Category: Joanne Lessner
In my alternate life (the one where I’m a jet-setting opera singer based in London), I have a clutch of children with fabulous names. The girls are called Tessa, Lily, Francesca and Imogen, and the boys are Sebastian, Phineas, Jasper and Colin. In my actual life, I’m a New York-based writer and performer with two kids who got my first round draft picks: Julian and Phoebe. But as a writer, surely I can pepper my work with those other glorious, un-exercised gems, right?
Well, not exactly.
J.K. Rowling has famously said that Harry Potter just strolled into her head, fully formed. I understand what she means. My characters have a habit of knocking on my mental door wearing nametags. Even names that carry hints of significance are often a chicken and egg situation. For example, the hero of my novel, Pandora’s Bottle, is named Sy Hampton. I don’t recall consciously choosing his name, but one reader asked if it was meant to illustrate a “sigh” of disappointment (he’s having a mid-life crisis.) Another suggested that “Hampton” indicates a yearning for the finer things in life epitomized by those exclusive Long Island enclaves. Those are certainly reasonable assumptions, but I can’t say honestly whether Sy grew more melancholy and striving because of his name, or if, when I named him, my subconscious instinctively know where he was heading. However, I do know that when my editor floated the possibility of changing his name – feeling that Sy suggested someone of a slightly older generation – I just couldn’t.
Novelist Joanne Lessner guest blogs about the family nicknaming tradition that can turn any upstanding name into something much more ridiculous.
My family loves words. We make them up, we pun incessantly, and we number several lyricists among us. We’re really rather annoying. But possibly the most vexing trait we exhibit, at least to those on the receiving end, is the generations-long tradition of an older sibling blighting a younger one with a ridiculous and, to the uninitiated, mystifying nickname.
We are nothing if not consistent in our weirdness. Our nicknames are all preceded by the definite article. For example, long before there was Rupert, there was my mother, nicknamed The Grint by her older brother. How, you may reasonably ask, did my Uncle John get The Grint from Helen? Apparently, she grinned a lot, and my uncle, misunderstanding the word, started calling her The Grinter, which he then shortened. My mother hated it, but as Helen was the 24th most popular name for girls born in 1941, my grandmother found it useful for getting her attention in a crowded store.
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).