Listen to this episode and read more about it at theallusionist.org/nounnames.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, capture language under a glass and carefully release it through the window, rather than just killing it with a rolled up magazine.
Coming up in today’s show: I’ve always been kind of envious of people who have names that are words that are more regularly used as adjectives or common nouns. I just think that’s pretty cool. And after this episode - I think it’s even cooler.
But first, I need to tell you about the imminent live Allusionists, in which I bring your favourite flavour of verbose factual entertainment to theatres, clubs, bars and pulpits in Glasgow, London, Bristol, Dublin, Austin, Washington DC, Philly, New York, Boston - the Massachusetts one not the Lincolnshire one - Toronto, Seattle, Portland - the Oregon one not the countless other ones - and Los Angeles, with a couple more cities waiting to be confirmed. All are listed at theallusionist.org/events. Tickets are available now, so hurry up and buy some, because the shows are taking place in September, October and November 2018 - mere days or weeks away, if you’re listening to this soon after release, or too late ages ago, if you’re listening to this 200 years after release. But don’t miss Allusionist Live like those 200-years-in-the-future people did, get your tickets at theallusionist.org/events.
Before we kick off today’s proceedings, I must warn you that there are a few swears in this episode, and I apologise for any moral turpitude these may seed in you.
On with the show.
CINNAMON NIPPARD: People remember your name when you have an unusual name which is good for the most part, but it's kind of bad if you've done something stupid or embarrassing. And when I was a little kid I wished I had a normal name, like Kate or something like that.
CASPAR SALMON: So I have to spell it the whole time. In Starbucks they will never get it right, and I get ‘Buster’, ‘Pasta’...
SAPPHIRE PASTON: When I order a coffee and they write my name on the cup, I say I’m called Sophie, because it makes life a bit easier sometimes.
HZ: Do you like or dislike having an unusual name?
PAUL BAE: I like it. I used to hate it. I used to remember thinking a long time ago, if I was a woman, I would marry a man with a really cool last name so I could take his name, because I hate my name that much. I would daydream about that.
HZ: What is your name?
TIGER WEBB: My name is Tiger Webb.
HZ: Tiger as in tiger?
TIGER WEBB: Tiger like the animal or the golfer.
HZ: Is it the name that you were given when you came into this world?
TIGER WEBB: Yes.
HZ: Your official name.
TIGER WEBB: Yes. The story is that I was born 17 weeks early, or 15 weeks early, so that's a trimester and a bit; which is kind of a big deal now, and it was definitely a big deal in the 80s when this happened. I was born and it was very touch and go for a few weeks, six or eight weeks. I was in this humidity crib, there are photos of me I look like E.T. the extraterrestrial: I'm not a fully cooked baby. Overcome with sentimentality - also pethidine because it was quite a difficult pregnancy - mum said, "You've got to fight for your life like a tiger." And that was the story that's been said ad nauseam my whole life.
HZ: But it worked. Here you are. You survived.
TIGER WEBB: Yeah, I'm not dead!
HZ: Do you find it quite an inspiring story to have attached your name?
TIGER WEBB: No? No, no. Not at all. You tell it so often and it's so hard to - like I wasn't doing anything. I don't really remember any of this. I was not an active agent, Helen.
HZ: And it's hard for babies to be active agents in their own medical care. Yes.
TIGER WEBB: Yes. And people say, “Wow, that's so great you were so strong." I guess? Probably it was just the luckiness of being born in a pretty good hospital that could handle a baby that premature.
HZ: Weren't you lucky that your mom chose the image of a tiger fighting for its life, rather than a cockroach being resilient?
TIGER WEBB: Yeah! I could have been Cockroach!
PRINCESS OJIAKU: Hi, my name is Princess, as in her majesty. How do I feel about it? I like having a unique name. People are like, “Oh, I won’t forget your name!” I always get like a little kick out of seeing people's reactions to it.
I do overall like having an unusual name. But I think it took me a while to come around to not feeling weird about it, liking it. I always tell people that, “Oh, you know, my dad's Nigerian, there's a lot of people named Princess who are West African Nigerian.” I think there was a time when I was younger that I felt kind of weird about it; there was one particular instance where one of my friends was telling me he was talking to his dad about me and his dad was predictably, “Oh Princess, that's her name?” And he was like, “Yeah, dad, she's black.” And that made me feel kind of weird, like, do people think my name is quote unquote ghetto? But as I got older and learned a little bit more about history and tradition, there's a lot of people of African descent, African people in the African diaspora around the world, who name their children very descriptive names, and that's the thing: very unique names that just fit the time, fit who they are, aspirations. Being a part of that tradition is really important and meaningful to me. And I love the fact that I'm a part of that.
