by Jim Harris
Call me Ishmael. No, wait, call me Thunderclap. Hold on, that might be a little too “in-your-face.” OK, I’ll stick with “Jim,” but I’ll spell it “Gymm.”
These days, it seems to be more important than ever to have a name that sets one apart from the other seven billion named humans on the planet, but which still says something about your roots.
Desmond Morris called man “The Naked Ape” in his 1967 best seller, but I think we could also be called “The Naming Ape,” since we alone have named every star in the sky and every fish in the ocean. The first word we ever say — Mama — is someone’s name, although I’m told that I called my mom “Mahara” (an attempt to say “Mrs. Harris”) until I was two.
People often take on the names of ancestors. According to scientists, I have an ancestor who was a missing link. I’m sure he worked very hard to survive, reproduce and keep the whole evolution thing going.
I therefore briefly considered calling myself “Link,” after him, but decided I needed something a bit less primeval.
Since my more immediate ancestors came from Ireland, I tried to come up with something Celtic-sounding. I tried “Cladannadagh,” but every time I said it, I coughed up a hairball.
I also took up wearing kilts for a while, but my dogs kept trying to look up my skirt. It was embarrassing, especially when we had guests over. Will someone please tell me why humans ever wore kilts? I’m assuming it was because they had not yet discovered pants.
And who among us has not had this embarrassing exchange with a small child: “What’s YOUR name, honey?
And so on. I eventually concluded that there are just too many new names for me to keep track of. I’m pretty sure that some of them are made up (as all names were at some point), and some are old names with new appendages, like DeSean, LeSean, or K-k-k-katie. (Ed. Note: My wife had a student named La Launderette.) Re-spellings have also become popular. For example, Sean can now be spelled Shawn, Shaun, Shawon, Shonn, Shawne and even Chone. It means “God’s grace,” and it’s derived from the Hebrew “John,” which in turn is derived from the Neanderthal “Ogg.”
Sometimes disparaging names can be thrust upon us. A boy in grade school called me “Germs Hairass” for years. Eventually it caught on with the entire student body. It took me years of therapy (which I’m still paying for) to get over it. Sometimes names become no longer relevant. Chestnut Hill doesn’t have Chestnut trees anymore, and Germantown is similarly pretty much devoid of Germans.
Sometimes we get stuck with names we inherited and don’t really like. For example, the men’s basketball team at Philadelphia University is called the Rams, so when a women’s team was formed, they became the “Lady Rams.” Scientifically AND politically incorrect. In all cases like this, we should be able to choose new names that accurately reflect who we really are.
True story: A couple of years ago, I was sitting on a panel of prospective jurors for a murder trial in Philadelphia involving an alleged Vietnamese-American gang. As is necessary in such cases, the court clerk had to ask us if we knew any of the parties in the case. He began to read from a list:
“Bui Tuong Phong, Hoang Loc Dong, Phan Toan Thang.” This went on for some time. Our eyes began to glaze. “Tuan Loc Tran, Truong Trong Thi, Jack Daniels.” Upon hearing that last name, the whole room burst out in laughter, and someone yelled, “Yeah, I know HIM!”
That was as much fun as you can have on a murder trial, and a good example of how the world is shrinking, cultures are intermingling, and we are all being exposed to an ever-increasing font of names which we are expected to incorporate into our collective consciousness.
I have an idea. Since Americans love to eat, why not have names associated with food — something we can all clearly identify with. Brunch, Hummus and Sherbet are all great names for boys; Fondue, Quiche, and Spatula are good for girls, and I’m sure we can come up with lots more. Whatever appellations we choose, let’s make them names that we can live up to.