Summer 2009

The Onomastic Gold Mine

What’s in a name?

Allen S. Weiss

Conceptually, the question of proper names is as old as philosophy itself, with the arguments divided between the no-sense and the sense theories. The no-sense theory claims that proper names simply stand for particular objects. They have a reference but no meaning. This position is most famously put forth by John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic (1843), when he claims that names bear denotation without any connotation. Thus all names are sui generis, existing in a class by themselves. By contrast, the sense theory argues that names are essentially sorts of disguised descriptions, which necessarily have a sense, but may only coincidentally have a referent, if by chance something in the world corresponds to the description. This explains, for example, how literary or mythical characters can be named, even though they don’t exist outside of the imagination. Philosophers from Socrates to the present day have debated these issues, which might be summed up by what I would call the “antinomy of names”—the fact that both theories are true depending on the name in question, and that the signification of names varies from the purely nonsensical to the most assuredly allegorical.

At this point, it would probably be best to protect oneself from all possible accusations of what I would call the humptydumptification of names, an irrational insistence on their fully determinate meaningfulness. Recall the dialogue between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, “but tell me your name and your business.”

“My name is Alice, but—”

“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

In Martin Gardner’s wonderful edition, The Annotated Alice (1960), he provides a footnote that explains the philosophical implications of this exchange, citing Peter Alexander’s so-very-scholarly article, “Logic and the Humor of Lewis Carroll” (Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical Society, vol. 6, 1951). Alexander shows how Humpty Dumpty reverses the commonly accepted philosophical hierarchy of nominal meaning: in the realm beyond the looking glass, ordinary words mean whatever Humpty Dumpty wishes them to mean, while proper names are presumed to have general significance. Although I would not go quite as far as Humpty Dumpty in the analyses that follow, I am certainly closer to his linguistic perspective than to Mill’s. However, since most of us do not spend all that much time on the other side of the looking glass, a less eggish, more human (that is to say: equivocal, tentative, situational) sensibility is called for, one which maintains fluidity of connotation, all the while respecting the limits of denotation. This is illustrated by a case in point noted by the famed art historian Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion (1960), where a single opposition creates the smallest possible linguistic world and the largest possible ­allegory:

It is my conviction that the problem of synaesthetic equivalences will cease to look embarrassingly arbitrary and subjective if here, too, we fix our attention not on likeness of elements but on structural relationships within a scale or matrix. ... I have tried out this suggestion in a party game. It consists of creating the simplest imaginable medium in which relationships can still be expressed, a language of two words only—let us call them “ping” and “pong.” If these were all we had and we had to name an elephant and a cat, which would be ping and which pong? I think the answer is clear. Or hot soup and ice cream. To me, at least, ice cream is ping and soup pong. Or Rembrandt and Watteau? Surely in that case Rembrandt would be pong and Watteau ping.

Humpty Dumpty would surely be expressed by pong. But I don’t quite agree with his assessment of the meaning of “Alice,” for in fact her name is certainly expressed by ping. (I should admit that while I am aesthetically on the side of pong, I’m physically aligned with ping.)

Every stage of life has its own forms of meaning. As a child I must have been a nominalist, believing in the strictly univocal meaning of words. The result was that occasionally the relation between name and person had a chilling effect. Late one evening, as a very young boy, my parents brought an old friend from eastern Europe into my bedroom to meet me for the first time. He was introduced as Woluś Zelman, and while I didn’t appreciate the intrusion on my looming sleep, I wasn’t particularly disturbed until he went on to reintroduce himself by explaining, with a certain leer, that Woluś is the diminutive for wolf. From that time on, I was terrified by his appearance.

Recently, when a friend suggested a stockbroker by the name of Spieler (player), I went elsewhere. And all prejudices aside, I would hesitate in consulting Dr. Miseri, who practices near where I live in Paris. And if he referred me to Dr. Funero, whose office is not far away, I would begin to get worried. They might do better to get a patient like the record producer Klaas A. Posthuma.

