31. TOM, DICK OR HARRY ... OR X Æ A-Xii?
What do Fred Nurk, Joe Bloggs, John Doe, Jan Perez and Mario Rossi all have in common? They are the proverbial men in the street in Australia, the UK, the US, Italy and Latin America respectively. Or, placeholder names as they are also referred to. We use them without really thinking. Of course, if you were to actually meet a Joe Bloggs, that really would make you sit up and take notice, because he would not then be any old Tom, Dick or Harry!
One of many
Our names we like to think of as unique to us, although the variation in this 'labelling' differs from country to country, or even community to community. Take a Welsh rugby team, a third of whom is likely to be a Jones or Evans, and an equal likelihood that of these, 50% will be an Alun Wyn. And if you happen to be stopped at a police checkpoint and you give your name as John Smith, there's a chance that you will be asked to show some kind of identity evidencing that claim. It's the kind of name that might spring to mind when you quickly have to pluck one out of the air to mask your real identity.
The one and only
But a Fred Nurk or Mario Rossi certainly do exist - or will have taken the step of changing their name by deed poll. My father did it. Christened Godfrey Herbert, as soon as he reached the age of consent, he became Christopher, a name he passed on to his son! Some names can be embarrassing and then you have to say to yourself, right said Fred, I'm going to assert control over my appellation and do something about my self-image and consequent self-esteem. I recall when a baby was named after an entire cup-winning football team and even today, you have the curious example of Elon Musk's child, X Æ A-12, although this was subsequently amended to X Æ A-Xii. Think of the problem for the child's future teacher. "What's the answer, ?????" Musk has sprung to the rescue: "I mean it's just X, the letter X. And then, the Æ is, like, pronounced 'Ash'... and then, A-12, A-12 is my contribution." Money talks!
Encountering 'challenging' names can indeed pose, well, a challenge. I remember making a phone call to get hold of a Mr Posthumus, only to be informed that the said person had died the previous week! I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I opted for a couple of seconds of silence before pulling myself together to offer condolences. But you have to wonder how people, unwittingly for the most part, come up with the most ill-chosen names, whether by birth or marriage.
Bob de Bouwer on the construction site
As an Englishmen in the Netherlands, and I guess the same goes for any nationality living in another foreign-language country, initially I had a good old giggle about the names (in translation). People called Of the Trouser (Van den Broek), Born Naked (Naaktgeboren) or Of the Mountain (Van den Berg) ... in the Lowlands at that! And, of course, the very appropriately named Bob de Bouwer who builds houses, Eric Timmerman who works as a carpenter or Max Molenaar the miller. Then I had to remind myself about actual English surnames like Smellie, a rock star called Richard Gotobed, a cricketer called Graham Onions. Not to mention a Greedy here and a Nutter there. There's the (in)famous radio broadcast where the whole cricket commentating team fell about on the floor laughing when it was revealed that "The batsman's Holding, the bowler's Willey."
An ounce of discretion
I guess there is little we can do about our surnames - we
tend to accept them, despite the risk of being teased from an early age, or try
to instigate a legal change of name. But maybe parents could be aware of the
consequences when assigning first names. Scandinavians have a bit of a
tradition of naming children with the same name as the surname: Erik Eriksen,
Morten Mortensen, Sigurd Sigurdsson, and so on. Some lack invention - Jan
Janssen, Richard Richardson, Donald Donaldson - while others may be a bit too
inventive - Sam Sung, Crystal Methven, Tyrannosaurus Rex Mullens (real names!). I'm all for
freedom of choice, but I think there needs to be a little bit of common sense whereby
birth registrars are allowed to apply discretion by recommending, for example,
to Mr and Mrs Head that they might want to reconsider naming their new-born son