Gene Weingarten is on vacation. This column was originally published in 2002.
WASHINGTON — I love funny names. I notice them, collect them, remember them. Some names are funny because they are eerily appropriate to the person or his occupation, as with the hard-serving former tennis pro Anna Smashnova or the Secret Service agent Jeffrey Undercoffer.
When I have seen fit to laugh at names like these, I get letters from outraged readers. Sure, the letter writer is often named something like Orkney Gruntflaster, but his point is not without merit: People do not choose their names; ridiculing them is unfair and immature.
As a public act of contrition, I decided to apologize to people whom, in my former immature state, I might have made fun of.
"I'm just phoning to tell you that I do not find your name even remotely amusing, Dr. Gesundheit."
Neil Gesundheit is a prominent endocrinologist and professor of medicine in California.
"You're calling about my name?"
"Yes, but definitely not to make fun of it."
"I've been working on the medical school curriculum, and when you said the Washington Post, I thought you'd be asking how the new curriculum is going to be distinctive."
"Yes, in fact, that is much more interesting than your name. Please tell our readers about your new curriculum, Dr. Gesundheit."
"Each student is not only going to be a physician when he graduates but a real scholar in his field of choice."
"Wow!" I said. Dr. Gesundheit sounded pleased.
This catharsis thing seemed to be working. So I was in an even more hopeful mood when I called to apologize to Cantwell Muckenfuss III, another innocent who might formerly have been a victim of my childish sense of humor. Muckenfuss is a big muckety- . . . I mean a big-shot Washington lawyer. He goes by "Chuck." Chuck Muckenfuss.
I told him I found his name interesting, though certainly not comical, and wondered where it came from.
"It means something like mosquito foot."
"Ha-ha-ha," I observed.
I asked whether, when they married, Mrs. Muckenfuss took his name.
"No, she is Angela Lancaster."
"That's a nice name," I said.
"Yes, it is," Chuck Muckenfuss said, wistfully.
Next, I called another lawyer whose name is not funny. New York litigator Sue You does mostly defense work, anyway, so where's the joke?
Believe it or not, though, she has heard some snickers over the years, and Sue You and I agreed that some people can be real jerks about this sort of thing.
All in all, it hasn't been too bad for her, though. Sue You said she once knew a law student named Wendy Turnoff. That was bad, we agreed. Bad, but not funny.
(I attempted to locate Wendy Turnoff, to see if she was at all bitter at the hand she was dealt in life, but it turns out — this is true — she has married, changed her last name and moved to Russia.)
Eventually, I found myself talking to one of the most prominent pediatric endocrinologists in America. He has one of these really grave and wise and dignified doctor voices, rich with age and wisdom and compassion, a voice that can make a person feel very puny indeed.
Dr. Wellington Hung asked why I had called.
I tried, but I just couldn't get it out. Apologized for bothering him.
The conversation left me shaken. Sure, I had changed, but was I letting myself off too easy? I needed absolution, and there was only one place to find it — back where I began.
"Dr. Gesundheit, do you feel that someone who finds your name funny, or might have found your name funny at some more immature point in his past, is . . . a bad person?"
He paused. I braced for the answer.
"No, not necessarily."
God bless you, Dr. Gesundheit.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com.
* By the way, this headline also was originally published in 2002. Sometimes, editors need a vacation, too.