What's In A Name?

Q: What do you do if the guy you're in love with tells you that someday he'd like to see you have the same last name as himself?
A: You hope his last name isn't Whipple.

I didn't get so lucky in this case. Of course many of my friends assume that Steve chases me around my apartment, frantic that I will...well, you know!...the moment his back is turned. I managed to hold out for a whole year after I met him, then finally caved and asked him if he ever got teased about kindly, worried Mr. Whipple from the 70's commercial for toilet tissue. He just sighed and said "Oh, like I haven't heard THAT before!" (Reminded me of my college friend Bert who would visibly flinch and force a pained smile whenever anyone asked him where Ernie was.) Steve did unbend enough to admit that his mother, during the Mr. Whipple/Charmin heyday, had a T-shirt which read "Forget the Charmin; *I* squeeze Mr. Whipple!"

Steve can tell me all he likes about how Whipple is a fine old German name, made more prestigious by having started out as "Hipple," then earning the much-coveted and honorable preceding "W" when an ancestor performed a brave deed at some battle (I forget which one) - when people hear it, those old enough to remember are going to think of Charmin (and my nieces and nephews, who, though not even born when that commercial had long gotten old, were told all about it by my sister - thanks, Kathy!).

But I guess I should count my blessings - there are worse things! My best friend from high school married several years ago - a man named, of all things, Eck. "Janine Eck?" I told her. Privately, I thought it sounded like someone clearing his or her throat.

So what's the alternative? I'm all for women keeping their maiden names after marriage if they so desire - I wouldn't mind doing so myself, and letting any kids of mine, should they come, have his last name, and I've known couples to do this. Other women, however, choose to hyphenate, which just sounds too doggoned complicated to me! Now, it's OK for a woman like big brother Tim's wife - they have no children. But add children to the equation, and what then? Let's see: Mary Jones, marries John Smith, and so becomes Mary Jones-Smith (unless she's Mary Smith-Jones - whatever!). They have a son, Tom, who is Tom Jones-Smith. Tom grows up and meets Debra Wilson-Miller, and they have a child, Jean, who becomes Jean Wilson-Miller-Jones-Smith. She grows up and meets...you get the idea. Anyway, hyphenating is not an option for me.

Sometimes, it's a GOOD thing for a woman to change her name. My sister-in-law, Sharon, couldn't WAIT to change her name after marrying my brother Jeff. Her last name? Baron. That's right, Sharon Baron. I mean, who would DO that to a kid? That has to be some kind of abuse. The worst I ever heard, though, was when the young couple in my area named their son Zachary. Their last name? Daiquiri. The poor kid won't even be able to change his name by marrying when he grows up. Zachary Daiquiri. Sounds like a nursery rhyme: Zachary-Daiquiri-Dock, the mouse ran up the clock!

Last names (or rather, surnames) are a fascinating thing. They can be as simple and descriptive in their origins as Smith, Miller, and Baker. These, of course, were taken from occupations, but take a Swedish name like Johansen (like the comedian); literally translating into "Johan's son."

But some people's last names (my own and Tim's, for example) are a little more complicated. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I accompanied my parents to an Eagen family reunion. In the entry way of the auditorium was a table upon which five small plaques were laid out, each carrying a crested shield. The depictions on the shields were all identical (not that different from Sir Robin's, but portraying castles instead of chickens!), but the names embossed under each one were all different, however phonetically similar they may have sounded:


These, of course, were various versions of my surname; I had already been aware that several of my cousins carried a name with a different spelling from my own. But at the center of these plaques proudly stood a much larger plaque, identical to its smaller counterparts except for being more detailed, and beneath it was engraved a name I had never seen:


I tugged at my father's dinner jacket. "What family is that?"

"That's our family name," he replied, following my eyes to the plaque. "Our first ancestors from Ireland had that name, but it was shortened at Immigration when they came off The Boat." (A common occurrence for immigrants, I was later to learn in history class, was the massacre of their family names into more "Americanized" versions.) He pronounced it for me: "McKeegen," and then I could hear in the simple pronunciation what I could not see in the complicated spelling: how the names on the five smaller shields were an echo of this word.

Here my father's knowledge of the name ended, except to say that there were no more MacAODHAGAINs now, even in Ireland (though the other five names abound both there and elsewhere). I was fascinated with the word; I'd always thought that a "Mac" prefix indicated a Scottish origin, while "Mc" indicated the Irish. But from what I could find out, they both meant "son of."

First names can also be a source of great interest. For instance, I have two brothers named John. John Timothy, the oldest, is my co-webmaster! John Junior is the youngest of the four boys. I asked my mother once why she gave the same first name to two of her sons; her reply was that she had not been ready for a junior at the birth of her firstborn, but by the time John came along she was. My theory is that she had so many boys she simply ran out of names and had to repeat. (Mom doesn't appreciate my sense of humor much!) The younger John was born shortly after the assassination of a popular president, and in honor of that president was throughout his early childhood given the same nickname carried by the dead man's own son. To this day, there are still a few older folks in our hometown who, when I visit, ask me how my brother "John-John" is.

Speaking of nicknames: where do some of them come from? I'd love to know how we get Billy out of William, or Peggy out of Margaret. Jenny out of Jennifer I can see, though nobody had better call me that if they know what's good for 'em! (But do call Tim "Timmy;" he loves that!)

I asked my parents what made them decide to name me Jennifer, and the story went like this: they had decided, upon discovering they were having another child, that they would name the baby Christopher if it was a boy, Christine if it was a girl. But during the pregnancy the folks went to see a movie made from a popular book of the era called "Love Story." Until that time, my mother told me, Jennifer, a French name (though listed in the dictionary as a variation of Winifred) was not a common name in this country. (She refrained from telling me that the original Jennifer in the movie died of cancer at the age of twenty-five, a fact that I discovered in later years. Fortunately, I passed that dangerous age earlier this year!) My father proposed the name as an interesting and uncommon alternative to Christine, and Jennifer I became. Unfortunately for the success of their plan, my parents were not the only ones to see "Love Story" or read the book, and so there happen to be quite a few Jennifers around the same age as myself!

But, I can thank my lucky stars that at least it's "Jennifer" and not "Jenifer," Jennipher," or Jennifyr!" I'm afraid I'm not too thrilled with the whole "original" spellings of old names, really - I have a hard enough time with the fact that my sister Kathleen is sometimes erroneously called "Cathleen," or my niece Sarah is called "Sara." But then when folks start coming out with stuff like "Khrystyne" and "Eriq," I start putting on pained smiles myself.

But I guess that will do for now...except that I'd like to dedicate this essay to my own Mr. Whipple. Oh, and please don't squeeze the Charmin! ;-)

Jenn Eagen
September, 1997