What’s in a Name?

My high school yearbook The Elizabethan sports such 3-syllable last names as Aschendorf, Biesecker, Espenshade, Hippensteel, Oxenrider, and Zimmerman. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania any roster of names would be heavily represented by families of German-Swiss origin.

Yes, there were Smiths, McLaughlins, and Youngs, but the Pennsylvania Dutch names far outnumbered them. On class rosters there were no names from the Cyrillic alphabet like Lyashchenko or like Chang, formed of Asian characters. Not a one. Yet as our world has grown more culturally diverse, so have the class rosters and phone directories of small towns like Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

In the January 6, 2015 edition of Performance Today, Fred Child referred to a list of musicians with jaw-breaking names. You can find the complete list on their Facebook page, but here are a few choice ones:

Composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf

Conductor Hans Knappertsbusch

Poet Walther von der Vogelweide

Composer Einojuhani Rautavaara

Composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber

Conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky

Musicologist Cuthbert Girdlestone

Tenor Wolfgang Windgassen

Ditters von Dittersdorf rolls most trippingly off the tongue as does the very onomatopoetic Windgassen. Imagine a tenor named Wind-gassen. Or even a wood-wind player with such a name!

My journal of our trip to the English countryside records place names that also tickle the tongue and the funny-bone. As I admonished my husband/driver to keep left while driving with a right-sided steering wheel, cute towns whizzed by with no-kidding names like Gigglewick, Blubberhouse, Wigglesworth, Nook, Cow Brow, Button Moon, and Hutton Roof. No, I didn’t make these up! There was even a Curl Up and Dye Hair Salon.

Ireland_Roundabout sign_6x4_300

In Scotland menus feature haggis (chopped sheep hearts, livers, mixed with oats and spices), bashed neeps (turnips), and champit tatties (mashed potatoes). In Ireland we encountered the quaint village of Ballyvaughan, and Cairig Beag, a Bed & Breakfast not far from the town of Sneem with houses colored bright orange, Kelly green, and sunny yellow.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet . . . .

In Act II of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes of the star-crossed lovers who bear the names of their feuding families, Montague and Capulet, implying that the names of things [people] do not affect who they really are or their love for each other.

"A rose is a rose is a rose . . . "  Gertrude Stein
“A rose is a rose is a rose . . . ” Gertrude Stein

Actually, in the expression “a rose is a rose is a rose,” Ms. Stein was referring to the English painter Sir Francis Rose, not to the flower as is commonly supposed. Now the phrase has come to define anything that is incapable of explanation.

What place or people names strike you as fanciful or interesting in another way? 

I love words! Share some of yours.

Bonus: As it happens, this week memoirist/friend Shirley Showalter blogs on the power of naming as a way to find one’s vocation and calling. Read about it here.



44 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Another fun post, Marian! I love words and names, too. I’m always amused by people’s names that seem to go with their profession. One of my favorites found while researching my first book is an eighteenth-century Philadelphia butcher (and unfaithful husband) named Simon Gore.


  2. Names are very interesting indeed. It is such a huge responsibility to name child. I deliberated long and hard on what to call my daughter. I finally chose Marcelle Dion, only to discover after I named her, that it was also the name of a hockey player. (played for the Detroit Red Wings at the time) She, however, thinks it´s cool she is named after a hockey player. She is a unique person and fits her name quite well. We also saw interesting names of towns when travelling around the UK.


    1. What are the chances of what seems like a unique name for your daughter matching that of a Detroit hockey player. If she thinks it’s cool, I suppose that’s what matters. Maybe she has a little daring in her blood like you, Judy.


  3. I do like names. Once while teaching at my high school my principal gave me a 5 – 10 minute spot to lead the faculty in how to pronounce some of our students’ names. I loved that she did that, because truly there’s nothing sweeter than the sound of your name, except the sound of your name pronounced correctly. Interesting and fun post.


    1. Smart principal, smart you for being delegated the spot to share. I firmly believe learning students’ names early in the term establishes rapport and makes a stronger student/teacher connection. Also, I found if I learned a student’s name wrong initially, it was hard to rectify it in my mind. I wonder why that is.


