"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 20, 2015

What’s In A Name? Too Much For It To Be Given At Birth

Sprightly Tribble was Eleanor until she was three when her parents decided that this beautiful sylph of a girl who pranced and tip-toed around the house in her ballet slippers, did pirouettes and arabesques in the living room to Tchaikovsky, and whose heels never touched the floor was no Eleanor.

Sprightly had been named Eleanor after Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, mother of kings, regent of vast lands in France, and a powerful, indomitable woman.  It was a proud name, Sprightly’s parents agreed, one which any woman of the Tribble family would carry with honor.  But ‘Eleanor’ was far too weighty and serious for Sprightly; and her parents, who felt that names and naming were not at all insignificant, wanted synchrony between their daughter’s name and her personality.  Too few names corresponded with character because they were given arbitrarily, as they had unknowingly done at their daughter’s birth.  Now they knew better.  They knew that by three years old Sprightly’s character was a given.  She had been born with the genes of her Great Aunt Liza who had been a dancer in the famous Broadway reviews of the 20s and was so talented that she could just as easily dance a Virginia reel as Swan Lake. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine


Yes, it was possible, the Tribbles agreed, that by naming her Sprightly and by judging her character so summarily and early they might be predetermining her life – that she, in fact, might be a brilliant mathematician beneath the tutus and princess costumes.  Yet they were so convinced of their judgment and so certain that Sprightly had come out of her mother’s womb a happy, delightful, joyful baby; and that she never lost one bit of innocence, enthusiasm, and energy in three full years, that they did not hesitate.

Herman Tribble loved his daughter even more than most fathers love their daughters.  Sprightly was a perfect complement to his own serious and rather somber nature.  He was not unhappy, never depressed or morose, nor even seriously reflective about life and death.  He was simply of a different ‘humour’ than his daughter, the exact opposite in fact; but rather than collide with her, he adored her. 

She danced for him, pirouetting around the living room in her ballet clothes and shoes, touching all the Chinese vases with her magic wand,  turning them into flowers, then spinning towards her father, touching him on the forehead, and then giving him a big kiss. “You are my prince”, she said.

Herman had hated his name from the beginning.  Because he was not the most popular boy in the school, nor the most athletic, nor the most handsome, he admired those who were.  He wanted to be called Ray like Ray Cummings whom all the girls fell for; or Sandy, like Sandy Evans, the quarterback of the varsity who ran with the grace of a gazelle and threw like an Olympian.  Herman was a dismal name and he resented his parents for it.


Even as an adult in late middle age Herman thought of changing his name after one of his heroes.  Winston, after the great Winston Churchill, statesman, warrior, man of letters, a model of courage and leadership; or Augustus, the greatest Roman Emperor of all time, a man who laid the foundations for the fifteen hundred year reign of the Roman Empire; or Saint Augustine, philosopher, theologian, autobiographer, pillar of the Church.


Of course he knew he never could change his name; but why should anyone stick with a name that was arbitrarily selected in the first place, has long outlived its usefulness, and is no more than an an ID, and a worthless one at that?  Over his fifty-five years, Herman felt that he had learned a lot, and his hero-worship was less frustrated idolatry than a genuine respect for the men who shaped history and knowledge.

In very small ways, Herman tried to become like Churchill or Herman’s close second choice, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who spoke twenty-five languages fluently, was a prolific writer, fearless adventurer, ethnographer, and diplomat.  Herman had travelled to fifty countries, mastered 7 languages, wrote often and well, and felt that he would be just as fearless as either Burton or Churchill when and if the challenge presented itself.  Why not take their names to honor them and to project something of them through him to others?


Herman looked over the names of the girls in Sprightly’s class.  There was little variation from the mean.  When Jennifer was the most popular girls name based on large data bases, over a third of the girls in the class were called Jennifer.  In the 90s there were more Brittanys and Elizabeths. Not only were names assigned by parents too early to have even an inkling about character or personality; they simply copied everyone else.  For all the good that a name did, one might just as well have a number.

“The Jews have the right idea”, Herman thought. Jews had always named their  children after figures in the Old Testament – Isaac, Isaiah, Abraham, Esther, Beulah, Saul – and after the last close relative who died.  These names were conferred on Jewish children, not just given.  A man could carry the name Abraham and know that he represented the patriarch of Judaism, a man of such devotion to God that he was ready to kill his son at his command.


There was nothing inherently wrong about naming at birth, if there was a point; but for all the rest, parents should wait to see how their children turn out.

Of course this theory had its limits.  Lance Ravenhood, despite his dashing name, was a dorky kid from the very beginning.  He was a clueless, clumsy, and unfailingly dense child, boy, and man.  His name was so far from what he was that it became its own humiliation.  He wished he could have a less conspicuously heraldic name so that he could be left alone.

Luckily for Sprightly, her parents were right.  She remained a sprite until she was very old, and even her irrepressible spirit got lost under layers of age and flaking skin.  A long run by any estimation, and a good one.  She never made it onto the professional stage, but was quite happy as an amateur.  She danced for the pure joy of it, still danced for her father when he asked her, and retained a childlike innocence and eagerness that everyone found irresistible.

Had she turned out differently and had become a logician, lawyer, or CIA analyst, her name might well have been a drawback.  How seriously would a Sprightly be taken on K Street, the Hill, or in the war rooms of the Pentagon?

The closest Herman ever got to changing his name was when he adopted a nom de plume – Thomas Sutpen, the main character of William Faulkner’s greatest novel, Absalom, Absalom which chronicles the life of a man who moved to Mississippi from the hills of West Virginia to clear 100 square miles of brush and swampland to grow cotton, to realize the American dream, and to attain stature, wealth and privilege. It is a story of ambition, family, and the complexities of race; and its language is luminous.

So Herman’s blog on which he wrote about literature, culture, and social trends was called Thomas Sutpen’s 100 and whether because of the name or more likely his insightful stories and lively prose, had thousands of followers.

Herman Tribble and his daughter remained very close until the day he died at 90.  She was far more than a dutiful daughter, although Herman, a widower, was grateful for her attention and care.  She was a loving, beautiful daughter who made him laugh and who still danced for him in her imagination and his.

She was always Sprightly, never Eleanor; and neither she nor her parents ever referred to her by that archaic although noble name.


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