Nothing makes my family giggle more than a funny name. We collect and pass them around like prized truffles. My sister and I have practically memorized John Train’s Most Remarkable Names, and right up until my uncle died two years ago, he and my mom would mail each other the choicest newspaper clippings. My dad is content to just make them up, baiting unsuspecting wait staff by tryingto order non-existent cocktails named after his creations. “I’d like an Irving Gafoofnick, please. You know, it’s like a Harvey Wallbanger, only different.”
We retain a healthy appreciation of the difference between first and last name humor, understanding that no matter how silly a last name may sound, it’s asking a lot to turn one’s back on one’s heritage and change it. But even though those names engender a pained “There but for the grace of Ellis Island go I” sympathy, the comic element can prove hard to resist. Consider a recent wedding announcement, in which the groom’s last name was Alternative. Our compassion didn’t stop us from quipping, “The bride, whose first choice was unavailable…”
But we are less inclined to be charitable when there is clearly an element of free will. It’s hard not to smack one’s head in wonder at misguided hyphenates (Scubbley-Butts), ethnic mash-ups (Hadassah O’Donohue), inadvertent descriptors (Rosie Rottencrotch), and encoded sentences (Dorothy Ada Mellon – and boy, was she hungry).
More often than not, the first name alone is enough to inspire bubbles through the nose hilarity, along with a flabbergasted “What were they thinking?!” Take the nine year-old New Zealand girl whose parents named her Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii. The poor child was so traumatized that when she successfully sued to change her name, she opted simply for a letter: K. (As to her particular choice, I’m guessing her early years were pretty Kafka-esque.)
Still, one person’s pain can provide another’s pleasure. In high school, my friend Jill hit pay dirt working in the records department of our local hospital. Every day, she’d gleefully relay another newborn gem. There were the twins, Icare and Ucare, Princess and her daughter Precious, and the one that to this day renders us helpless with mirth: the young mother, pre-Eve Ensler, who thought Vagina was the most beautiful name in the world. The nurses were only partially successful in talking her out of it. (Nagina, if you’re reading this, just know that it could have been much worse.)
But my all-time favorite story hails from my friend Joanna, whose sister’s first job was teaching kindergarten in Berkeley. The new recruits were warned that they’d be meeting children with some unusual names, like Sunbeam and Moonblossom, and were urged to take these fantastic monikers in stride. The first day, the kids arrived wearing paper nametags on yarn around their necks, and one boy’s tag read…Little Fruit Stand. Jo’s sister sucked it up and thought, “Okay, this is exactly what they were talking about. I can do this.” So all day, she called on him: “Little Fruit Stand, it’s time for recess! And what did you do this summer, Little Fruit Stand?”
Apparently, when the boy went home that night, and his mother asked him about his first day of school, he replied, somewhat perplexed, “It was okay, I guess, but everyone kept calling me ‘Little Fruit Stand.’” It turned out that on one side of the paper was the kid’s name…but on the other side was where the bus picked him up. His name was David! The thing that makes me laugh hardest is the image of this confused little boy, also shrugging and going along with it: “Sigh. She keeps looking over here, so she must mean me. Boy, kindergarten is weird.”
In addition to making a great story – and demonstrating just how much creative slack we’re willing to cut people – Little Fruit Stand made a perfect in utero nickname for my son Julian. Ironically, he has grown up to devour more fresh fruit than any one person’s bank account or stomach can handle. Proof that names are destiny? Who can say? But they sure can be funny.
Joanne Sydney Lessner is the author of Pandora’s Bottle, a novel inspired by the true story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine (Flint Press, 2010). Her main characters are named Tripp, Sy and Valentina. Can you guess the plot?