STEVE PRETTY: My name is Steve Pretty. And yes, that is ‘pretty’ as in pretty girl, ‘Pretty Fly for a White Guy’, and so on. The name Pretty was my birth name. It's what I was born with. I am a performer, a musician and performer, so sometimes people think it's a slightly misjudged stage name but it's not: it is my real name. Growing up I had all the usual schoolyard taunts and so on. But to be honest it just washed over me after a while; they’re mainly not very original or or funny. But when I was at university I ran for election to run the student union for a year, and my posters, the slogan was “not just a pretty face”. But of course I had them all graffitied, as everyone did. And so it was “not even a pretty face”, “pretty ugly” and so on; fine, easy. But then I did see one which I took down and kept, I've still got it, which someone had just written over my face: “I am an ugly cunt”, which I thought was a really nice bit of interaction with that name, Pretty.
LOVEIS WISE: My name is Loveis, last name Wise, as in the quote by Bertrand Russell: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” That name was chosen for me by my father after my great-grandmother, Loveis Edwards, and I'm just happy to have inherited her name. I feel that it was meant to be. Now I feel as an adult that my name was perfectly fitting for me and who I am; I can't imagine it any other way. But before, it would really bother me that my name was so different and I couldn't walk into stores and see my name on keychains or knick-knacks or even not having anyone else to connect to because my name was just so different from anyone else or it was always like a butt of a joke or people turned it into songs, just all of these like crazy things; but now I appreciate it.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: My name is Peregrine Andrews, Yes, that's Peregrine as in peregrine falcon. My relationship with my name is complicated, and I think my name has probably had quite a bearing on the person that I am; not always in good ways actually. There were certainly times when I was growing up - and even when I was older than that - when I really wished I was not called that. And I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and unusual names in the UK just did not seem to be that common as they are now. So if you met a new group of children or you were in a new situation, it would go round the circle, "What's your name everybody?" And, you know, Darren and Nigel and Mark and Stephen and Paul; and then I would just be willing to die basically, or pretend I was called something else, or maybe use my middle name which is James - but I always felt that that would be sort of giving in. So yeah, there was this complication; there was this baggage that I probably could have done without, actually. I always had the voice of my father in my head saying, "It's a fantastic name, you should be proud of it." Well, in certain situations I really wasn't. I just found it really embarrassing.
HZ: What's your name?
PAUL BAE: My name is Paul Bae.
HZ: As in B A E.
PAUL BAE: As in B A E - it's Korean. So it's actually pronounced ‘beh’, which is how we say ‘stomach’ or ‘tummy’.
HZ: So your name is Paul Stomach?
PAUL BAE: Yeah. Paul Tummy. I was born hungry.
HZ: But then in English, mid 2014, its usage started peaking, as in the internet’s boyfriend.
PAUL BAE: Yeah, I was near the end of my teaching career in high school, and that's when ‘bae' really took off. I'm not saying that contributed to my early retirement, but it did get really annoying.
HZ: What happened?
PAUL BAE: Whenever I got new students in or transferred to my class, in 2014 I think it was around then, the first of the latter half of 2014 - this was in Vancouver, and whenever especially when a girl would transfer, I remember one, she transferred in, I go, “Hi, my name's Mr. Bae.” And she sort of smirked, and I thought, “What the hell does that mean. Like what is that?” I remember the day I figured it out: a bunch of young girls were out assembled outside my classroom, and I could hear them whispering, “That's not really his name, is it? He's got to be joking?”
Because before then, the big thing among my students was, once in a while, the cheeky bastards would call me “Master Bae.” That’s that's their idea of funny, and I'd see them giggling and winking at each other, and I’m like, okay, I get it.
TIGER WEBB: The broad thing about having unusual name is that it's a pretty effective substitute for an actual personality. I never had to develop one, because you could just do anything and people assume you’re interesting, or that there is some sort of grandiosity behind it.
HZ: Very colourful character.
