On Names

I recently found myself reading Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, an awesome book written by T.S. Eliot and illustrated by Edward Gorey. Edward Gorey is one of my favourite illustrators on Earth, and the poetry isn’t half bad. (For me, that’s saying something, because I do not, as a general rule, like poetry.)

At any rate, one of the most famous poems in the book is “The Naming of Cats,” which I am going to reprint here without permission, footloose and fancy free as I am. (Please don’t sue me!)

The naming of cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m mad as a hatter
When I tell you a cat must have three
different names.

First of all, there’s the name
that the family use daily,
Such as Victor, or Jonathan,
George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names
if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen,
some for the dames;
Such as Plato, Admetus,
Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.

But I tell you,
a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that is peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he
keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers,
or cherish his pride?

Of names of this kind,
I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quazo or Coripat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellyrum—
Names that never belong
to more than one cat.

But above and beyond
there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you will never guess;
The name
that no human research can discover—
But The Cat Himself Knows,
and will never confess.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought,
of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

The reason it comes to mind is that I think much of this advice holds true for naming people, as well, and I am writing this post as a public service announcement to remind people who are invested with the sacred duty of naming children that they should take their jobs very, very seriously. Naming a child is no small potatoes, when you consider that the human being you are naming will carry the name for the next 80 years, or more, potentially. Unlike cat namers, you also have to hit the ground running, which I understand can be hard. You can come up with a list of potentials, but until you see the character of the child, picking out a good name should be tough. I am all for a mandatory holding period, in which new parents take the infant home and mull the name over for a week. Changing names is expensive, kiddos!

At any rate, Eliot has some excellent points, and I’d like to go through them one by one for you.

Ordinary names are very important. Please remember that some children end up taking on their ordinary names as their full time names, so consider this when you are thinking about a kid’s casual “family name.” “John,” for example, is an excellent choice. “Squishbean” is not. Go for something basic and simple, so that if the child does not like his or her formal name, a good alternate is still available.

Peculiar formal names are also awesome. You never know how someone is going to turn out, so you ought to give a child an unusual, remarkable, distinctive name. However, this is not a license to go hog wild. Please avoid, for example, unusual names which are clearly going to be dated, even though they seem oh so clever and hip at the moment. Do not, for the love of Pete, name your child after a fruit or vegetable. Please. You may also want to consider avoiding ethnic names of an ethnicity to which your child does not belong, along with cute misspellings, unless the name is a family name and you want to preserve a piece of heritage. If you insist on using a name in a foreign language, make sure that it means what you think it means, and also consider how English speakers might mangle it. Because they will. Oh, how they will. As you mull unusual formal names over, think about whether or not you would like that name for yourself. If it makes you or those around you wince, imagine how the child might feel in 20 years.

You can put common and formal names in any order you like. Personally, I prefer the Common Formal Lastname format, but whatever gets your rocks off. Please refrain from hyphenation and multiple last names. In addition to being annoying, it plays hell with government forms, and will result in no end of hassle. Under no circumstances should you trap a child with no unusual name to use. Conversely, you are simply not permitted to saddle your child with some excrescence of obscene names like Moonbeam Starflow Rainbow. When he or she becomes an accountant despite your wildest hopes and dreams, that name will be an eternal source of shame and misery, until he or she manages to change it.

Everyone also has a secret, private name trapped deep within them. Unlike T.S. Eliot’s cats, a person may take this name for their given name. That’s pretty awesome, except when it is an obvious, pretentious, overbearing, hippy piece of shit. If you know someone who is considering this drastic life step, please advise them well. After all, you don’t want to have to remember that Jane changed her name to Wolfstar, and then again to X!Chayunga. Indeed, you may want to offer a copy of Old Possum to these individuals, to make sure that they consider the choice carefully.

Consider, above all, that naming a human is not like naming an animal. A name can become a defining characteristic of someone’s existence, and it can result in pain, agony, and shame just as much as it can lead to good fortune, confidence, and happiness. Consider well and consider long, because you only get one chance. And if you fuck up, the child will never forgive you.


4 Replies to “On Names”

  1. I’m thinking about getting myself an official middle name. Sometime. Since my given name is plain as rain, I guess that gives me some license

  2. Middle names are the bee’s knees. I cannot speak highly enough of them. (And I’m always amazed to meet people who don’t have them!)

  3. People whose parents were first-gen Asian immigrants are more likely not to have middle names (apart from, say, transliterations of their other-language name). On the other hand, that gives us a say in our own middle names, should we choose to get one.

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