What’s in a name?

My family has a long tradition of weird names. My grandfather Frank’s first name was Nahum. How many Nahums have you ever met? I’ve never met one, and I grew up in the Bible Belt.

My dad’s name isn’t exactly weird, but it isn’t exactly normal, either. His name is Chandler, which is not too unusual as a last name, but I’ve never met another first-name Chandler. Apparently it means a dealer in equipment for ships and boats, or it means the head of the “chandlery” in medieval households who was responsible for wax, candles, and soap.

My name, Seth, may not sound too weird now, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was way weird. Like Nahum, it is an Old Testament name. Seth was the third son of Adam; he was one of those early biblical types who did lots and lots of begatting and lived to be 912. So I got that going for me.

What I didn’t have going for me growing up was a regular name like “Billy.” I wanted to be called Billy. In Texas, no one looked at you funny when your name was Billy, and no one called you “Beth,” “Death,” or said that your name rhymed with “Bad Breath.” Basically, if your name was Billy, people left you the fuck alone.

A few of the bible beaters I ran into growing up knew that Seth was an Old Testament name, which never helped. “Which Baptist church do y’all go to?”

“We don’t go to no church. We’re atheists.”

“That’s a good Christian name, boy,” they’d say and then I’d get an ass beating, one for not believing in dog and two for going to hell.

Nor was I named Seth for any good reason. I had been born a day or so, all jaundiced and with one ear bent over, and people kept asking “What’s his name?” and my parents couldn’t think of anything, so my dad pulled the bible off the shelf that he never read and saw “Seth” in Genesis.

“His name’s Seth,” my dad declared, and that was pretty much that. My mom didn’t care either way.

My wife doesn’t have a weird name, or rather she didn’t until she came here from Japan. Over there, “Yasuko” was like “Jane,” but over here it’s like “Ozpltaxifmp.” The only people who can spell it are East Asian Studies Ph.D. students and baristas, which are often the same thing.

We carried on the odd name tradition with our daughter, Cassady Sakura. I thought I was naming her after the Grateful Dead song, “Cassidy,” but I 1) misspelled it and 2) had never read On the Road.

Our first son got a weird name too, but not as weird as my first choice, which was Wolfgang. I was in my Early German Phase and wanted either a Wolfgang or a name not Xavier that started with X. I was sold on Xenon for a while but got off of that after reading Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann. “Hans it is,” I decided, opting for the novel’s main character, and it has been so ever since. He liked the name so much that he learned German, moved to Austria, and married into a German-speaking family, where he has the best conversation starter in bars known to man:

Stranger: Your name is Hans? Do you have German family?

Hans: Nope.

Stranger: Then why is your name Hans? It’s not really your name, is it?

Hans: Yep. It is.

Stranger: But why Hans if you’re not German?

Hans: My dad read a German book one time and liked it.

Etc. etc. etc. as the conversation crumbles and dies.

Then of course there’s my third child, Woodrow Shu, named after Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, the singer, along with a middle name that means “he who will be honored” but is written with the Kanji for “Takashi,” which means his name will eternally be mispronounced in Japan. However, as my friend Jeff Fields said 21 years ago upon learning of the christening, “Well, at least he has the category of presidential footwear names locked up.”

My daughter Cassady, she of the misspelled Grateful Dead song, had her first child with her husband, Torazo. Torazo is a completely weird name, even in Japan from whence he hails. It means “Tiger Elephant,” which is completely badass, and it translates exactly like it sounds: “Hi, my name is Tiger Elephant Jones.”

Whoa. Don’t mess with that dude. He’s either gonna win a golf tournament or beat your head in with his trunk.

Of course when you cross a Tiger Elephant with a Grateful Dead song you are going to get something special, which is my first grandson, whose name is orders of made-up magnitude far beyond large mammals and psychedelic songs: His name is Ringoro, which in Japanese means Magic Dragon Protecting Man. Yeah, say that three times fast backwards after a couple hours of beer pong. When people meet Magic Dragon Protecting Man in Japan, they pretty much freeze in their tracks, whereas in the U.S.A. they don’t even know how to begin pronouncing it so they just say, “Can we call him Ringo?”

I mean, being called the name of a member of the greatest rock and roll band of all time is pretty boss, right? Almost as boss as his middle name, Alfaro, paying tribute to our non-existent Hispanic heritage through the name of Alfara Siquieros, the great Mexican muralist whose work adorns the entrance to the Santa Barbara County Museum.

So I knew when my second grandson was born two days ago, he was going to have a humdinger of a name. And he does: Kohaku Marshall Davidson. The name means “amber gemstone” in Japanese, and no one has ever heard of a person in Japan having that name. But I’m saving the best for last, because his middle name was a twofer: Named after Marshall Taylor, the bike racer, and Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice.




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17 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. Since you hail from redneck country…I think the Marshall name is in honor of Marshall Tucker, the namesake of the Marshall Tucker band….who really was not in the band but was a blind piano tuner (long story, there).
    Anyway, some very red necks have come out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and “Marshall” is a fine name.

    1. Thanks, Dean–I guess I should have put in something about Ringoro’s middle name, too …

  2. I knew a handful of Nahums growing up, all friends’ fathers, but that was in the old country, so old name — not surprising.

    Don’t let people call Ringoro “Ringo.” Ringo supports Brexit (look it up).

    Finally, Chandler, you didn’t watch sitcoms in the ‘90s, did you?

  3. Well while you’re on the topic of names, a “telo” in Argentina is a pay-by-the-hour love motel.

    Congrats on grandson number two!

  4. Guess I have always known Marshal Taylor as Major Taylor. That name rings large around the NYC area with a rather good sized youth program for developing junior racers in the city. When I ride in the city, or ride North of the GW, I run into them quite frequently.

    And of course, congratulations!!

  5. Congratulations on the birth of your 2nd Grandson, Seth! I love the history of names, too. My son has his grandfathers middle name (Webster) and my 2 grandsons have names that have no connection to anything else in the family. Which I strongly endorse!

  6. Congrats on the grandson! Japanese names are fun: my mother in law’s name is Atsuko, which no one in the U.S. can pronounce; we masculinized it for my second son’s middle name, making it Atsushi. That, of course, looks like he’s out for sushi.

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