By Jim Marquardt
Recently, while keeping up with the Putins, I read a NY Times article that quoted a Russian sociologist named Olga Kryshtanovskaya who commented about the couple’s impending split. I don’t remember what she said about Vladimer and Lyudmila’s divorce (they never looked so happy), what struck me was the sociologist’s name. I feel sorry for Olga. She’s probably gone through life spelling her name, even to order take-out from Blini Hut. No doubt in Russia they’re accustomed to names like that and wait patiently while Olga recites the alphabet. I must point out Olga’s plight to my son who as a first grader complained that his given names, “Christopher James,” joined to our medium-length surname, kept him scribbling at his desk while his classmates were frolicking on the monkey bars.
The Wall Street Journal recently sympathized with announcers who had covered an international soccer tournament involving a player from Poland named Jakub Blaszczykowski, a Greek mid-fielder with the handle Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and a Russian goalie, Roman Pavlyuchenko. Slavic people cheat on length by piling up a first name with a patronymic middle taken from the father, topped off with a family last name. Just when I thought the Russians had a lock on long names, I read that Jennifer Lopez earned a little extra money by singing Happy Birthday to the president of Turkmenistan, a chap named Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Did she raise her price when she heard his name? I can’t begin to cope with the chairwoman of the Qatar Museum Authority who takes the long-name sweepstakes with Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalaifa al-Thani. There must be an entire tribal history in there. And don’t get the caps and lower cases mixed up.
As if long surnames weren’t enough of a problem, think about the surge of hyphenated names right here in the U.S., in our simple land of Smiths and Jones. In the old days when a couple married, the wife took the gent’s last name and that was that. Now the wife not only takes his name but keeps her own, separating them with a hyphen, which not so subtly suggests you’d better use both names or you won’t be at our next barbecue. American practitioners of hyphenated handles probably get a secret glow out of sounding posh. In England such hyphenated names are called “double-barreled.” When Mary Howard marries John Smith, the two unprepossessing people suddenly become Mary and John Howard-Smith, whisked from Liverpool to the House of Lords by a simple dash.
Where did names come from in the first place? Many names reflected occupation or status in the medieval period, like Farmer, Miller and Carter, and started descending from father to son around 500 years ago. My own surname has German roots and supposedly meant “mark warden,” a border guard, at least that’s what the company said that sold me a colorful coat of arms. We’ve heard of immigrants renamed by careless clerks as they passed through Ellis Island, like the Irish chap named O’Brien who became “Ober-Hein” thanks to an official who probably arrived a year or two earlier from Dusseldorf.
Patronymic last names derived from a father’s name were formed by adding a prefix or suffix meaning “son of” or “daughter of.” English and Scandinavian names ending in “son” are patronymic, as are names prefixed with the Gaelic “Mac,” the Norman “Fitz,” and the Irish “O.” Some surnames were based on the person’s geographic surroundings or location, like Atwood or Brooks. Others were derived from physical characteristics of the first bearer, like Strong or Crookshank. Sequence is another factor that complicates our understanding of foreign names. In Korea, the surname comes first. Kim Jong-un, for example, might have another tantrum when an American oil man gives him a hearty handshake and bellows “Howdy, Kim.”
“Smith” is reported to be the most common American family name, probably because any tradesman or craftsman in medieval times was some sort of Smith. The next three most common names in the U.S. are Johnson, Williams and Jones. Down the list in 18th and 19th place are Garcia and Martinez with Rodriguez close behind. They’ll probably move up in the next few years if the musically-named Marco Rubio lets immigration reform get through Congress.
We won’t get into first names even though we could have lots of fun with celebrity kids. No doubt you know Gwyneth Paltrow’s son Apple, but have you run across Morocco Elijah, Pirate, Moxie CrimeFighter, Tiger Lily, and, in the Frank Zappa family — Dweezil, Moon Unit, Diva Muffin and Ahmet? So, Christopher James, stop complaining, it could have been a lot worse.