  4. Loved this Marian thank you – made me smile too! I wish I could quickly contribute something interesting – but have been away on ’emergency matters’ for several days, returned home yesterday. At some stage I would like to post some African names that will REALLY be tongue twisters …

    I’ll pop over soon I hope to your friend’s post on ‘Naming’ – it’s sure be interesting. Thank you … I believe there is great value in ‘naming’ in all spheres of life. It allows for clarity and discernment. There are times too when a thing must be left ‘un-named’ or not made too definite too soon –

    Loved the comments too! 🙂


    1. Happy to see you here again, Susan. Don’t worry – the comments will be open for as long as you need to contribute some African names, none of which are listed on the post. Your last line struck me as wise too: There are times too when a thing must be left ‘un-named’ or not made too definite too soon.


  5. I love your discussion of Names, Marian. I also am working on a chapter, What’s in a Name. My Mother illegally changed my Italian last name, Armento, to the Polish name of my stepfather, Radzai. This turned into a real identity crisis when I went to a new high school where all the “in” kids were Italian.


    1. But I see you changed your name back, to Armento, so once again it fits you.Your mother must have had a deep attachment to your stepfather and didn’t consult you about the change.

      How interesting that this post dovetails with a chapter you are writing for our memoir course.


  6. What fun to travel with you and all the names; I especially loved the names of towns and signs you found in the British Isles.

    With all this love of naming and nouns, I also like to explore the power of verbs. Recently I followed the threads of the story of the biblical David falling into sin and repentance. I borrow the approach of poet William Stafford, in which he is inspired by the Navaho world, made of verbs.

    Rustle-armies, click-palace, whisper-balcony.
    You-go informers tell me the woman world, fall-into eyes, reaches out her makes-tremble beauty, walks.
    I want, sealed-orders.
    Wear-a-crown kingdom gets.
    Hears flit-flat lamb,
    Tick-tock exposed.
    Plick-plick sing and scritch scratch write
    Mercy merciful-One
    Makes-tremble Art and Truth


    1. I see what you mean when I read the verse aloud. It reminds me a little of Jabberwocky that actually tells a tale with nonsense-sounding words. Thank you, Dolores, for your thoughts and for quoting Stafford too.


  7. Fascinating post! My sister, Lorraine Roseann, was named after both sets of our grandparents. Lorraine for Laura & Ludwig. Roseann for Rose & Andrew. Then I came along. One day I asked Mother who I was named for and she said, “No one. I named you Anita Gail because when I heard it I thought it was beautiful!” Oh, okay! Jealousy of my sister and her name was gone! 🙂


    1. Anita Gail sounds so beautiful said out loud. You mother obviously put a lot of thought into her children’s names and didn’t just grab one from the 10-most-popular names list. Honoring family ancestry runs deep extending to children’s names, a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Marian, I love place names, too. On our way to North Carolina to Virginia is a little town where we often stop to fill the gas tank and get a snack, called “Tight Squeeze.” On our next trip south I plan to stop a spend a longer bit of time to get the story behind this wonderful name.


    1. I wonder whether there is an Open Arms Hotel in Tight Squeeze! It sounds as fanciful as so many of the names we saw tooling through the English countryside. When you find out the origin of the name, do pass the story along to us – we’d love to hear it.


  9. Marian … There are many tongue twister names here in Florida. I see them along the Beeline aka Rt. 528 on our way to Orlando. I believe their origin is Native American Indian. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, that we both lived in, there also are many interesting names.

    For our daughters, when they complained about the names we gave them at birth, I swore that I’d intended to call them: Gwendolyn Pislodingow and Daphne Foofoofnik. They never believed me, but those names do trip delightfully over my tongue. 😆


    1. So funny! If you have pets, it may be safe to endow them with crazy names like you threatened to call your daughters. I always enjoy your sense of humor here, on your own blog, and most definitely in your classroom.


      1. Connie has been married to Gary for quite some time now. She made a name for herself in therapeutic sports massage with pro-football leagues and the Olympics and had seven businesses before she met him, so she was quite accomplished in her own right.


      1. Thanks for the query, Athanasia. Given the context, my best guess is that she thinks her sister married the man for his money and prestigious name, but that is only a guess. Maybe Susan will comment further.


