A Rose by Any Other Name

A Rose by Any Other Name




Elton Camp



            It’s a special disadvantage in life that only ancestors can provide.  Able to lead to irritation, low self-esteem, endless embarrassment during childhood, ridicule and confusion during adolescence, and lost employment opportunities during adulthood, its creation usually is free and unregulated.  But once launched, the ogre can be countered only with emotional stress, criticism, ill will, unmerited guilt, much paperwork, and considerable expense.  What can cause such problems?  A macabre, revolting, inappropriate, or otherwise ill-chosen name has such powers. 


            Nobody immediately at hand can be chastised for family names.  The appellations often originated centuries in the past.  Like moaning ancestral ghosts, they follow and plague descendents even to the tenth generation and beyond.  Few have the fortitude to say, “It’s enough,” and exorcise the family curse.  In fact, some are oblivious to how others react to the name.  After all, they grew up with it and think nothing about something so familiar to them. 


            My wife’s family provides an example in the name “Lynch.”  While far worse examples can be cited, that one immediately brings to mind vigilantes seizing and hanging some hapless victim whether innocent or guilty.  In the South, it uncomfortably calls to mind racially motivated murders. 


            History and a gruesome tale combine to suggest a macabre reason for the name.

That the Lynch family originated in Ireland is almost certain and the surname remains one of the hundred most common in that country until today. 


Some historians suggest “O’Lynch,”a Gaelic version of the name, but most identify the Norman French name “de Lench” as more likely to be where it came from.  At any rate, those Norman ancestors are better known than the Gaelic because of the prominent role they played in the affairs of Galway.  Given that choice, most Lynches prefer the latter. 


Records indicate that Dominick Lynch, in 1484, obtained a charter for the city from King Richard III.   It’s always gratifying to tie one’s possible ancestors to a king in some way or other, especially when it was so far back that it’s not likely anybody can disprove the claim.  Few like to boast that their remote father drove the trash wagon, although there were far more ragmen than there were kings.  In the hundred and seventy years between 1484 and 1654, when Catholics were forbidden to hold the office, eighty-four mayors of Galway were of the family of Lynch.  To have mayors as forefathers isn’t as gratifying as if they’d been kings, but it’ll do. 


Of all the Lynch mayors, the one most likely to be remembered in Galway is James Lynch.  He was one of the early ones of that group.  The year after Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage, the man executed Walter, his own son. 

            “You are to sail to Spain to pick up a cargo of wine and bring it back to Galway,” James instructed.  “Here’s the means to pay for it,” he added as he entrusted a chest of gold coins to his son.  “I know I can depend upon you to fulfill your duty.”  The father was mistaken. 

Each day of the voyage, the wayward son opened the chest and ran his fingers through the glistening coins.  “All this for some wine,” he thought.  “I could make far better use of it.”  Greed overcame sound judgment and he hid the cache under his bunk. 

Upon arrival, Walter played on his father’s name and credit to be allowed to load the cargo.  “You know my father is the mayor of Galway,” he said to the Spaniard, but the city officials are stubborn and will allow him to pay only when they get the wine.  Allow me load the shipment and payment will be on board the next ship to Spain.  You have my promise and his.

Reluctantly, Don Carlos agreed to the arrangement, but added a condition.  “My nephew will go with you to receive payment from your honored father.  You need not be troubled with a return voyage.” 

On the way home, Walter became desperate, knowing his father would discover what he’d done.  “There’s only one thing I can do,” he decided.  He must bring the crew into a scheme to murder the young man. 

“Work with me and I’ll pay you well,” the ship captain promised.  The sight of the gold incited greed in the men so that they became participants in the evil plot. 

When far from any land, they struck.  “Seize him,” young Lynch ordered as the men burst into the nephew’s cabin.  The conspirators bound him and tossed him to a watery death in the sea. 

On arrival to Galway the mayor, unaware of his son’s treachery, received him happily and generously set him up in business.

For some months, Walter was apprehensive.  He jumped at every knock on the door, fearing the Spaniard would be standing there to demand an accounting.  But, with lack of communication and the many hazards of shipping, Don Carlos assumed the ship and crew had been lost.  As time passed, young Lynch believed that the danger of discovery had passed.  He prospered in his business and enjoyed spending his ill-gotten wealth.  He was soon to be married.  An unexpected development changed everything.

Patrick, one of the sailors who had been on the scheme, became desperately ill. On his deathbed, he sent for Mayor Lynch. The dying man revealed everything.  “This great burden has been removed from my soul,” he said with his final breath.

The mayor, enraged by the ruthless murder and deceit, confronted his son who eventually admitted his guilt.  Since his father was magistrate as well as mayor, it was his duty to seek justice. 

“No man can be above the law, not even my own son,” he sternly charged as he directed his conviction and then sentenced him to death. 

