I asked her what was the tartan she wore, She smiled and told me Smith. I’d never considered that Clan before, But fair enough – the Smiths of yore, The Sassenachs of Aviemore, The flints in the monolith – The common Clan for the ev’ryman, The hammers and tongs of myth.
She asked me the tartan in which I deck, Buchanan, perhaps, or Brodie, or Beck ? I smiled, and told her Burberry Check.
It seems that the Gaelic word for smith is the origin of the Clan McGowan, but that even before surnames arose in the Highlands, some Scots had Anglisised their profession to ‘smith’.
We know who is the hero of the story By their name, Who overcomes the Pharaoh And is master of the game. They may be short and strong, like John, Or florid, like Lysander. But nobody can take the conn When called by something blander.
Our names say who’s the hero, Who’s the villain, who’s the fodder – The latter, if they’re named at all, Are given names which keep them small. Who’s an agent of the Bureau ?, Who’s a desk-bound plodder ? Why do you even have to ask ?, Their nametags clearly show their task.
We know who is the hero, And the hero ain’t called Nigel But when your name is Nero, Then you’re Emperor of Rigel ! Nigels never save the day, And clearly Richards have to lose, The Mauds won’t steal our hearts away. And Tracys never make the news.
Our names say who are heroes, Standing-out from us bystanders. The latter, if they get a shot, Are only there to serve the plot. There’s millions – so many zeroes – Never Homer, always Flanders. Yet still the parents set the stage And give their children names of beige.
Nicknames are exonyms, Imposed against our will. Based on biases and whims They think that we fulfil. They’re oh so unoriginal, Yet cannot be withstood – And once we’re dubbed-additional, We’re stuck with them for good !
Nicknames are exonyms, We cannot choose our own. They may be simple Bobs and Jims That set our names in stone, Or adjectives that prove too strong To yield to any protest. I guess we’ll have to play along – At least they mean we’re noticed.
My parents named me wrong, of course, But ev’ry parent does, no doubt – They have no way of knowing How their offspring will turn out. That balance between the int’resting and sensible Can be so thin – There’s something to be said, while growing-up, For blending-in. But when we come-of-age, we need our names To do a diff’rent job – So Sallys sometimes change to Sarahs, Bobbys change to Robs. But some will chafe at their very stems, Their unloved exonyms won’t do – They think they need to shed their skins, And make themselves anew.
So why do we eye these braver ones Who take control of their brand, as fake ? Why must they always bear their parents’ Well-meaning mistake ? Like letting their mums still buy their clothes, And letting their dads still pick their roles – They must grow up and find their style With which to dress their souls. But I did the same with my own kids, I made a guess and made a hope – And got it wrong, of course I did, But still, they seem to cope. Because, we have to name the tykes, And yes, project ourselves a bit – But let’s not take offense if they Have found a better fit.
Hannelora Helmholtz-Hertzsprung, Eight syllables of Sturm and Drang That trip along a Teuton tongue With a click of the heels from brother Wolfgang. If only Wolf and Hanni tried The Eidelweiss and Extrawurst, But they were born in Merseyside – Less Sachsen, more Anglo-cursed.
Helmholtz-Hertzsprung – what a surname ! H times three and twice Tee-Zed – They’re triply stung, as if to claim A ‘Graf’ and a ‘Von’, and be dubbed ‘the Red’. Her parents gave them the kind of name That only folks in stories give. What chance have they of meek and tame With monikers so transformative ?
They wonder at their German roots, Though mum’s their mum and not their Mutti. And their father’s never worn Prussian boots, And when asked why, he shrugs why should he ? Of the language, they speak no word, And their accents sounds less Saar, more Scouse. So why share names with a yodelling goatherd As if they’d been raised in a gingerbread house ?
Wolfie tries to harden his Double-Yoo, But ev’ryone still calls him a softie – He’s got the wrong voice, where even he struggles to, And sounding far more pretentious than lofty. A pair of Frankensteins lacking a zeitgeist, A Bildungsroman for these misplaced Franks – Their only reminder of whence their genes spliced Is that damn Nachname, upping their angst.
Helmholtz sounds like a planetary ship, While Hertzsprung, like a clockwork core – Or else a springbok, skittish to skip – The poor, poor dears !, emburdened with lore. Their parents gave them the kind of name That only elves and heroes get – But theirs it is, to shun or claim… Could Deutschland be über Alles yet…?
Hannelora Helmholtz-Hertzsprung – The name of a nuclear engineer – With phonemes thoroughly washed and wrung To perfectly balance the Rheinland ear. How can she live with so much hype ?, Precision-polished for wide acclaim. And yes, she knows that’s a stereotype, But verdammt !, so is her whole damn name !
