Coincidentally: Names Proper and Improper

Of all the blithe habits that befog our culture as it careens toward wreckage, one of the most annoying is the almost universal tendency to call Cunobelinus Cymbeline and Boudicca Boadicea. Cymbeline was just the poeticized name given by Shakespeare to the Briton king and father of Caractacus, or Caradawg, according to the listless labials of the Welsh. What the brave son of Cunobelinus failed to do in resisting the Roman invasion led by Aulus Plautius (Ostorius Scapula captured him in 50 A.D.), Boudicca accomplished as queen of the Icendi. At least her alliance with the Trinobantes (Essex and Saxon Britons) kept the Romans at bay until 62 A.D. In retaliation for having been publicly flogged, she massacred 70,000 Britons who, as the Vichyites of their day, had collaborated with the invaders.

Boudicca would not have taken lightly the frilly alteration of her name to Boadicea. Neither is it possible to imagine the Romans being terrified by someone lispily named Cymbeline. Does a fierce name make a fierce fighter, or does the name seem fierce because it belongs to the fierce? It is similar to the conundrum case of pets: Do owners start looking like their dogs, or do the owners (by subtle and subconscious self-projection) select dogs that resemble them? I cannot imagine Hitler playing with a Chihuahua at Berchtesgarten, so I think it must be the latter.

As long as there are names, there will be misnomers. In the 20th century we have had a Benito and a Fidel at whose baptisms the lustral waters could have boiled. In the larger scheme, though, it is hard to imagine a Placid the Hun or a Tinkerbell the Conqueror.

The first wife of Eveyln Arthur St. John Waugh was also Evelyn, and friends avoided confusion by calling them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn; but were they attracted by their names, or does the literary world remark their names only because they were attracted? The Englishman George Dance (1741-1825) and the Alsation Jean Jacques Waltz were painters; but do we match them because of their painting or because of the congruity of their professionally incongruous names?

Was it because of his exemplary piety that we remember the name of the first Protestant Episcopal missionary to Africa? Or do we remember his name because it was Thomas Savage (1804-1880)? Or, indeed, did he become a missionary because of his name? Something in a name makes us pause when we confront this fact: While England’s greatest playwright was Shakespeare, the only English pope to date was Breakspeare (c. 1100-1159).

The mathematician of Baghdad to whom we all owe so much, Muhammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi (780-c. 850), coined the term “al-jabr” (literally “the resetting of broken bones”) for the mathematical system developed by the Hindu astronomer Brahmagupta (588-c. 660), and his own name gave us the term “algorism,” designating decimal notation and the use of Arabic numerals. There would seem to be nothing curious or even coincidental about that, until you realize that Vice President Al Gore, in matters of economics and fundraising and population statistics, often gets his figures wrong.

The builder of the first submarine capable of navigation in ocean depths was Simon Lake (1866-1945). The first American woman to ride into outer space, in the shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, was Sally K. Ride. The pioneering botanist and researcher of liverworts on potted plants was Thomas Potts James (1803-1882). And the inventor of a balance for measuring gravity was the German physicist Phillip von Jolly (1809-1884). I cannot prove that Mr. Lake would have stayed on dry land had he been Mr. Sands, or that Miss Ride would have led a quieter life with the name Walker. With a different moniker, Thomas Potts James might never have entered the wonderful world of potted liverworts, and Jolly might never have been driven by a perverse obstinacy to study gravity if he had been born into the family Grimm.

Dwelling further on these questions risks whimsy or pedantry, and dwelling interminably on them is the way of madness whose only asylum is the madhouse or university. Only one thing matters. The Apocalypse tells that at the last Great Assize, we shall finally see the meaning of our names on a white stone. That is to say, we shall understand who we really are. What a man makes of his name, and not what his name makes of him, determines whether the sight of that stone will petrify his very soul, or make him a delight unto that Name which is above every other name.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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