August 4, 2016
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.’
‘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.
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33 Comments | books, humour, literature, naming, writing | Tagged: AAVE, books, deweys, family, humour, literature, names, naming, siblings, Sula, Toni Morrison, writing | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
March 30, 2016
The act of naming was described by Elias Canetti as ‘the great and solemn consolation of mankind’. Replace the anachronistic last noun with humankind or humanity and it fits an entry in Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues:
I have always been obsessed with naming things. If I could name them, I could know them. If I could name them, I could tame them. They could be my friends.
It’s not clear who the narrator is. Ensler says some of the monologues that constitute her book are ‘close to verbatim interviews’, some are composite, and with some she ‘just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time’.
The unnamed naming obsessive mentions a collection of inanimate frogs she had as a child, each of which she named in a ‘splendid naming ceremony’ involving song, dance, frog noises, and excitement – though not before she had spent time with the frog, getting to know its nature. One was called ‘Froggie Doodle Mashie Pie’, so perhaps we should drop the ‘solemn’ part of Canetti’s line.
Soon, the narrator says, she ‘needed to name everything’ – rugs, doors, stairs, furniture, the flashlight (‘Ben’). Then she looked closer to home, so to speak:
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68 Comments | books, gender, language, naming, wordplay | Tagged: anatomy, animals, body parts, books, Elias Canetti, Eve Ensler, frogs, gender, language, names, naming, Vagina Monologues, wordplay | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
June 12, 2015
I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first is about a term you might not be familiar with but whose profile seems certain to grow: Mx – a new gender-neutral title.
Mx, which has been in use since at least 1977, made headlines lately because an OED editor said it might be added to that dictionary soon. (So far, Macmillan appears to be the only major dictionary to have done so.) Increasing use of Mx will lead to more recognition of it, both public and official, but since it’s still quite niche I aimed mainly to cover the basics, link to resources, and make the case for its linguistic, political, and cultural value:
To date, Mx has been accepted by various local councils, universities, banks, law societies, the Royal Mail, and government services such as the NHS and HM Revenue and Customs. Clearly it is gaining momentum.
Mx has been adopted by many people who don’t identify as female or male. (Non-binary people can complete a survey on the topic here.) Such preferences should never be assumed – for example, it’s not obligatory for transgender people, but rather an option they may or may not find suitable. Speaking of preferences, Mx is usually pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’, the latter reflecting a sort of stressed schwa, like the options for Ms. When I asked about it on Twitter, Mx-users confirmed both pronunciations.
Or it may be pronounced as an initialism, ‘em ex’. The post also looks briefly at some of the parallels between Mx and Ms, and at the challenges of consciously engineering language.
Ludic language and the game of grammar surveys a subject close to my heart – or rather a cluster of subjects in the intersection of language and play:
Play is something we associate with children, but there’s nothing intrinsically childish about it, and language offers a large and inviting board on which to do it. This aspect of language helps explain the longstanding tradition of verbal play in informal discourse – what we might call ludic language, from the same root (Latin ludus ‘sport, play’) as ludo and ludicrous. And it’s popular in languages around the world – the latest Ling Space video has some great examples.
Structured language games are another feature. Puns and riddles allow for variation atop a familiar template, while Scrabble, rebuses and tongue twisters are perennially popular. Nor is the playful use of language always trivial…
The post lists additional examples of language play of various structural types. This includes recent online fads like doge and can’t even, which seem deliberately ungrammatical, and I speculate on what motivates the subversive element of this linguistic behaviour.
Older posts can be found in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary.
7 Comments | gender, language and gender, usage, wordplay, words | Tagged: gender, grammar, honorifics, inclusive language, language, language and gender, language change, lexicography, linguistics, ludic language, Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Mx, names, neologisms, politics of language, transgender, usage, wordplay, words | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
November 11, 2014
There’s an interesting passage about child-naming customs in Éamon Kelly’s autobiography The Apprentice (Marino Books, 1995). Kelly is recounting his childhood near Killarney in southwest Ireland, and the time he spent in his father’s workshop playing with pieces of wood:
I sat in the shavings and listened to the men who came with jobs for my father. They all spoke to me and those who knew my grandfather were surprised that I wasn’t called after him. The custom then was to call the first son after his father’s father and the second son after his mother’s father. The same rule applied to the first two girls. They were called after their grandmothers. If you walked into a house at that time and there were two boys and two girls in the family and you knew their grandparents, you could name the children. Both my male grandparents, who were inseparable friends, objected to my father’s and mother’s marriage. They claimed there was a blood relationship, though fairly far out, and the slightest trace of consanguinity had to be avoided. My mother was very upset by this attitude and called me after my father to annoy the old man. My father’s Christian name was Edmund, Ned to everybody, and so was I.
The name Éamon came later, when Kelly was a carpenter’s apprentice (hence the book title) working with his father. Since both were called Edmund/Ned, confusion arose when either was hailed, so someone took to calling the son Éamon. He remained Ned to his family and neighbours, but Éamon was the name by which I first knew of him.