TIGER WEBB: I'm really very boring and quiet. And the fact that I'm called Tiger I think does a lot to mask that. "Oh wow. Tiger, yeah, interesting fellow." I'm not though. But feel free to think that. Also, I’m in a weird class with this unusual name, because absolutely nothing else demographically speaking about me is unusual. You know like boring middle class white guy.
PEREGRINE: When you have a name like Peregrine, you feel like you have to be a writer or a painter or something. And that actually - I think that's created a certain amount of baggage for me; sometimes I feel it's almost like if you're going to have a name as interesting as that, then you need to be doing something interesting and if you're not the most interesting person in the room then how dare you be called something so weird.
DENNIS FUNK: My name is Dennis Funk.
HZ: As in funk?
DENNIS FUNK: As in funk, however you want to take that.
HZ: How do you take it?
DENNIS FUNK: Because people do find it silly, I like to take it as the music, like funk music. So I like to think of it that way. My name is Dennis Funk, but my middle initial is J, so I often do tell people that my name is D.J. Funk, so that it spins it like that a little bit I guess.
HZ: So the Funk name runs in the family?
DENNIS FUNK: Yeah I guess I guess it does, doesn't it.
HZ: Does the funk run in the family?
DENNIS FUNK: Oh yeah, definitely.
PHOEBE JUDGE: My name is Phoebe Judge. Yes, as in a judge. I feel pretty good about my last name. I think it’s a funny last name to have, given I’m the host of a show about crime. I think it's a pretty strong name, Judge, it's much better than ‘convict’.
CASPAR SALMON: My name is Caspar Salmon.
HZ: As in ‘salmon’?
CASPAR SALMON: Yes, as in salmon the fish. It's a family name. But we're not named after the actual fish, which I think is an important distinction. It's not like there were salmon fishers in the family - it doesn't go back to a history of connection with the fish. I think it comes from the from Solomon. It's a derivation - Solomon, Suleiman - all of that. It's Jewish but then it became Salmon, stupidly, which isn't good.
HZ: In what ways is it not good?
CASPAR SALMON: Well, I mean, it's fine, but it's not a very attractive or noble name.
HZ: It's a mighty fish, a very muscular fish.
CASPAR SALMON: It's a really good fish and a brave and determined fish, and the finest tasting I think of all of them.
HZ: But. You just don't want to be affiliated with fish.
CASPAR SALMON: Well, no. So I'm fine with it. But I do forget, because it's my name, that is the name of a fish. So I just walk around and I think this is my normal surname, and then I'd tell my name to people and they'd say, "The fish?" And I have to think to myself, “Fuck, yes, of course, it's the fish name.”
CINNAMON NIPPARD: My name is Cinnamon, as in the spice. How do I feel about it? I think I felt conflicted about my name since I was small. When I was a child, kids teased me about my name: doughnuts, buns, sticks, bark, etc etc etc. I guess I like my name now, although sometimes I feel other people have some kind of romantic notion about what I'm actually like because of my name. So yeah, maybe I have name imposter syndrome or something.
Some people ask me if it's a stage name, and I have been told it's kind of a stripper name. So yeah, there's a lot of associations people have with my name. People have asked me whether I am spicy, and they think they're being smart or funny - and sometimes it's hard to be cool about it when I've probably heard most of those things before, because I've had this name all my life.
PRINCESS OJIAKU: People say one of three things when they meet me. First of all, people always say, “Is that your real name?” and I'm always like, “Yeah, it’s on my birth certificate. It's my government name, yes: Princess.” The other thing people usually say is, “Are you really a princess?” I mean, I don't know, it’s so corny that I don't know, I just alternate between yes and no, depending on my mood. The other thing people say is, “You look like a princess.” I get that one less often, but I'm not quite sure what that means. I just take it to mean that they think I'm pretty, like pretty pretty princess. But I'll take that one. And I have gotten, “Oh, my pet's name is Princess, that's my dog.” And that’s fine. It’s just an interesting thing to say to someone, “Oh yeah, that's my dog's name.”
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: People would say it wrong, and then they would say 'Pedigree Chum', which they thought was quite funny, and of course 'peregrine falcon' - the number of times they'd say "peregrine falcon" as if no one's ever thought of that. Of course I then respond as if no one has ever thought of that. "Peregrine falcon! No one's ever called me that, wow.”
TIGER WEBB: You say your name is Tiger and then people will be like, "Oh, I know one William Blake poem! Guess which one it is! 'Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright’,” and then they recite it at you. That's a rude thing to do as well. Like I've never learned anyone's name and then done a poem at them.