• • •

I love names. Some are simply too cool to be true, like jazz musician Thelonious Sphere Monk (though Cyrus Chestnut is not far behind), or philosopher Lucius Outlaw. Some names are simply amusing for their rectitude. It seems only right that Louis Lumière (light) should have invented the cinema; that Ron McMaster is a digital transfer technician (is this his real name?); that Katy Sparks is a chef (once, at Quilty’s where she worked at the time, the computer crossed files between messages to the kitchen and the customers’ orders, so that my bill contained the entry: Fire: $0.00); that the great specialist on cheese, author of Le goût du fromage (The taste of cheese) should be named Patrick Rance (rancid); that the most famous purveyor of fine olive oils, Oliviers & Co., should be named for Olivier (olive tree) Bausson; that Catherine Laroze (the rose) should have written Une histoire sensuelle des jardins; that the infamous Captain Cook was reputedly eaten by Hawaiian cannibals; that the Philippines should have a Cardinal Sin; or that the great collector of contemporary film, video, and installation art should be named Friedrich Christian Flick.

Recently in news on Iraq there was mention of a certain Major Boss, which might lead us to recall the character from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 named Major Major. I always thought that the inspiration for this name came from the fact that when General George Catlett Marshall was to have been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, he had the position abolished because he didn’t wish to be called Field Marshal Marshall (the extra “l” in his family name obviously didn’t make a sufficient difference). W. G. Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, recounts a particularly curious example, that of two men who hoped to find a means of harnessing the phosphorescent glow of dead herring (!) to light our modern cities—their names were Herrington and Lightbown. Finally, I recently discovered that there exists only one account of Gustave Courbet painting his infamous L’origine du monde (a stark depiction of female genitals), which occurred in 1866 when the author and literary critic Sainte-Beuve visited his studio. Sainte-Beuve, despite his prolificness as a writer, left no account of this visit, but it was recounted by the sole other eyewitness, a certain Jules Troubat. Trou bas in French means “low hole.” May my readers excuse this one!

I love names. This is one of the reasons that about a decade ago I was thrilled to take on the task of translating some work by the contemporary French avant-garde playwright Valère Novarina, whose writing represents the French language in its most extreme state of flux and metamorphosis, composed as it is of neologisms and barbarisms, solecisms and spoonerisms, puns and anagrams, and in fact whatever other figures of speech that can turn a word or phrase away from its accepted form and meaning. (It is most appropriate that the influential writer and critic Philippe Sollers, writing on Novarina, entitled his piece “Un Ars Novarina,” playing on the title of Philippe de Vitry’s 1320 treatise that celebrated the new style, ars nova, that was to revolutionize music.) I am particularly fond of Novarina’s onomastic inventions (onomastics being the study of names), though, as is often the case, this poses great problems for the translator, especially in comic theater. For in Novarina these names, paradoxically, most often denote characters who never appear in the play other than through their unique naming. The name is meaningful, a gag—whether through humor or pathos—denoting a strange, ephemeral presence. And we are left with the disturbing question of what it means for a theatrical character to exist only through a single pronunciation of its name, as a hapax, a word that appears only once in a language.

Whatever the conceptual difficulties, such lists of names are impossible to translate or even transliterate for the theater, in great part because Novarina’s linguistic inventions almost all stem from a specifically Latinate linguistic constellation. It is one thing to translate this into English in the abstract form of a book, and quite another to make such a list work in the theater. And here I hesitate even to say the English or the American theater, for it would seem that, for example, to recite such a list in London would necessitate a much different “translation”—or we should perhaps rather speak of “transposition”—than that for New York, with its hyperbolically multilingual, yet fundamentally Anglocentric, sensibilities. One can’t translate or transliterate such works; rather, it is necessary to recreate the very mental conditions by which the author initially created such lists. So I finally had the excuse to do what I had always wanted to do: read the Manhattan White Pages (1995) cover to cover. I categorized the types of names in Novarina’s list (some were actual historic names that could be left as is; others were professions transformed into given names, as had been the case through most of European history; still others were invented names with sundry theological, scientific, literary connotations, etc.). I then gleaned the most inspiring names from the phone book, categorized them, and set them on the page randomly but intuitively, as Novarina must have originally done. The opening thus begins:

The theater is empty. Adam enters.

Adam: How is it that one speaks? That the Meat expresses itself?

