Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Names, names, names

Personal names are rather an interest of mine. I find them revealing. They tell me a lot about people's background. When I hear surnames like Kerkorian or Krikorian or Khachaturian I know, for instance, that the person is of Armenian origin. And a Hryniuk or a Gavrishchuk is of Ukrainian origin etc. The "ian" or the "uk" endings tell the story.

So it bugs me a little when people change their surnames. I think a Robert Zimmerman who calls himself Bob Dylan is perpetrating an imposture, for instance. Why pretend to be Welsh when you are an Ashkenazi American?

OK. I know that there are sometimes good reasons to change your name. I knew a guy of Greek origin once whose surname was Drakakis. He changed it to "Drake" on the grounds that his original name sounded like something you got on your shoe if you walked along the street without looking where you were going. Greeks in fact seem to the the keenest name changers. Spiro Agnostopoulos became Spiro Agnew before he became vice-president of the United States and Jennifer Aniston would be Jennifer Anastassakis except for a name change. I actually don't mind Greek surnames. "Haralambopoulos" sounds delightfully absurd (I wonder what it means?) and I had a thoroughly admirable friend years ago named Panayotis Kokkinidis. Can you get more Greek than that? He somehow seems to have ended up in Vietnam these days, of all places. They are lucky to have him.

Another interesting thing is what Christian names say about social class. American blacks, for instance often devise quite "creative" names for their children in an apparent effort to say something good about the progeny concerned. But it doesn't. Such names simply say "black" -- and, with all due apologies, that is NOT prestigious.

In British and Australian circles, the most authoritative arbiters of good taste are of course the Royal Family and, with names like Charles, Edward, Andrew, Anne, Margaret, Elizabeth, Harry and William, I think the message is clear -- that they prefer traditional names. In the circumstances I note with some satisfaction that an old friend of mine named his sons Tom and Bill -- and my son is Joe. There is a similar message about Christian names here, in an article from "The Times" of London.

I must admit, however, that my mother got a bit carried away. She named her sons John and Christopher, which is fine, but she named her daughters Jacqueline and Roxanne -- French names. But the Australian love of abbreviations defeated any grand ambitions. My late sister Jacqueline was always known in the family as "Jack" and the fine husband of my gorgeous sister Roxanne generally refers to her as "Rock"!

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