The author Graham Greene liked to play practical jokes. One favourite was to look up a Greene in the telephone directory, call them up, and then proceed to verbally abuse the other party for their moral turpitude. They couldn't deny they were Mr Greene but only weakly responded they weren't ‘that Mr Greene’.
There are five traditional kinds of English surnames, patronymics such as Harrison and matronymics such as Maude, trade names such as Fletcher, place names like Crosby and nicknames like Hillman. The uncommonest name was the one and only Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraduati Tollemache-Tollemache-de-Orellana Plantagenet-Tollemache-Tollemache.
Names influence perceptions of who and what you are. Hollywood realised that glamour could be enhanced by a change of name. Judge Learned Hand (yes!) granted permission for Shmuel Gelbfisz (who called himself Samuel Goldfish) to legally change to Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn was created by combining the names of Goldfish and Selwyn, a fellow director. Maurice Micklewhite called himself Michael Scott, a suitable name, he felt, for a young man aspiring to be a young actor. In a phone box in Leicester Square talking to his agent, he heard that there was an audition, but couldn't apply as his stage name was apparently shared with another actor. He had, his agent said, to think of another name-immediately. Looking out of the phone box he saw the cinema opposite was showing Caine Mutiny. That was that - Michael Caine was born. The painter Diego María Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez recognised the problem and settled for Diego Rivera.
Hokusai opted for mood rather than simplicity and chose a name according to how he felt. During his life he changed it at least thirty times! Keats, on his deathbed in Rome, aged only 25, asked that his gravestone should merely carry the epitaph: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water.'
The nomenclator was the Roman slave who announced the names of arriving guests. Nowadays new products are introduced by advertising. Perhaps X cues mystery or sophistication and hence we have Timex, Rolex, Amex and Exxon! A lady, sitting next to Raymond Loewy at a dinner, inquired why he had put two Xs in Exxon. She said she couldn’t help noticing that, Loewy responded - “Well, that's the answer!”
Ian Fleming, writing at Goldeneye, his house in Jamaica, borrowed the name for his hero from a publication on his bookshelf. James Bond was the author of the book ‘West Indian Birds.’
It was simple where commerce was concerned. If you were Ford,your company was called Ford, Mr Boot was a chemist and Mr Cessna sold planes. If you didn't use your own name you usually decided on something like General Electric, or invented or borrowed a name. Odeon cinemas, the company says, was coined from the slogan 'Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation', and Esso was derived from S.O. - the initials of Standard Oil.
Names could have varied origins. Polystyrene, Polyvinyl and Polyethylene were the result of modern chemistry. Betty Crocker was the boss' secretary. Maxwell House is a hotel in Nashville with a reputation for good coffee. Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, was born Alisa Rosenbaum. She took her Christian name from a favourite Finnish author and her surname from her Remington Rand typewriter. The Mercedes automobile owes its name to the eponymous daughter.
Giacomo Balla, the Italian futurist painter, was so fascinated by speed that he even called one of his daughters propellor (Elica). Art director Art Black named his son Matt. Maverick graphic designer Tibor Kalman named his son Alex Onomatopoeia and named his daughter Lulu Bodoni after the 18th century typeface designed by Giambattista Bodoni.
Eliza Marchpane, born in Stepney in 1760, was a famous courtesan who travelled the courts of Europe. When in Vienna, she developed a passion for a sweetmeat made of sugar and crushed almonds. Returning to London she adopted the title of Marquise de Marzipan, and made the confection universally known. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company called itself 3M and its lead product Scotch.
The chairman of the London Rubber Company, pondering over a name for his new product while on a train from London to Southend in 1929, is reputed to have startled fellow passengers by suddenly leaping to his feet exclaiming: 'Durex! That's the name!' The official line is that the name is a combination of Durability and Excellence.
L. Frank Baum, author of The Land of Oz, took the title from the letters 0-Z on a filing cabinet, and similarly George Lucas, at a loss as to what to call his astromech droid in Star Wars, noticed the code R2-D2 on a box containing soundtrack from the film American Graffiti.
Naming is powerful as it can give a status independent of function. Veronese got into trouble with the Inquisition over his painting of The Last Supper and was ordered to repaint elements they thought blasphemous, within a month and at his own expense. It was a large canvas. He thought of a simpler remedy and merely changed the title. Apparently, that satisfied them.
The Earl of Sandwich couldn't bear to leave the card table and had his meal between slices of bread. Ludwig Doberman, a tax collector in Germany in the 1880s, developed a fierce breed of dogs to protect him while collecting taxes.
Domenico Comma invented the punctuation mark. Matthias Easel was an indifferent painter with a talent for carpentry. Sir Samuel Hoarding erected screens for public advertising alongside the new railway lines whilst E.C. Booze was an illicit distiller. Sir Oswald Binge was infamous for the scale and duration of his drinking bouts.
Subaltern Snooker played billiards so badly that his name became synonymous with a new game. Why Badminton House in Gloucestershire belonging to the Duke of Beaufort lent its name to the sport isn’t known. A German cartographer, for reasons best known to himself, translated the first name of transatlantic voyager Amerigo Vespucci into Latin and called the new land America.
Recently, for reasons widely speculated, Facebook decided to change its name to Meta. End of story. Enough said!
—Shubhranshu Singh is vice-president, marketing - domestic & IB, Tata Motors. The views expressed in the article are his personal
(Edited by : Bivekananda Biswas)
First Published: IST