Walter was popular with the townspeople.  He’d been generous with his ill-gotten wealth and has helped many of them as they fell into need.  They gathered in a mob outside the mayor’s house. 

“Show mercy.  Pardon your son and release him,” they demanded. 

The mayor was a stubborn, proud man who wouldn’t go back on his decision.  Walter must become a sacrifice to public justice.  On the morning of the execution, the mayor, the bailiffs, and his condemned son were unable to reach the place of execution because of the mob that had gathered to prevent it. 

“Bring him back inside my house,” the mayor ordered the bailiffs.  He led them to a window overlooking the street on an upper floor.  “Put the rope around his neck and push him out,” he demanded.  The men, in fear of the crowd, remained motionless and silent. 

When he saw that none would obey him, the mayor exclaimed, “Then I will do it myself.”   He fastened the rope around his son’s neck, secured the other end, and forced him from the window in full view of the assembled mob of protestors.  The youth died instantly. 

Historians believe that the original Lynch house was located somewhere on what is now called Market Street. The Lynch memorial structure, with a façade composed of a mixture of Middle Ages architectural details, was built in the mid 19th century as a monument to the infamous hanging.   Its large window is said to have come from the original Lynch house.

It may well be that the word “lynching” in the English language, originated with the story of the Lynch hanging of Galway in the late 15th century.  Historians claim that the account is from the ancient book of St. Nicholas kept in the Protestant Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas of Myra.  The building, located only a short distance from present day Lynch Castle, contains a Lynch aisle and is said to contain the grave of James Lynch who, according to Galway tourist information, condemned his own son to death for killing a foreigner.  However, some modern Galway historians discount the gruesome tale as nothing but a myth. 

            Other historians hold that the term “lynching” originated from Colonel Charles Lynch, son of a man from Galway, who hanged British soldiers without trial during the American Revolutionary War.

Perhaps neither story is true, but it hardly matters.  The name generates mild surprise and evokes unpleasant memories of the horrid crime of lynching. In all those years, the only descendents who have escaped it are women who marry and take the names of their husbands. 

            A name found with some frequency in Alabama is “Smelley.”  Imagine the ridicule and teasing that little Joe Smelley must endure from classmates.  In this case, the name origin isn’t at all what one might surmise.  The family name, with many variations in spelling, dates all the way back to ancient Scotland where it was a nickname for a person with a smile or happy personality.  In fact, one variant spelling is “Smiley.”  So rather than suggesting that one’s ancestor had an unpleasant odor, it suggests happiness. 


            In many Alabama newspaper, marriage announcements are headlined with the hyphenated family names of the bride and groom.  A particularly unfortunate combination once appeared in a paper near Sylacauga, Alabama where such an article bore the heading “Smelley-Butts.”  By the way, “Butts,” in England, were archery targets so a person who was an archer or lived near a practice field might come to bear that honorable name. 


            Quite a number of people in north Alabama have the family name Pigg, including the chief administrator of an area hospital.  In this case, the name comes from an English word that actually means “pig.”  The first recorded occurrence of the name dates to 1066.  It might be that those with the name raised swine or even worse, may have resembled a pig in some physical trait.  A number of noted people in the United States have borne the name.  An unfortunate local combination is a man named “Waylon Pigg.”  The name can hardly be described as advantageous except that most will remember it. 


            A name that evokes an obscenity can be particularly troublesome, whatever its actual origin.  An example found locally is “Fulks.”  It shares only three letters with the crude graffiti that adorns bathroom walls, but the pronunciation is close enough to produce awkward attempt to stifle a smile when introductions are made.  German in origin, that one comes from a prestigious family in Prussia.  The Fulks family was noble, had great influence, owned large estates with castles, and was noted for involvement in public affairs.  None of that helps young Susan Fulks when mischievous middle school boys mockingly chant her name over and over. 


            Given names are another matter entirely, since they are totally in control of parents.  An ill-advised choice can prove to be a substantial disadvantage to the child that is its victim. 


            For illustration, I need look no further than my own mirror.  The image that I see has been saddled with two odd given names:  Elton and Bernarr.  Both were choices of my father. 


            “If you don’t name that baby, I’m going to do it myself,” blustered the doctor who delivered me.  He was unable to complete the paperwork for a birth certificate because of the lack of anything but a last name.


            Forced to a decision, my father later boasted, “I gave him names almost nobody else had.”  How he could have thought that to be a good thing eludes me.  “Elton” is from England and means “the old town.”  Where he heard it, I can’t imagine.  He told me the source of “Bernarr.”  I am named for Bernarr MacFadden, a man known for physical culture, avoidance of doctors, and promotion of natural foods.  Many regard him as a charlatan.  Not only are both names odious, but they also don’t easily lend themselves to shortening or variations.  When I became an adult, I should have changed them both to something sensible, but like most in that situation, I endured them.  I’m too old to do it now. 


