Coincidentally: Such Great Names As These

A commercial bank near me has been redecorated to celebrate the change of its nane. Several indifferent but well-done oil portraits of Edwardian trustees have been replaced with poor prints of impressionist clichés covered with Plexiglass. Music has been piped in: rap doggerel set to rhythms that Plato did not like, and Barbra Streisand moaning laments that make Jeremiah seem positively puckish. This grand Temple of Mammon has suffered its own liturgical movement.

Changes like that may not eliminate what is, but they do indicate what people in charge want a fact to become. Biblical figures are the same people after their names are changed; but the alteration signifies a new vocation or status. It was true of Abram turned Abraham all the way to Simon made Cephas. The effect is freighted with meaning theologically, historically, and psychologically.

Less appreciated is the amiable science of names that do not change but coincide. Marvelous can be the symmetry between one name and another, or between names and events. A book could not contain a small fraction of them, and the most famous hardly bear repeating: like Lincoln having had a secretary named Kennedy when he was shot, and Kennedy having had a secretary named Lincoln when he was shot. As for rude and vulgar coincidences in names, all should yield to the advice of the Apostle Saul-Paul: “nec nominetur in vobis.” (Eph 5:12) But those with hearts prepared for wonder should consider just a few specimens of riveting interest.

Our readers probably know that the Corsican revolutionary, Pasquale di Paoli (1725-1807), was a contemporary of the Bavarian composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714¬1787). And Gluck was a revolutionary of sorts himself in his influence on opera. But perhaps fewer of our readers know that another of the Glucks, the Austrian author Barbara Gluck (1814¬1894), wrote under the pen name Betty Paoli. And speaking of writers, it seems very curious that two who were distinguished for their imagination should have had singularly redundant names: Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859-1927) and Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939).

Literary trivia attains to grandeur in the instance of the twentieth century’s greatest man. For Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was a contemporary of the American writer Winston Churchill (1871-1947). Both attended service academies: Sandhurst and Annapolis. The American Winston published his novel Coniston in the same year, 1906, that English Winston published Lord Randolph Churchill.

Only on Judgment Day may we know the significance of Thackery’s eponymous Barry Lyndon being the name of the Australian mayor responsible for so much of Melbourne’s neo-classical architecture. Then, too, may we divine the strange workings by which the English actor and playwright Samuel Foote (1720-1777), suffered the amputation of a foot in 1766.

In the classical realm: The first ruler of Rome was Romulus, the first emperor of Rome was Augustus (Octavianus); and the last Roman emperor was Romulus Augustulus. And on the Byzantine side, the first and last emperors of Constantinople were named Constantine (the last being Constantine XI Palaeologus). The name Hamilcar, now rare even in the suburbs, belonged to both the fifth-century (B.C.) Carthaginian general who marched on Sicily, and the third-century (B.C.) general in Sicily (whose son, of course, was Hannibal).

Regarding place names, the capitals of St. Petersburg in Russia and Williamsburg in Virginia were founded and given Dutch names within a few years of each other. Czar Peter, you see, was fond of things Dutch, and King William of England (and Virginia) was of the Dutch House of Orange.

William of Orange brings to mind the energumenous Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). That name should ring a special bell for Americans, because Mr. Justice Holmes (1841-1935) became chief justice of Massachusetts on the centenary of the resignation of Mr. Justice Ellsworth (1745-1807) as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, the tercentenary of the birth of Oliver Cromwell. And to top that, both Holmes and Ellsworth were named Oliver.

Diomed, or Diomedes for the purists, is a splendid name, recalling the legendary king of Argos who helped Odysseus steal the statue of Pallas Athena, known as the Palladium. When the first duke of Wellington was simply Colonel Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), he named his horse Diomed. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Iron Duke’s death, Archbishop Falconio resigned his post as apostolic delegate to Canada, evidently unaware that his baptismal name—guess what it was—gave him something in common with the duke’s noble steed.

Perhaps this diet of not altogether employable information is too rich for more courses at the moment. The feast may have to resume in another column.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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