HZ: How was it, growing up with the name ‘Caspar Salmon’?
CASPAR SALMON: Growing up was okay, because I went to school in France.
HZ: Were you tempted to translate it for impact in France to Saumon?
CASPAR SALMON: Yeah, that could have been a way forward, but it depends on how you pronounce it in Frenchm because saLmon is best for teasing because if you if you pronounce it Sel-mon instead of Sal-mon, you could call me "Casse-toi sale mon" which means "Piss off you twat".
HZ: Oh, so it's actually worse in French.
CASPAR SALMON: Well, it just it has that possibility, if you want to take it; it doesn't occur to everybody, and it would be wrong for me to suggest it to people who haven’t thought of it for themselves.
TIGER WEBB: I did have a really annoying period in my late teens when my high school friends at parties decided it would be very funny to interrupt my "Yes it's really Tiger, here's my license" and go, "Oh Gareth! Are you telling that story again about how you're called Tiger? This is our friend Gareth; he does this to everyone. It's a fake license. His real name is Gareth, he’s ashamed of it." And that's a really hard thing to walk back.
EMERALD PASTON: Hello, my name is Emerald. Yes, as in the precious stone, or the Isle, or the Pokemon game. My parents wanted to give me a name that was a little bit unusual, and because my mum is Chinese Malaysian, they wanted to be able to translate my name into Mandarin; so they chose the name Emerald, and my middle name is the Mandarin translation of ‘green precious stone'.
Apart from the occasional person asking if my parents are hippies, or telling me that I have a stripper name, the only truly annoying reaction to my name was when I tried to get in touch with a grumpy professor for work. I was emailing him and I wasn't getting a reply; and eventually he responded saying that my email had gone to his junk folder, and then he said something like, “As you can imagine I get a lot of spam mail from women with exotic names like Emerald trying to Skype me.” So gross. But to be honest, I actually feel sorry for the guy: his spam filters are clearly far too sensitive, and he's probably missing out on some really great conversations with people who have jewels for names.
Oh and I have a younger sister, and her name is - you guessed it - Sapphire!
SAPPHIRE PASTON: My name is Sapphire, yes, as in the precious gemstone. So we knew whose stuff was whose, my parents would always assign Emerald the green things and me the blue things. I generally like my name, I think it stands out. The downside is, when I introduce myself to people, I sometimes worry that I come across as a bit hubristic, as if I think I’m a big deal or like it’s a stage name or something.
TIGER WEBB: When you have an unusual name and there is one famous person who has that name, their deeds have an outsized influence on your life. So when Tiger Woods - and his real name is Eldrick by the way - when he was revealed to be quite a serial philanderer and maybe not the nice person people thought he was, I remember going to the bank and the teller said, "What's your name?" I said Tiger Webb. And then she said "oh well, it's not a good time to be called Tiger, is it?" Which I thought was just like a total breach of bank teller protocol.
HZ: But if you felt like you had been besmirched by his shame, do you also get a share of his glory?
TIGER: No, no; it does not go that way. It's all one way - and no sponsorship money certainly.
CASPAR SALMON: There's no salmon-connected shame. It's not like salmon was suddenly the poisonous fish at any point.
HZ: I do feel sorry for them for having given themselves such difficult mating habits. because swimming upriver for hundreds of miles is very difficult. I've seen some of them try and they just kept my headbutting themselves on rocks and stuff trying to jump up.
CASPAR SALMON: I know. So many die. And all of that is just to get laid and then die. But I also find it oddly inspirational. I'm really like "Go salmon! They can do it! That's right." And I relate rather to the struggle. And I myself have the skill of weaving through large crowds that are going in the opposite direction. And I feel like that can't be a coincidence. It's predestination.
HZ: Do you feel like you know your search for human sexual contact is identifiable in the salmon's difficult upriver mating?
CASPAR SALMON: Fully. Yes.