            Even worse than weird given names are those that don’t indicate gender or suggest the opposite gender.  While in undergraduate school, I saw how embarrassing that may be for the victim.  At that particular college, the student body elected the homecoming queen while assembled in the auditorium.  The previous year many of them had, as a joke, written, on the blank cards provided, the name of a boy.  Dean Wasson, who was the dean of students, sternly lectured the student body.  “Last year some didn’t know the difference between girls and boys.  Don’t vote for anybody but a girl for homecoming queen.”


            To ensure compliance, he distributed a list of all the girls in the college for us to circle the one we wanted for queen. To the amusement of those who knew him, but to his chagrin, a boy named Connie was on the list. Of course many of us voted for him. On my ballot, I wrote a note by Connie’s name to read “A boy. Elementary my dear Wasson.” I doubt that Wasson actually saw the comment, but I thought it was funny.  The real problem, however, wasn’t lack of attention by the dean, but an unwise name choice by Connie’s parents. 


            The extent to which parents are free, in the United States, to exercise poor judgment in name selection was illustrated in 2009 when an unfortunate child was designated “Adolph Hitler.”   Perhaps the parents have a legal right to admire the infamous Nazi butcher, but they have handed their newborn son a heavy load to carry unless he becomes a Neo-Nazi and wears the name with pride.  That decision, it seems to me, should be his, not theirs.  Less offensive, but still incredible is the fact that two children in the United States have been named ESPN after the sports network.

Famous people in the United States have sometimes given truly bizarre names to their babies.  For example, Frank Zappa named his first two babies Moon Unit and Dweezil. The hospital where the boy was born quietly declined to put that name on his birth certificate, but when the parents discovered the omission five years later, they legally changed the child’s name to Dweezil.  Other celebrities who have picked weird names for their babies include Penn Jillette who designated his daughter Moxie Crimefighter, Shannyn Sossamon who named a child Audio Science, and Jermaine

Jackson who gave his daughter the name Jermajesty.  In view of all that, perhaps Elton Bernarr isn’t so bad after all. 

Governments sometime enter into decisions about what to name baby.  Some go so far as to provide lists of acceptable names and forbid parents to choose any others.  In addition to such a list, Portugal gives many pages of specifically forbidden baby names.  In Germany, law requires that first names be gender appropriate, that they not be trademarks, and that they not endanger the well being of the child.  Both the names Hitler and Osama are specifically disallowed. 


In Morocco, parents choose from an endorsed list or pay a fee.  The regulations apply to babies born to Moroccan fathers in any part of the world.  If the law isn’t followed, the child may have difficulty entering the country. 


New Zealand vetoes names that could offend people or that are over one hundred letters long.  Among blocked names have been Yeah Detroit, Sex Fruit, Fat Boy, and Fish and Chips in the case of a set of twins. 


Malaysia has published a list of forbidden baby names in an attempt to reign in parental choices such as Hitler, Smelly Dog, and 007. Other names they have banned include Khiow Khoo, meaning “hunchback,” Chow Tow, which means “smelly head,” Sor Chai that denotes “insane,” and Woti that means “sexual intercourse.”  One has to wonder what the parents were thinking!


Closer to home, the Mexican state of Chihuahua enforces strict rules on baby naming. If a girl has a Western first name, she must be given a Spanish middle name. Unusual spellings are outlawed, too.

            Here are a few other interesting family names.  In Russellville, Alabama, a family business is named “Swindle Tax Service.”  In Guntersville there once was a realty firm that bore the name of its partners.  Seemingly unaware of how it sounded, they named their establishment “Cheatham and Bragg Realty.”  Sylacauga Hospital had on staff a Dr. Crook whom they often called on the intercom.  My grandfather used to laugh and say that when the institution announced that name, all the doctors responded.  The University of Alabama in Birmingham had Ph.D. faculty by the names of Dr. Husband and Dr. Doctor.   In Memphis reside Mrs. Roach and Mrs. Bugg who are friends and often go places together.  They have become accustomed to good-natured grins when they introduce themselves.  In Natchez, Dr. Haller Nutt built the unfinished antebellum mansion named Longwood. 


The automatic correct feature of computers has contributed its share of amusing name variations.  A prominent college administrator with the given name “Devin” sometimes gets mail addressed to “Devil.”  He was once president of long-established Snead College that gets occasional mail addressed to “Seed College.” 


“What’s in a name?  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare had Juliet declare.  His character’s sentiment didn’t represent his personal view.  He sensibly named his twins Hammet and Judith.  Like words in general, names have power for good or for ill

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Both given and family names can have a major impact. What names are legally forbidden to be given to children?
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