I admit it, I am a hopeless onomastiphile. That means I constantly crack up over funny names.
For instance, I was reading a serious book when the author unblushingly mentioned a female travel writer of the 19th century named the Honourable Impulsia Gushington. Impulsia Gushington! I doubled over. Got to be a pseudonym or just an out-and-out fake, said I. Turns out the first was right. Helen Selina Blackwood, an English aristocrat also known as Lady Dufferin, wrote 19th century travel books like Lisping from the Low Latitudes, as well as songs and poetry.
One day a "Deaths elsewhere" item in the St. Petersburg Times got me giggling when I read "Canaan Sodindo Banana, 67, the first president of Zimbabwe, died Monday in Harare after a long illness."
Odd names are everywhere. Yahoo even has a Web site full of them. Names like Clapsaddle S. Tadlock, Wilhemina Twaddle, M. Wofford Zonk III, Hender Delves Molesworth, Beauregard Shagnasty, Baroness Gaby von Bagge of Boo.
Of course, there is always the danger that you may insult some unfortunate who has to bear one of those names, but most onomasts can't resist the lure of the funny name. Lots of writers share this bizarre habit. Gene Weingarten, a very droll writer for the Washington Post, once took off on this theme when he corresponded with a person named Dr. Neil Gesundheit, an endocrinologist at Stanford University.
He also mentioned a Washington, D.C., lawyer with whom I had correspondence once upon a time but don't know: Cantwell Muckenfuss III, known as Chuck. Chuck Muckenfuss, once a government lawyer, now is a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has spawned at least one U.S. attorney general. Muckenfuss told Weingarten his name meant "mosquito foot" or something like that.
He apparently is no relation to St. George Muckenfuss, whose surname I have fancied for years, in St. Paul, Minn. (Or to Wackenfuss Candies, a Rehoboth Beach, Del., store from which I used to buy licorice.) "Fuss" means "foot" in German. And I really know a man named Doug Fuss.
I recall visiting Mississippi and seeing a photograph of three people standing in front of the alleged tallest building in Jackson. The tall building, however, was called the Three Foot Building. Why? Because the people who owned it were of German-Jewish descent and literally translated their family name, Dreyfus (or Three Foot).
The champion of all funny name collectors is probably Paul Dickson, who wrote a book called Names, which delved into all sorts of improbable (and unfortunate) ones, many of which were found simply by opening any metropolitan phone book.
For instance, Dickson reported that an Englishman named George Beaglehole took out an ad in the Times of London to declare his name the "most uncommon in the land," whereupon a slew of others came forward with that claim.
Some names have been concocted and then gone down in posterity, like Sen. Claghorn, a windy comic blowhard on the old Fred Allen radio show. His Southern pomposity morphed into a cartoon character named Foghorn Leghorn, an annoying rooster who spewed forth "Ah say, ah say." Former Florida Gov. Leroy Collins even referred to Southern demagogues as "Claghorns."
There are even funny towns - like Peculiar, Mo., where every resident is inevitably described as "here comes a Peculiar person."
Sometimes bad reputations just attach to an ordinary name, like Hooligan. The Hooligans were a British family that kept running afoul of the law. The patriarch killed a constable and ended his days in prison, but the name stuck to all ruffians and outlaws.
In 1981, a man named Archie Outlaw was arrested for selling heroin. When he protested that he couldn't get a fair trial with such a name, he was allowed to change it to Simmons for the trial.
The name Fink has been used by mobsters, cops and labor unions in a pejorative way. It entered the language in 1890, according to Dickson, when Pinkerton detectives violently broke up a strike. The name should have been "Pinks," but now stool pigeons and other telltales get called finks. The good side is that there is a National Fink Day in Fink, Texas. Fink that one over.
Of course, if I had been named Schlomo Turtledove, Grecian T. Snooze or Montague Piggott III, I would probably be seeking a legal name change, though heaven knows my given name has always been a tongue twister. I have been referred to as "Blivens," "Blizzard" and, gratingly, as "Donner and Blitzen."
So goes the name game.
Jerry Blizin is a retired journalist who lives in Tarpon Springs.