  10. Marian — Windgassen and Gigglewick are the cream of the crop!

    True story: My mother went to elementary school with a girl named Penny. Not at all unusual until you find out that her last name was Dyme. Can you guess her middle name? That’s right — Nickel.


  11. I almost smell the perfume of that gorgeous rose mmmmm. Names Marian? Have you ever encountered the Welsh language ? (In a past post I think you revealed that you hadn’t been here yet) It’s without doubt a lyrical language. I went to my neighbour’s house for Sunday lunch last week. Their first language is Welsh. They tend to be naturally bilingual here. It fascinates me how they jump in an out of the language. I would like try (try being the operative word) to learn it, let you know how it goes, if I ever get my tongue out of its knot …and that’s when I speak English.


    1. There are Welsh settlements in some parts of the United States. One that comes to mind is located in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area: a a county or township called Upper Gwynedd, which I notice when I visit my sister.

      I believe the actor Richard Burton is Welsh too. I can’t come up with others now, but it would be a good topic for research. Best wishes with your mastery of Welsh names, Cherry.


    1. Yes, Shirley, we heard these powerful names in our Bible story books, from the pulpit, from our parents – these names indelibly etched into our hearts and minds. Once again, I am amazed how these imprints are synced to cycle again so forcefully in our adult lives.


  12. Hi Mariana nice topic of names. I’ve always loved my name Gloria because it means glory. Great choice that my mom made also wondered why I didn’t have a middle name. My mothers respoonse I had enough just thinking of a first name. When pregnant of shanti. I had a friendship with sisters from New York and they helped me name shanti. Yet I spelled it wrong. They spelled it Shawnee. I shanti. Which I think was gods name for her which means peace. Now at 40 years old she grow into the meaning of her name. When eating to have nikko. My husband asked if I would name him after his brother who was killed young in cuba. When I asked the name he said George. Yuck I thought. I said I will name him George but he will be called Nikko. So his name is George Nicholas Araujo. He is callef nikko. But looking up the meaning of his name is a great choice means farmer and victorious. Linda means beautiful. Peter the rock. And a Gloria which is also glory those are my children. This was fun thank you.


    1. It’s interesting that the roundabout way names have come ino your family even with the crazy spellings have all worked out for good – God’s way. It never ceases to amaze me. Thanks, Gloria.


  13. I cannot top your list of names but the thought this inspired is when I visit a completely new area, the names of streets, towns and areas can be so strange and new and then I think of the names around me which would sound strange and new to visitors as well. Kentucky was probably my favorite for picturesque/unusual names: Rowdy, Hog Pen Holler, Troublesome Creek, more. I enjoyed the names in New England when we first visited a couple years ago: very new, many sounding like Native American inspired.


    1. Interesting that you observe names when you travel. Your comment reminded me that there is a Longenecker (my maiden name) Road in Mt. Joy, close to where I used to live. More interesting though are the whimsical names like those you mention.


  14. There’s some name confusion in my family. My husband’s name was Mansfield, but he found out as a young man that the father he didn’t know had changed that name from Difonzo. So Vic looked all Italian because he actually was. In the 60s, we contemplated changing our name to Difonzo, but he didn’t know his father who had hit the road in his first year, so that was a lousy idea. We thought of other possibilities, but stuck with Mansfield because there was no clear alternative. So now I have a name that was my husband’s name but isn’t a true name… But my sons have it to, so I guess we’re stuck with it. Sigh… I’ll see what Shirley has to say on the matter.


    1. Well, think of it this way – Mansfield has the word “man” in it, and your husband and sons are each that. That name sounds strong too. Difonzo sounds a little circus-y to me anyway — and show-bizzy. Remember The Fonz!


  15. There’s a place called Beer in Devon, and a Beer Head and Beer Door. There are also places called Four Forks, Tiptoe and Slap. My favourite is probably Pink Wood, right next to Great Bottom. Our maps make fun reading 🙂


    1. Unbelievably charming! In the Lancaster area where I grew up in Pennsylvania, there are three small towns in close proximity: Paradise, Intercourse, and Blue Ball. I also recall a Spooky Nook too, but most American names seem more prosaic than ones you mention. Thanks for adding to the examples, Marie.


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