Friday, October 29, 2010

Naming Names and So-and-So the So-and-So

Randall Stephens

James Davidson's essay last month in the London Review of Books got me thinking about names. ("Flat-Nose, Stocky and Beautugly," LRB, 23 September 2010.) He spans over English history, coming away with nuggets like this: "Boys’ names remain less susceptible to fashion – Jack has been number one for many years now, while Olivia has had to contend for top spot with Emily, Jessica and Grace – and there remains a tendency towards the classics. But the classics have been redefined more classically."

The ancients, writes Davidson, had a real flare for descriptive, colorful names: "Ancient Greek names were much closer to those of pre-Conquest than post-Conquest England. Just as we translate Native American names such as Tashunka Witko (‘Crazy Horse’), Tatanka Iyotake (‘Sitting Bull’), Woqini (‘Hook Nose’) and Tashunka Kokipapi (‘Young Man Afraid of His Horses’), and even those of the ancient Maya (King ‘Jaguar Paw II’, ‘Smoking Frog’, now renamed ‘Fire Is Born’), so we could refer to famous Greeks as ‘He Who Loves Horses’ (Philip), ‘Masters (with) Horses’ (Hippocrates), ‘Flat-Nose’ (Simon), ‘Stocky’ (Plato), ‘Famed as Wise’ (Sophocles)."

It reminded me of some of the fun, bizarre, or just downright interesting names I've encountered in the American South. One spring some years back my wife and I were on an Appalachian work trip with our Episcopal church. We heard of a local with the mouth-full name: El Canaan Lonson Tonson Tiny Buster Dobson. I hope he had a nickname. (You can read about the kudzu-like profusion of Billy Bobs, Peggy Sues, and Bobbie Joes in Dixie in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 5: Language, eds., Michael Montgomery and Ellen Johnson.)

Something as simple as a name can tell historians, linguists, and anthropologists interesting details about a nation, a people, or a family. What do the most popular names of our day say about society? Here are the 2009 winners courtesy of the Social Security Administration: Jacob, Isabella, Ethan, Emma, Michael, Olivia, Alexander, Sophia, William, Ava, Joshua, Emily, Daniel, Madison, Jayden, Abigail, Noah, Chloe, Anthony, Mia. Signs of a neoclassical revival? A renewed interest in history? With the exception of Mia and Jayden, these have the ring of the early-19th century.

Some memorable royal nicknames:

Peter the Great
Julian the Apostate
Sigurd Magnusson the Bad
Edward the Black Prince
Coloman the Bookish
Vlad III the Impaler
Charles VI the Mad
Halfdan of Romerike the Mild
Ethelred II the Unready
Eric VIII the Pagan
Pippin III the Short
Maria II the Good Mother
Ragnar Lodbrok Hairy Breeches
Olav III the Silent
Dmitry of Tver the Terrible Eyes
Arnulf III the Unlucky
Harald Hildetand Wartooth
Afonso II the Fat
Sweyn I Forkbeard
Henry I the Fowler
Fortun I the Monk
Edgar Ætheling the Outlaw

See more: Albert Romer Frey, Sobriquets and Nicknames (Boston, 1887).


Eric said...

Reminds me of the footnote early in Simon MacLean's Kingship and Politics in the late 9th Century, regarding Charles the Fat and whether (or not) he deserved the name: "The dimensions of Charles's girth are lamentably unknown."

dan allosso said...

Reminds me of Butch (the boxer) in Pulp Fiction: I'm American, honey. Our names don't mean sh*t." (

hcr said...

My favorite historical name is Malvida Von Meysenbug.

She was a real person, but doesn't she sound like an invention of Charles Dickens?