Naming rights

Jun 13, 2003

The June 16 New Yorker is another fiction issue, and includes a story by Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies, one of my favorite reads. Her story in the magazine this week is about a boy named Gogol, and how his parents come to name him:

“You can always name him after yourself, or one of your ancestors,” Mr. Wilcox suggests, admitting that he is actuallya Howard Wilcox III. “It’s a fine tradition. The kings of France and England did it,” he adds. But this isn’t possible. This tradition doesn’t exist for Bengalis, naming a son after father or grandfather, a daughter after mother or grandmother. This sign of respect in America and Europe, this symbol of heritage and lineage, would be ridiculed in India. Within Bengali families, individual names are sacred, inviolable. They are not meant to be inherited or shared.

It’s a fascinating story, and since Erin and I have already begun feeling about for that sacred name to give our second child later this year, one that speaks to me. I’ve written about names before: see this. I have my father’s name, Joseph, as a middle name. My father had his father’s name, Francis, as a middle name. Frank the Beachcomber had his father’s name, Cornelius, as his middle name. That’s my lineage. So you have a good idea of what a son might have for a middle name.

In Vanuatu, where I served with the Peace Corps, names proliferate. When a boy is born, his uncles on his father’s side each ‘put’ a name on the new child, with the father’s ‘tawian’ (eldest brother-in-law) choosing the child’s main name. A girl gets her names from the sisters of her mother and one of her mother’s sisters-in-law. As the child grows up in the village, each aunt or uncle addresses the child by the name he or she ‘put’ on the child. I found this to be a wonderful custom and loved the way that names became a connection to more than one family member.

But one day in the classroom, I called on a student. “Leipau, can you give me an example of a homonym?” There was silence. “Leipau?” I wondered if I sounded as geeky as Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Finally, one of the other students piped up, albeit matter-of-factly. “Leipau’s name is Juliette now.” Now, whenever I get letters from schoolkids on Paama Island, they often start out “Hello, my name is … but you can call me …”

Funny thing is, I used this same line in high school. One year, I suddenly wanted to be called Dmitri. The name didn’t last long. But my Vanuatu nickname has stuck. So, hi. My name is Anton, but you can call me Mister Sugar. Why Mister Sugar? When I introduced myself to my first class at Vaum Junior Secondary School, I explained that my family name, Zuiker, was the Dutch word for sugar, and that if they had a hard time saying Mr. Zuiker, they could call me Mister Sugar. They liked the nickname so much that when I asked them to help me name my piglet, they decided Mister Sugar was a fine name. And so it was.

Anton Zuiker

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