A louse is a louse is a louse, Close enough, In German, Norwegian and Dutch, While Romancers keeps it in-house, Close enough, From the Latin pedis, and such, While Slavs use a different nous, Close enough, With vusi – it doesn’t change much. So a louse is a louse, from West to East, And ev’rywhere the same. But a woodlouse, that’s a diff’rent beast – The bug with a thousand names… Roly-poly, cheesey wig, The sow bug, pill bug, backyard blimp – And dandy postman, parson’s pig, Or slater, cafner, carpet shrimp. And other tongues have a similar feast – Or so the pundits claim… But an insect louse ? That’s just a louse – They’re itchy, but they’re tame.
I have touched on woodlice before, and also eyelash lice. Their diversity of names reminds me somewhat of butterflies. Incidentally, though both ‘wood’ and ‘louse’ are present in Anglo-Saxon, they don’t seem to have been put together until 1611.
Whenever I hear people blame How surnames get above their station, Moving up to the front of the name, In a silly fads and trendy game, Calling kids Odell or Mason, Grabbing at that Moon Unit fame That should belong to Jane and Jason – I love to contradict their claims By pointing out it’s nothing new for names – So Franklin, Brooke, and Harrison, Meet Stanley, Joyce, and Allison, Who opened up the door through which you came. But then, there’s many a fam’ly brand Whose use ain’t so contrived or underhand – For they themselves derived from the font-side, Taking a personal name, and riffing free, Which now completes its jaunty ride By cycling back as Price or Tiffany, With not a shred of shame. For labels, monikers and nicks, Are simply anything that sticks – And who wants kids to all be called the same ?
It’s intersting to consider how the four different types of surname get reappropriated: Patronymic-names (f’instance Anderson, McKenzie, Fitzpatrick) are obvious candidates, being already based on a forename. Location-names (like Milton, Beverley, Beckett) would be grabbed if they were thought to sound nice, much like India and Vienna would be later, though now with an added dash of exotic. Nickname-names (say Wiley, Swift, Armstrong) are slower to be taken up, but not unheard-of. Occupation-names (such as Parker, Smith, Marshall) are the most surname-sounding, and their recent large-scale take-up could well come to define this century, just as the Victorians are associated with naming their daughters after flowers and gemstones.
By the way…if Tinker Dill was a character in Lovejoy, Taylor Dayne was an 80s pop star, Soulja Boy is a rapper…then I guess it’s only a matter of time before we can say Hello Sailor…
(And to all you subjunctive-lovers out there, I stand by the two ‘was’-es above, as what it is saying is “IF…given that Character A was in Show B, THEN…”, meaning that the ‘was’ is not part of the conditional clause.)
Pterosaurs weren’t dinosaurs – And so says Lukas, keen to crow. You know what, Lukas ? We already know. And neither were the mosasaurs, And ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, Dimetridon or sarchosuchus – Come on, Lukas, don’t harp on so.
Sometimes, Lukas, we’ll play ball, Cos evolution’s cool and all – But we also need a name instead To call all things that’re scaly, big, and dead. We need a widely-recognised file, A catch-all term, a handy pile – But one that leaves out bird and crocodile.
With chapter, verse, and nomenclature ? Oh, don’t be such a whiny bore, By giving us a minus score In your self-waging, name-defining war – Lumbering and out-of-date, We’ve got your number, Lukas, mate – You’re such a dinosaur !
Cowes, atop the Isle of Wight – East and West, though much the same – Victorian and seaside-y, With boats and seagulls running free. And not a single cow in sight – No running of the bulls – for shame ! No fording droves between the piers, No cowboys showing off their steers. And don’t come here in Cowes Week, right ! It doesn’t live up to its fame ! It’s not the time when bullocks battle, Not a trace of rutting cattle. Why then whet our appetite, To wastes its strange and lively name ? There are no bovine sacrifices, Just cream teas at tourist prices.
I know, I know, despite a spine of rolling chalk downs through the Island, Cowes itself sits atop clay…
Women have answered to ‘Jenny’ far longer than ‘Jennifer’, Whether they’re maidens or maids – A pet form of Janet, Joanna, or even Siobhan, She’s really a jack-of-all-trades. Old English had a few Jinifers, sure, But those weren’t Guiniveres, those were Junipers – Then, from nowhere, Jennifer came – From Cornwall, and from a parallel universe.
As the Twentieth Century progressed, The Jennies were pressed into service And switched their allegiance to Jennifer only, And rode her success to over-abundance – Then into the downward curve of redundancy, No longer heroines, neighbours, or queens – But surely we’ll always remember the Jennies, As wrens, or as donkeys, or spinning machines.