He leaves. There enter: The Man of Pontalambin, The Man of Lagamma, John Membert, Sapolinx, The Man of Schneitzoeffer (pronounced Bernhard), Bandru, Philipus Maximus, Bombarre, The Man of the Host, Bandra, The Young Labombarda, The Men of the Logical Team, F. Ng, Sapor Landry, Penetral of Science, The Man of Przybysczewski (pronounced Bernhard), The Younger of Science, The Man of the Pipe, Semnic the Lancer, Doctor Slag, Doctor Arseman, Andret the Formulator, John Hole Verber, Saint Metrono, John Hole Who Verbs, Saint White Scarpie, The Man of Macleshit, Doctor Jurist, The Child Captain, Doc of Biog, Ominibus, John Ravagine, Saint Amnon Shibbolith, Saint Escutcheon, The Other ...

And so forth. The phone book is an onomastic gold mine. From it, one can compose a veritable pantheon of family names, with Mercuri [sic], Mars, Saturn, Jupiter (though there is no Venus, alas!). But the rareties are even more spectacular: Luz Angel, Shenny Bang, Alexa Birdsong, Lynn Bump, Clara Conception, Rene Danger, M. Ditto, L. Flame, E. Grammatica, Fausto Hilario, G. How, Matthew Name, John Person, Drake Tempest ... not to forget the six full columns of hundreds upon hundreds of Weisses. There is a true beauty and poetry in such names, and we should find ways to celebrate them.

Charles Baudelaire was hypersensitive about his name, and loathed his critics’ occasional jokes on the subject. The dandy and transcendental poet particularly disliked it when his name was disarticulated to create the silly epithet, Beau de l’aire (Beauty of the sky). One day he explained to his friend Georges Barral the supposed etymology of his name as stemming not from bel or beau (handsome or beautiful), but from band or bald:

—My name is terrible. In fact the badelaire was a sabre with a short and wide blade and a convex cutting edge, its point turned towards the back of the weapon. It was introduced in France during the Crusades, and used in Paris as an executioner’s arm until about 1560. About a year ago one was found during the excavations near the Pont-au-Change, the badelaire that served the executioner of the Grand Châtelet during the twelfth century. It’s on display in the museum of Cluny. Go and see it. It’s terrifying. I shudder to think that my own profile resembles that of this badelaire.

—But your name is Baudelaire, not Badelaire.

—Badelaire, Baudelaire by corruption. It’s the same thing.

—Not at all. Your name comes from baud (gay), baudiment (gayly), s’ébaudir (to rejoice). You are good and gay.

—No, no, I’m sad and nasty.

Baudelaire was certainly correct—if not about his name, at least about his temperament—as he expresses in his poem with the strange title, L’Héautontimorouménos (the self-executioner), in which the poet exclaims: “I am the wound and the knife!” Indeed, everyone is free to define their own name, to transform it into an allegory, and one must admit that Badelaire is infinitely better than the ridiculous Beaudelaire.

But Baudelaire’s sensitivity to his name resonates with something quite different, related to the linguistic trappings of social standing, for it encloses the particle de, a sign of nobility. The dandy who was Baudelaire must have been aware of the vast slippage in his mother’s manner of signing her maiden name: Foyot, Defayis, Du Fays, Dufays, Dufayis, Fayis, Dufayiz, Dufay, Dufaÿs.... It is not clear what she was searching for (or hiding), but when the young Charles-Pierre Baudelaire experimented with his own name, the reasons were more obvious: Baudelaire-Dufays, Baudelaire-Dufaÿs, Baudelaire Defayis, Baudelaire de Fayis, Charles Defayis, Charles de Féyis, Pierre Dufaÿs, Pierre de Fayis.... The object of these exercises was to find the best way of inserting a particle, or for want of a particle at least a hyphen, to connote aristocratic ascendancy. That said, it might seem curious that he never went so far as to disarticulate the name-of-the-father in order to isolate the essential de: Beau de L’Aire, the particle of an angel. But we have already seen the reason why.

However, while Baudelaire may have been a sensitive poet, he was also an arrogant dandy, and had little compunction about ridiculing the names of others. The most egregious example concerns his editor and most faithful lifelong friend, Auguste Poulet-Malassis (Poorly Seated Chicken), whom Baudelaire nicknamed Coco Malperché (Coco being a common name for a parrot, this could be translated as Poorly Perched Polly). He didn’t do poorly either in insulting his hated stepfather, General Aupick, by transforming his name into a ridiculous interjection: Au Pic! (which, among other things, certainly evokes the image of a decapitated head on a pike). As a footnote to this entry, we might note what must, onomastically speaking, have been a true wound for our poet. In 1861, Baudelaire applied for a seat in the most prestigious of French institutions, the Académie Française, a position he had little chance of achieving. Ultimately, the seat of the deceased Eugène Scribe was attributed to Octave Feuillet: onomastic poetic justice, for a feuillet (page) to succeed a scribe (writer).