I’ve written before about Éamon Kelly in his seanchaí (storyteller) guise, after coming across a couple of clips of him on YouTube. That post has additional resources on Kelly’s life, for anyone interested.
The custom he describes lives on but seems much less prevalent than it was a century ago – though my sister was named after our maternal grandfather, in a nice inversion of the tradition. I was named after my uncle, who was (I think) named after my granduncle. I’d be interested to hear who you were named after, if anyone, or what other naming traditions are in your family or area.
40 Comments | books, Ireland, language, naming | Tagged: books, Eamon Kelly, family, Ireland, Irish books, language, names, naming, stories, traditions | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
October 21, 2014
Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.
More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.
Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:
In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.
—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!
Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.
“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.
6 Comments | books, humour, language, naming, words, writing | Tagged: books, God, holiness, humour, Jewish, language, names, naming, reading, Shalom Auslander, word magic, words, writing | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
July 21, 2013
Dashiell Hammett tells tight, twisty detective tales with colourful casts and propulsive plots, but half the fun of reading him comes from the language itself: the wisecracks, the tough talk, the economical detail.
The title story in his collection The Big Knockover has a huge cast of criminals, crooks, and assorted no-goodniks, many with stereotypical nicknames. Here’s 30 or so, some with additional description from Hammett:
The Shivering Kid
Happy Jim Hacker, round and rosy Detroit gunman twice sentenced to death and twice pardoned
Alphabet Shorty McCoy
Donkey Marr, the last of the bow-legged Marrs
Toots Salda, the strongest man in crookdom
The Dis-and-Dat Kid
Bernie Bernheimer, alias the Motsa Kid
L. A. Slim, from Denver, sockless and underwearless as usual
Old Pete Best, once a congressman
Fat Boy Clarke
Tom Brooks, who invented the Richmond razzle-dazzle and bought three hotels with the profits
Big Flora Brace
Denny Burke, Baltimore’s King of Frog Island
Bull McGonickle, still pale from fifteen years in Joliet
Johnny the Plumber
Paddy the Mex, an amiable conman who looked like the King of Spain
Angel Grace Cardigan
Toby the Lugs, who used to brag about picking President Wilson’s pocket in a Washington vaudeville theatre
Alphabet Shorty McCoy offers two nicknames for the price of one. I don’t know if he got both at the same time or was just Shorty McCoy for a while first.
Hammett himself went to jail for a while. His long-time partner Lillian Hellman tells the story in the book’s fine introduction.
7 Comments | books, language, naming, slang, writing | Tagged: books, crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett, detective, detective fiction, hard-boiled, language, names, naming, reading, slang, writing | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
March 8, 2013
Stanisław Lem, in The Star Diaries, has an amusing inversion of our custom on Earth of adding more and more letters and titles to our names as we gain academic and other distinctions.
From “The Thirteenth Voyage”:
My object, when I set out from Earth, was to reach an extremely remote planet of the Crab constellation, Fatamiasma, known throughout space as the birthplace of one of the most distinguished individuals in our Universe, Master Oh. This is not the real name of that illustrious sage, but they refer to him thus, for it is impossible otherwise to render his true appellation in any earthly language. Children born on Fatamiasma receive an enormous number of titles and distinctions as well as a name that is, by our standards, inordinately long.
The day Master Oh came into the world he was called Hridipidagnittusuoayomojorfnagrolliskipwikabeccopyxlbepurz. And duly dubbed Golden Buttress of Being, Doctor of Quintessential Benignity, Most Possibilistive Universatilitude, etc., etc. From year to year, as he studied and matured, the titles and syllables of his name were one by one removed, and since he gave evidence of uncommon abilities, by the thirty-third year of his life he was relieved of his last distinction, and two years later carried no title whatever, while his name was designated in the Fatamiasman alphabet by a single and – moreover – voiceless letter, signifying “celestial aspirate” – this is a kind of stifled gasp which one gives from a surfeit of awe and rapture.
Lem’s literature is as much philosophical excursion as it is storytelling (with plenty of playful asides, as above). He has a gift for both, and a wicked sense of humour – some chapters in The Star Diaries are like Borges having a Douglas Adams dream, as I remarked at the time.
He’s probably best known for Solaris, but it’s not one of the handful I’ve read so far, all of them brilliantly entertaining and consistently thought-provoking. It seems appropriate that Mister Lem’s own name is so short: not quite Master Oh’s stifled gasp of awe and rapture, but not a million light-years away either.
Edit: Speaking of aspiration and verbal invention, Passive-Aggressive Notes has a note this week from a 6-year-old girl to her mother with what appears to be a sigh of frustration: “hhhh”. I don’t think I’ve seen a sigh spelled so perfectly before.
7 Comments | books, humour, literature, wordplay | Tagged: aspiration, books, humour, literature, names, phonetics, reading, satire, science fiction, Stanislaw Lem, translation, wordplay, writers | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey