Siblings with identical names

I don’t know a family personally that has siblings with identical names. But I know of some anecdotally, and the phenomenon occasionally appears in the news or discussion forums for one reason or another. George Foreman famously has five sons named George (‘so they would always have something in common’). In my culture it’s unusual, but it happens.

Toni Morrison treats this familial anomaly with comedy and flair, albeit with non-biological siblings, in her acclaimed novel Sula (1973). In Medallion, Ohio, in 1921, when Sula is eleven years old, her grandmother Eva – ‘operating on a private scheme of preference and prejudice’ – takes in three boys and disregards their given names:

They came with woollen caps and names given to them by their mothers, or grandmothers, or somebody’s best friend. Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, ‘Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.’ When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, ‘But, Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.’

toni morrison sula book cover triad granada owen wood‘So? This here’s another one.’

When the third one was brought and Eva said ‘Dewey’ again, everybody thought she had simply run out of names or that her faculties had finally softened.

‘How is anybody going to tell them apart?’ Hannah asked her.

‘What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys.’

It’s as if Dewey had gone beyond the conventional function of a name (if it ever really had it, here) and become the word for a certain category of people. The first Dewey is a dewey, the second is ‘another one’, and by the third even Morrison is lowercasing them on Eva’s behalf.

And yet:

When Hannah asked the question it didn’t sound very bright, because each dewey was markedly different from the other two. Dewey one was a deeply black boy with a beautiful head and the golden eyes of chronic jaundice. Dewey two was light-skinned with freckles everywhere and a head of tight red hair. Dewey three was half Mexican with chocolate skin and black bangs. Besides, they were one and two years apart in age. It was Eva saying things like, ‘Send one of them deweys out to get me some Garret, if they don’t have Garret, get Buttercup,’ or, ‘Tell them deweys to cut out that noise,’ or ‘Come here, you dewey, you,’ and ‘Send me a dewey,’ that gave Hannah’s question its weight.

In time the boys come out of their shells and accept their collective characterisation: ‘a trinity with a plural name’. They become inseparable.

When the eldest is ready for school, he refuses to go without the others. So they all go. The teacher, confronted by a motley trinity with a joint name, is ‘startled but not unbelieving’. Told they are cousins, all aged six, and all named Dewey King, she ‘gave only a tiny sigh’:

She too thought she would have no problem distinguishing among them, because they looked nothing alike, but like everyone else before her, she gradually found that she could not tell one from the other. The deweys would not allow it. They got all mixed up in her head, and finally she could not literally believe her eyes. They spoke with one voice, thought with one mind, and maintained an annoying privacy. Stouthearted, surly, and wholly unpredictable, the deweys remained a mystery not only during all their lives in Medallion but after as well.

Treating the deweys from an early age as a unity in three parts, together with their particular circumstances, seems to have led to a kind of fusing of selves – the precise nature of which is left to our imaginations. Or maybe, given Huey, Dewey, and Louie, it just goes with the name.

[The beautiful book illustration is by Owen Wood. Click on it to enlarge.]

33 Responses to Siblings with identical names

  1. Vireya says:

    Reminds me of the Bob Newhart Show. “This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”

  2. John Cowan says:

    The linguist Nick Nicholas is one of three cousins all named, with the inevitability of cultures that name first sons after their paternal grandfathers, Nick Nicholas. Then there is the House of Reuß, which has named all their males Heinrich since 1200 or so. Finally, there is Jean V, whose older brothers are named Jean I, Jean II, Jean III, and Jean IV (I don’t know their surname; see the same link).

    I have been known to call my grandson “the best of dorians”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      A very interesting account by Mr Nicholas. And as for the House of Reuß and the French Jeans: Whew! (Though I’m sure George Foreman wouldn’t bat an eyelid.) There are examples of the paternal-grandfather and other naming practices in this post, prompted by a passage in Éamon Kelly’s autobiography.

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    This is interesting on at least two fronts.

    Firstly (at least in southern Italy), the practice of naming first born grandsons after their paternal grandfather; the second after maternal grandfather. Either way, there can be a hell of a lot of kids with the same name: thus nicknames. I have counted at least 16 versions of “Salvatore”, for example. I have no idea about the basis for the nickname selection, and imagine it is pretty arcane and/or random.

    The second is the practice in remote Australia of so-called “skin” names: a structure of names (derived from your mother, as it is a wise man who knows your father). Thus you can respond to a skin name, which is shared by at least one in eight of your gender, and be aware of where you “fit in” to your social universe. It’s a name you will share with many others, even if not directly related, but which positions you within that universe: you can know, in broad terms, how you should relate to others as fathers/mothers/aunts/uncles/siblings etc. It can also alert you to avoidance relationships such as certain classes of cousins or mothers in law.

    So shared names is not so weird!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Not weird at all, Chips! Just unusual where I come from (though it does happen). Skin names are a system I knew of only tangentially, so thanks for the explanation. The summary here I found helpful too. I must ask an Italian I know if he has any good shared-name stories or examples.

  4. Reminds me of the Monty Python skit, in which everybody is named Bruce (the Australian Bruce skit):

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh yes!

      —Is your name not Bruce, then?
      —No, it’s Michael.
      —That’s going to cause a little confusion.

      (I changed your link to a video embed for convenience.)

      • Yes, sorry about the link. It was in the wee hours and I was too tired to figure out why the link looked so weird! I meant to embed :)
        Also reminds me of the joke, a woman has 10 children by 10 different men, and names them all John. A friend asks her, “Don’t they all come running if you holler ‘Come here, John!’?” And the woman admits this is the case. Her friend persists, “What if you only want one of them?” The mom replies, “Then I holler out their last name!”

        • astraya says:

          Even though David was the number one boys’ name in Australia when I was born, I had very few of them in my classes through primary and high school. When I was at university, my residential college had ?13 of us. One day we organised for some of us to sit together for dinner. We filled eight of the nine seats at the table. Then a woman whose name wasn’t David wandered in and sat down. Within minutes she wished she hadn’t. We were very nice people, but the conversation was – David, could you pass the milk? Certainly, David. Thank you, David. You’re welcome, David. (etc)

    • Lady Demelza says:

      Some years ago, I had a worm farm. I loved those worms so much, they were my pets. I had remarked several times on the impossibility of naming them – you would need thousands of names, and then you could never tell them apart! – when a friend suggested I call them Bruce, just to keep it simple. Bruce was a beloved member of the family until he sadly died during a heatwave.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I like your friend’s idea for naming them, and I’m sorry the heat did away with Bruce. Did you consider leasing the worm farm again?

        • Lady Demelza says:

          As a matter of fact, I have just recently started a new worm farm! I am terribly excited. I am currently still working on the surprisingly massive fortifications required to protect my worms from midnight raids by bandicoots. (It’s amazing how all those cute, furry Australian mammals don’t look so cute after they’ve torn up your garden a few times.) But I still haven’t settled on a name.

      • Which Bruce…or all of them? LOL

  5. Frank Norman says:

    My grandfather was called George. He was the eldest of 13 siblings. The second oldest was also called George, but known by his nickname ‘Rocker’. It was a bit mysterious. But years later we learned why. Their mother had had a ‘spot of bother’ with the son of a local landed gentry and this resulted in her becoming pregnant with my grandfather. The gentry-son was bundled off overseas in disgrace, and my grandfather’s mother was found a husband in a hurry. To his credit he accepted my grandfather as his own son, but then gave the same name to his first-born biological son.

  6. My first thought was of a Dr. Seuss story from my childhood, “Too Many Daves”;

    Maybe more readable version of the text here:

    Makes for a fun poetic device of all the things she could have named them instead…. ;-p


  7. Ultan says:

    I remember a friend and I referring to a group of girls who lived near us as “the Sinéads” owing to their resemblance to a girl of our acquaintance called . . . Sinéad.

  8. There’s a story that Salvador Dali’s parents gave birth to a boy and named it Salvador, but he died in infancy. Then they had another child, and instead of giving it a new name, they just reused the dead child’s name. The people in the village thought it was a bad idea, that the child would be cursed or something. This second Salvador would, of course, grow up to paint pictures and curl the ends of his mustache.

    No idea if the story’s true — it’s Salvador Dali, after all, and you can’t believe anything he says, especially about his own past — but it sounds to me like something straight out of a Toni Morrison novel.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’d give the story the benefit of the doubt, as the practice of naming a child after a dead sibling is not uncommon. A Google search for keywords brings up several articles and forum discussions along these lines, and anecdotally I’ve heard of it happening a bit too.

      One example that comes to mind is the electronic musician Richard D. James, who was given the name of an older brother who died at birth. His best-known incarnation, Aphex Twin, hints at this, and he speaks about it in interviews sometimes.

  9. One of my coworkers at my last job had a biological son named Chris and a stepson named Kris.

    Also, my great-grandfather had a sister named Effie who died in infancy and another sister several years later named Euphemia. I’m not sure if Effie was actually short for Euphemia or if they picked the short form as the given name for the first one and went with the full form as the given name for the second.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Nice examples, Jonathon. In cases where two identical or homophonic names are often used in the same place or context, i.e. if there’s regular potential for ambiguity, I’d imagine it’s common for one (or both) to be modified slightly.

      I’ve never known a Euphemia, or an Effie for that matter. Effie is a good name for Strong Language fans!

  10. My favourite example: former Liverpool (and Question of Sport) captain Emlyn Hughes, with son Emlyn and daughter Emma Lynn.

  11. Michael Ross Murphy says:

    My wife is Malaysian Chinese. She and her sister were both given similar Chinese names (‘Kian Kian’ and ‘Kiang Hua’) as well as Catholic baptismal names (‘Mary’ and ‘Mary Acphonsa’). When they went out into the English-speaking world, they each used their baptismal names. They eventually ended up in Canada — where I met and married my Mary. The other Mary had married but had kept her birth surname. When I met my Mary, she was living with her sister Mary at precisely the same address and using precisely the same name! They also had accounts in the same bank — to the bank’s credit (sorry – an involuntary pun just there) — their banking business only got mixed up once…

  12. Lady Demelza says:

    There is a very distinctive naming practice among the most common caste in Bali. The first-born child in every family is called Wayan, regardless of gender. The second is called Made. The third is called Nyoman and the fourth, Ketut. If there is a fifth child, it is called Wayan, and may be differentiated from the first as Wayan Balik (Wayan again) or Wayan Kembali (Wayan returns). The sixth child is called Made, and so on.

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