One might wish to note the specific connotations and denotations of the particle de, here essentially a preposition, of or from, signifying a link between a name and a place, specifically those lands owned by aristocratic families. Thus when Proust writes in Remembrance of Things Past that “names exalt the idea that I held of certain places on earth, by making them more particular, and consequently more real,” he is referring both to the names of places and to those aristocratic, particularized names that link family and geography. In a masterful use of the factitious particle, Giuseppe Balsamo reinvented his identity several times, first as the famed Comte de Cagliostro, then as the Comte de Pelligrini, and finally as the Comte de Fénix—not bad for a charlatan who posed as a religious pilgrim (pellegrino) and then led many to believe that he could contact the dead and even bring them back to life, reborn like a phoenix. However, when the aristocratic system began to broaden, and titles were granted to people without lands, the symbolism of heraldry became linked to the object suggested by the name. Thus we find in 1690, for example, the great specialist of the art of heraldry, Philipp Jakob Spener, revealing the relations between coats of arms and objects in the world, such that certain families named Choux or Chaux (cabbage) chose plants from the family Brassica as their emblem, and likewise for those who had rights to the Ficus, the Lilium, the Carduus, the Spina, the Trifolium, the Nymphea.... Here we might well wonder at the extreme minimalism that the name Weiss would thus inspire!

To conclude, I would like to offer some reflections on my own name. My late father was a Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust. He lost everything: home, family, city, country—even his name. Arriving in America after the war, after the camps, after the loss, my father wished to change his name, thus Laszlo Weisz became Leslie Weiss. I had always found this to be a curious choice, and yet I never got a satisfactory explanation for this strange “Americanization” of a Hungarian name to a German one. Perhaps this transformation of SZ into SS was a manner of marking, of scarring, of bearing the wounds, the loss, the uprootedness, the death—all in silence, like tattoos. The S accentuates by attenuating, being the scar of the wound Z. It reveals the Z a contrario. What can this SZ mean? What might the Z, that rarest of letters, add to a name? For Victor Hugo, it’s lightning, it’s God. For others, it’s the hated letter, which throughout European history was often threatened with elimination. Pascal Quignard reminds us, in his Petits traités, that “Appius vowed that the letter Z be abandoned. He wanted the mouths of men to be preserved from death.” This is so for two reasons: first, because Z is the terminal, eschatological letter; and second, because pronouncing it involves clenching one’s teeth together, thus imitating the grimace of the dead. Remember Kent’s exclamation in King Lear: “Thou whoreson zed! / thou unnecessary letter!”

Sometimes we find the answers to our most profound questions in the most unlikely of places. The structuralist literary theorist Roland Barthes, in his book S/Z, a dense and erudite analysis of Balzac’s novel Sarrasine, explains (and here I condense): “The Z thus falls through a trap-door ... it cuts, it strikes out, it streaks [zebre] ... it is the letter of deviance ... the wound of lack ... S and Z thus exist in an inverted graphic relationship: they are the same letter, seen from the other side of the mirror.” True indeed! The Z is superfluous. The Z is mysterious. The Z is dangerous. It’s the letter of the zigzag, source of uncertainty. It’s the evil double, violence itself inscribed within words, an exterminating, eschatological letter. And here I am, Weiss (SS) speaking of the disappeared Weisz (SZ)—the return of the repressed made incarnate.

That said, the name totally suits me. Weiss, Blanc, White. Indeed, one of the most beautiful objects in the world is a blank sheet of 8.5 × 11-inch typing paper, homologue of my name, worthy of the most beautiful landscape. White indicates all the pleasures of my existence: the sheet of writing paper, the tablecloth, the bed sheet, museum walls, even the cosmic void of the Milky Way—all leading to reverie, inspiration ... and anguish.

Allen S. Weiss recently published Varieties of Audio Mimesis: Musical Evocations of Landscape (Errant Bodies, 2008), as well as his first novel, Le livre bouffon (Le Seuil, 2009). The present text is excerpted from a book on names, which he is writing with Richard Klein.

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