What’s In A Name?

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweetly.” So Shakespeare proposed in Romeo and Juliet.

As I was talking with friends a couple of days ago, I started thinking about names. About nicknames, actually. And about how some names just ask for trouble. Or jokes.

I never really had an obvious nickname. Some names invite one; others don’t. My brother Philip was Phil. My sister Kay is sometimes Katie. My mother Irene was Reenie to some of her cousins and also Butch. My dad was Henry Theophilus — he was H.T. to some (from childhood and family), Hank to others (from work).

Me? There were family names that outsiders usually didn’t know. My Uncle James called me Whistlebritches when I was a toddler; apparently when I was in diapers I was given to running off after dropping the diapers– so fast, my uncle would tease, that they whistled. My dad called me Princess when I was an infant, but after I started crawling and then climbing and running, I became Wart. That, he said, was because I “warted” him to death if I wanted something. Or the other very flattering name he had for me: Worm. Because I was hard to hold on to – I was, he claimed, a wiggleworm. Hence “Worm.”

Then there was the name that my dad’s work partner made me think was mine. Buddy worked with Dad most of my life — he was my “other dad.” By the time I was three, Buddy had me trained. He’d drill me with this. Often. If he asked me what my name was — usually in front of people — I would respond (as he had taught me) “Cheryl Lynn Stinkpot Ware.” Live that one down, folks.

Southern kids also always know when they’re in trouble — that’s when both the first and middle names get used. Both. At once. No nicknames. That’s unless you have some double-name combination that always functions as a single name. My mother just loved calling me Cheryl Lynn, as my aunts did. By the time I was 14, I was signing my middle initial– I thought “Cheryl L. Ware” sounded so grown-up, so mature. But I have cousins to whom I am still Cheryl Lynn. And that’s run together as a single name — Cherylyn. My Grampa Charlie, who was Swedish,” would roll the two names together with some strange Swedish twist at the back of his throat. No one else could call me that name the way he could — rolling the r and them almost swallowing the “yl.”

Couple any number of names with the last name of Ware and you can predict giggles or jokes. Initials, for example, for my cousin Barbara and me and my brother Phil: B Ware. C Ware. And the ever-lovely P Ware. Lots of laughs on that last one.

The last name of Ware itself simply invites all sorts of jokes — usually along the following lines: “Do you have any cousins named Corning? Baking? Stone?”

On bus trips in high school, usually the jokes came along with roll call. Remember roll calls? Usually as names were called, you said “Here.” Imagine your name is Ware. It’s called. You answer: “Here.” And someone (or several someones) begin laughing and responding “Where?” Eventually, smart-ass Cheryl started responding with “present” rather than “here.” That didn’t really help at all. I just got ignored and the “where” snickers continued.

In high school, my science and math teacher, Mr. Miller, once came up with a new one. Of course he managed to use it when I was taking a make-up test for one class while sitting in his Chemistry class (the students were a year older than I). While I was sitting there waiting for the makeup test, Mr. Miller told them I’d be there, taking the test. And in front of these students, some of whom were cool older guys, he continued: “You know, Cheryl, if your middle name was Sunder and you said the name really fast, you’d be Cheryl Sunder Ware.” Go ahead, readers — say it out loud, and fast. Run the names together: CherylSunderWare: Cheryl’s Underwear. That’s right. I wanted to die. Right then.

I didn’t, of course, and I aced the test, I think.

Some people have nicknames that have no relation to their given names, but arise from some incident, long forgotten. At some point, some of us would refer to my cousin Barbara as Babo — after a powder cleanser brand that you’d shake on a surface and then wipe with a wet cloth. It was humorous in high school. Maybe once or twice. Naturally, it was used to death for a while and then forgotten.

Other times, names are innocent enough in themselves, but suffer the problem of other associations with the name as a word. For a number of years, for example, I had a colleague whose last name was Dick. She could laugh about it. But she also liked to tell us that her sister married a guy whose last name was Peters.

Compared to that, Ware was just fine.

Sometimes nicknames reflect a culture or language. When I was in college one of our starting football players was called Ti Red (Little Red) because he was — you guessed it — kind of short for a football player. I don’t remember his given name.

Or the twins who were in my grade in high school — given names, Harrel and Darrel. Nicknames? Billy and Joe. True story.

Another guy in our class was called Snake. Even as adults that’s what we called him. Not his given name. Yet another had the unfortunate nickname of Meathead.

In south Louisiana where I grew up, some people had very different names because we were and are in a region that is culturally very French/Cajun more than English. So I went to school with kids whose parents or grandparents had names like Cyprien, or Telesphere, or Theophile. In fact, one of my sorority sisters had a brother named Theo — short for Theophile. My mother had relatives named Philemon, Plez, and Cecile.

My dad’s family had some interesting names and nicknames too. Dad, of course, had an interesting middle name: Theophilus. A nice Greek name. He was named for his grandfather, Theophilus Valentine Ware, also known as TV, also known as “Tump.” TV’s brother was named Nimrod Washington Ware; he was known as “Nim” or “Timi” (Tim-eye). I think they had a brother whose name was “Pont.” Nimrod was actually a family name. Imagine having that name, will you? Given the connotation of the name “Nimrod,” think about the laughs that come with it. I know it’s a Biblical name, but it’s hard to imagine that when you’re thinking about the connotation of the name and term “Nimrod.” I can laugh, then, and notice that while many families have nimrods in them, mine actually has Nimrods.

My Granddad Ware’s name was pretty straightforward: James Franklin Ware. No Greek name there. (Greek names were popular in the 19th century South.)

One of his brothers, though, was named Leonidas. His nickname: Lon. Uncle Lon had one son, also named Leonidas (or at least I assume so) but called Leon.

Some names, odd enough in themselves, get pronounced differently or combined with other names. My maternal grandmother had a sister named Tabitha. But in the family, the pronunciation was Ta-BYE-thee. We called her BYEthee. She was named after one of her father’s sisters, I think. My great-grandfather’s mother, though, had the most unusual name: Axie Eliza Snellgrove.

Sometimes names must have been written phonetically: my Grandmother Ware’s name suggests this. Somewhere, I suspect, my great-grandmother must have seen the name Brooke, but thought that the final e was pronounced. Hence my grandmother’s name: Brookie.

Certainly names shift in place in terms of popularity. There were years where I might have 4 or 5 Jennifers in class. Or whatever. Clusters of names in a given class at school will reveal what names were trending when those students’ mothers were pregnant and having to make the decision about naming.

In the 60s and 70s you might find infants named “Rainbow,” or “River.” Or, as Frank Zappa named his children, “Dweezil,” “Moon Unit,” and “Ahmed.”

No, C Ware is just fine with me.

It could be worse.

I could truly be Whistlebritches Ware.

Or Cheryl Lynn Stinkpot Ware.

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