LOVEIS WISE: I do feel that my name, Loveis Wise, fits my work and the journey of me becoming an artist or an illustrator or joining a creative job. I don't feel that I built my life on that; but I do feel like it was perfectly aligned. I can't imagine having this name and doing anything else, other than a creative field. Also on another note about my name, I do feel that it has made me more empathetic in a way to others, or more loving and more lovable. It's become a huge part of why I am the way that I am I think, in some weird way. But then again, I do believe in the power of words and what you speak. When you speak of something being of love, it can't be anything other than that, to me. I feel like my name manifested in a way who I’ve become and the loving person that I am, the understanding person that I try to be, or that I strive to be. But yeah; I do appreciate my name for that, and the goodness that is brought to my life, or how it's shaped who I am as a person.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: I like having an unusual name now, but it's taken until the age of nearly 50 to be at peace with my name Peregrine. Am I at peace with it now? I think I am now. The environment we're in now is that there are a lot of unusual names, there are a lot of names from other countries, and being called Peregrine does doesn't seem that strange really in the context of other names.
DENNIS FUNK: Often when someone takes my ID or something, you know, when I go to a bar or something like that, the doorman will often just say, “Cool name.” And I don't know how to respond to that. “Thank you, that's who I am”?
HZ: I think you do like a little cheesy finger point, don't you?
DENNIS FUNK: I could, I could. “Hey, that's me. Yeah I'm your guy, DJ Funk, I'm here.” No, but it's strange to me. I just feel very lost in those moments like, what am I actually supposed to say to you? How am I supposed to react to that being my name? Because it doesn't mean anything to me. I'll just write it on a piece of paper every now and again.
HZ: Less and less: how much do we use paper now?
DENNIS FUNK: True, true. I type it in a few times every now and again.
HZ: A friend of mine was once in a jazz club and overheard George Melly holding forth saying, “The word ‘funky’ means smelling of stale sex, so when people describe Cliff Richard as funky, I think “He never even smelled of fresh sex!”
DENNIS FUNK: I like that though. I kind of I wouldn't mind if that's what people thought when I walked around. I don't know.
HZ: “That that guy smelt like he had sex yesterday.”
DENNIS FUNK: Yeah, “he smells like he had sex yesterday.” Yeah, that's not a an insult at all. I’m quite proud of that, actually.
HZ: Do you like or dislike being unusually named?
DENNIS FUNK: I think I used to not like it when I was younger, probably less so, because I don't think I was ever actually conscious of it till I was at school and interacting with more people and like realising, oh, my name maybe does mean something else, and it could be funny. But I think now, it's a part of me; it's who I am. It's my name. That's it. That's all it is. I don't like or dislike it. I'm kind of neutral about it.
HZ: Never thought “I'll change it”?
DENNIS FUNK: No, no! I've never thought about it. I've never considered it, not once. No.
STEVE PRETTY: Yes, on the whole I'm very happy with being called Pretty. It's quite fun, it's unusual. It's not really ever caused any problems. In terms of whether it describes me in any way: my dad used to remind us growing up that ‘pretty’ in Shakespearean English meant wily and cunning. But I don't think it's ever really been applied in its current meaning of beautiful - maybe ironically it's been applied a couple of times. But beyond that, not really. So yeah, I'm Steve Pretty. That’s my name. I quite like it.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: I've never been in the same room as another Peregrine and I don't know how I would react to that. People often say, "Oh I know another Peregrine," and I look at them and I think, "Really? There's another one, really?” Part of me gets slightly annoyed by that. I had an experience recently, actually, when I had to speak to an insurance underwriter and she said, "Oh yes, your name is Peregrine, that's a very unusual name." I said yes, it is unusual, and she said, "Yeah yeah, I had a Peregrine in my school actually." And I said, "Where did you go to school?" It turned out that that Peregrine she was talking about was me.
I've never had the experience of hearing my name called and thinking it might be referring to somebody else. I really didn't like that. Peregrine is MY name.
DENNIS FUNK: When you have a name that does stand out or is unusual, people remember you. So you should actually think about maybe a little bit more about how you act in your interactions with people, because when they know your name, you're slightly more memorable to them. Especially when it's interesting. Like people who you may not think all that important might remember you more than you think, just because of your name.
CINNAMON NIPPARD: It's a funny thing having an unusual name. And you just can't escape it.
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This episode was produced by me and Martin Austwick, who also makes the music for the show. Thanks to Ryan Kailath, Kate Montague, Phoebe Wang, and all the people you heard from this episode: Peregrine Andrews, Paul Bae, Dennis Funk, Phoebe Judge, Cinnamon Nippard, Princess Ojiaku, Emerald Paston, Sapphire Paston, Steve Pretty, Caspar Salmon, Tiger Webb, and Loveis Wise. I’ll link to all of them at theallusionist.org/nounnames.
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