's 63 gallons of wine, or 64 gallons of beer, which doesn't make sense to me, but there you go.

My name gets used in jokes as a stand-in for penis. "Richard Johnson" will receive gales of laughter from certain folk of adolescent mind. (I admit it: I laughed the first time too.) "Dick Johnson holds the best and biggest balls! Everyone wants to come." 

That kinda thing. 

Here's a short article on Big Data that deals with the current theme:

Back to Montaigne:

"Item, there is a saying that it is a good thing to have a good name, that is to say credit and reputation. But also, in truth, it is advantageous to have a handsome name and one that is easy to pronounce and maintain."

An article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, linked to in this Wired article, suggests we're subconsciously affected by first names in all sorts of non-logical ways. Our brains favor information that is easy to use ("fluency"), which reminded me of my studies of the quantifications of beauty: pretty faces are easier to process, because of their symmetry, and we've evolved to like that which is easy. So even though, as that very cool old Fleetwood Mac song said, "I can't sing/I ain't pretty/And my legs are thin...," I probably shouldn't complain too much about having a "boring" last name. Or a boring first one, for that matter.

(Adam Gopnik wittily writes about his "lowly" name.)

"I have observed that King Henry II could never call by his right name a gentleman from this part of Gascony; and to one of the queen's maids of honor he even proposed to give the general name of her family, because that of her father's house seemed to him too awkward." 

Freud had an ingenious (and probably over-complicated) theory about forgetting names. It's worth reading if only because of very recent neurobiological research on memory that suggests he may not have been that far off. But the best explanation I've seen about forgetting names is that we're just not paying attention. It's as if we don't care. People who are more interested in other people and relationships tend to not forget names as easily as most of us do. However, this business of meeting people at a party and instantly forgetting their names (and they yours) has always been a function - for me, at least - of information overload. I'm being introduced, hearing names but not listening because their faces or what they're wearing or the new social environment, the room, some painting, whatever...is capturing my attention. Information is flowing into me more strongly from those other sources than someone's name. Their immediate phenomenal presence/impression crowds out the name, all-too-often.

(David Carradine named his kid "I.P. Freely"? (Note 1) This somehow lends sense to the now-knowledge that Carradine was into autoerotic asphyxiation. What ever happened to "Grasshopper"? But I digress...)

Josh Foer in his book on becoming a memory champion, Moonwalking With Einstein, gives some hints about how to remember the names of an entire roomful of new people. It all starts with linking the name to something about the way the person looks.

Our good man Montaigne:
"And Socrates considers it worthy of a father's care to give his children attractive names."

Well then I'd hazard that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West - who reportedly want to name their forthcoming child "North" - haven't read Plato. But then Frank and Gail Zappa were no dummies and they (memorably?) named their kids Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and...just wow: "Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen." (Only Tom Robbins comes up with names like that, and they are for characters in his projected worlds.) David Bowie named a kid "Zowie." Googling this jit can land you links to all sorts of atrocities. Now, "experts" have said that naming your kids ultra-weirdly can harm them (even Ashley and Shannon for boys become a problem when adolescence hits).

I remember taking a Psychology class in college and the topic of names and how they affect people came up. With my faulty memory, I recall the Prof repeating what we now know to be an urban legend: that a family named Hogg had two daughters and named them Ima and Ura. Ima Hogg really existed (and she looks sorta hot in the pic that accompanies the Wiki), but there was no Ura.

However, there really is a Soleil Moon Frye, which conjurs up an image of the sun shooting out freakishly long tendrils of flares and scorching the moon (and I guess I'm watching it all from a spaceship). And my favorite NBA player's name, "Zaza Pachulia," actually exists.

Because my own name is easy and therefore pleasing, but dull and faceless to me, I think if I ever get published as a "real" writer (not some overweening dipshit blog-head), I might go with something really stand-out, like "Zaza Zappa Hogg."

                                     Dweezil Zappa, a fine guitar player in his own right

Addenda: Crapper and Titzling
Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet, but he did exist and was a plumber and did help to popularize the toilet.

Otto Titzling, unfortunately, did not invent the bra and appears to have not even had existence. My mom told me Titzling invented the bra, and I believed her. Why? Because mom and dad together told me, laffingly, that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet and I didn't believe them, so I looked it up myself, age 12 or so. Danged if mom and dad weren't putting me on! (I found a dopey source that gave too much credit to Crapper.) So mom was probably telling me the truth - although laffing when she told me of Titzling - and I lazily accepted it for years. Why? It was a good little joke! It's too much fun to believe and it seems to do little harm to, when given the chance, promulgate the idea that a guy named "Titzling" invented the bra. At least it turns the conversation towards breasts; that's always fun. While it lasts. If you look at his first name - Otto - one of the "O" breasts is slightly bigger than the other, which is statistically normal for women. So you see, all in all, very convincing that "Otto Titzling" invented the bra.

Convincing if you're a 15 year old boy, maybe?

What's your favorite real or fake name?

Note 1: Better sources give his offspring's name as "Free" and not "I.P. Freely." Furthermore, Wikipedia tells me "Free" changed his name to "Tom." Free/Tom's mom is Barbara Hershey. Me suspects someone was being unkind to David, Free, or both with the "I.P." joke found on numerous websites.

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