A Point of View: The curse of a ridiculous name

Man putting on "Hello - my name is" sticker

Gopnik. It's not the most common of surnames. In Russian it's a term for "drunken lout". Those who carry a curious name know it has comedy value, says Adam Gopnik (that's G - O - P - N - I - K).

I have a funny name. I know it. Don't say it isn't or try to make me feel better about it. I have a funny name. My children and social networkers tell me that. And you out there have even been tweeting about it: "@BBC POV, Gopnik: what kind of name is that? #weirdnames"

Gopnik. It has a strange sound, and an ugly look. It manages to be at once starkly plain and extremely uninteresting, boringly unadorned and yet oddly difficult to say. Despite the stark, Orcish simplicity of its syllables, it manages to be hard to pronounce. "Golnik" or "Gotnik" people say, swallowing or spitting out the middle consonant.

A first name is malleable.

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Adam Gopnik
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Adam Gopnik is an American commentator and writes for The New Yorker

Your chancellor of the exchequer began life under the name of Gideon Osborne - a name that might only have helped him become one more short-tenured professor of dark arts at Hogwarts. But he plucked the safer and saner "George" from among his other pre-names, and seized the country's trust with it, for a while anyway.

Last names are more durable.

My parents tried to elevate the name by giving all six of my brothers and sisters poetic Welsh or Hebrew names such as Morgan and Blake. All good names but with no middle names at all to help. "Gopnik" rises immediately after each one, like a concrete cinderblock wall topped with barbed wire, to meet them bluntly as they try to escape.

It's not just a funny name. It has become, in the Russia from which it originally hails, an almost obscenely derogatory expression.

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We ended by doing the worst thing you can do to a child in these times - we hyphenated Gopnik and Parker”

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A gopnik in Russian, and in Russia, is now a drunken hooligan, a small-time lout, a criminal without even the sinister glamour of courage. When Russian people hear my last name, they can barely conceal a snigger of distaste and disgusted laughter. Those thugs who clashed with Polish fans at Euro 2012? All gopniks - small G. And I'm told that it derives from an acronym for public housing, rather than from our family's Jewish roots, but no difference.

My wife, even before the Russian gopnik business, tried gently to pry apart her potential children from my name. Her name is Parker, simple as that, and she would much prefer that her offspring go through life without the difficulty of their father's name.

"Let's just call them Parker," she urged when we married. "And then," she added gently, as one talking to a small child, "you can give them your name as a sort of secret middle name." We ended by doing the worst thing you can do to a child in these times - we hyphenated.

Three babies, one crying

The real trouble is this. Like every writer, I would like my writing to last, and most writers who have lasted not only have euphonious names, but names that somehow resonate with their genius.

Jane Austen. How can you not write matchlessly wry and intelligent novels with a name like that? Who would not want to be named Anthony Trollope or Evelyn Waugh? The solid sense and then the elegant malice are written into the names - even the androgyny of "Evelyn" adds to the slight air of something-not-quite-right that his prose implies.

I envy even those writers blessed with those Restoration Comedy names:

  • Will Self - what better name for someone whose subject is impulse and the ego?
  • the satirical Tom Sharpe
  • the subtly ambiguous Stevie Smith

In the Latin world, get a name like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, and you can practically make reservations for Stockholm, direct from the baptismal font.

Are there any big modern writers who have really funny names? Only Kipling, I think, and that is an accident of the participle.

The Magazine on names

More to the point, are there good writers who are now forgotten, as I am pretty sure I shall be, because their names are so funny?

Yes, I have to say with dread, there are - for instance, the 20th Century American poet WD Snodgrass. Snodgrass was a truly great poet, the originator, if anyone was, of the style we now call "confessional poetry", a hero to Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and the rest. But he had that funny Pickwickian name, and he knew it. He used to make fun of his own name: "Snodgrass is walking through the universe!" one poem reads (I, too, make fun of my surname, in the hopes of keeping off the name-demons).

No use. For all his priority, I bet that you have heard something of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton but that, unless you are a specialist in American poetry, you have never heard of WD Snodgrass.

The Rice Portait of Jane Austin by British painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810) Jane Austen: Elegant by name and of writing style

The subject has led me, gloomily, to search for the first reference to the power of names over writers' reputations. Oddly, astonishingly, I think we can find it. it occurs in the best and most famous scene in all of English biography, that moment in Boswell's Life of Johnson when, in 1776, Boswell craftily arranges a dinner between the arch Tory Dr Johnson and the radical libertine John Wilkes. The two men, political opposites, come together over their love of learning and good food.

Wilkes is talking about the lost office of the city poet, and says: "The last was Elkanah Settle. There is something in names which one cannot help feeling. Now Elkanah Settle sounds so queer, who can expect much from that name? We should have no hesitation to give it for John Dryden, in preference to Elkanah Settle, from the names only, without knowing their different merits."

The irony, the final irony, is that my kind of essay writing (a lot of it anyway) depends on finding meanings in minutiae of sensation, which is just where the tragedy of a name like mine resides.

Wilkes' cruel but accurate remark is a big one, a herald of the coming Romantic era as much as any poem about a lake or a lilac. For while the classical sensibility that Dr Johnson represented involved an, at times, undue respect for the authority of sense, the coming Romantic sensibility that Wilkes heralded involved, above all, a hypersensitivity to the accidents of sensation. Things become whatever feelings they evoke; if a name evokes an aura, it becomes it. Academics even have a name for this - they call it "phonetic symbolism".

The only writer I can think of in all of English literature to have out-written his name - to have been given a really weird and funny-sounding name and yet replace its phonetic symbolism with a new symbolism of its own being - is...

Shakespeare.

First Folio of Shakespeare's works

We are so used to that name by now that I think we forget how truly odd it is. A blunt description of an intrinsically funny action - shaking a spear. It is not even a dignified action, as Swordthrust might be, he is merely Shake-speare.

In his own day, it was obviously the first thing people noticed about him. The very earliest reference we have to him as a playwright involves the critic Robert Greene sneering at his funny name.

"He fancies that he is the only 'Shake-scene' in the country."

And a later wit wrote a play in which a dim-witted undergraduate keeps talking about "sweet Mr Shakespeare, Mr Shakespeare", obviously for the comic effect of the repeated funny name. Indeed, the name "Shakespeare" is exactly like the name of a clown in Shakespeare, whose funny name would set off pages of tiresome puns:

"Prithee, Sirrah, and where do you shake that spear? Come, sir!"

"Oh, sire, in any wench's lap that doth tremble for it."

And so on. You know the kind of thing I mean.

Anthony Trollope (1875) Trollope - marvellous name

Indeed, if he had died of the plague, as was as likely as not, after writing only two plays and some poems, I wonder if we would not now have to suppress a laugh when we heard his name in class. "The minor poets of the Age of Jonson," some don would intone - or "The age of Fletcher" or "Lovelace", for surely someone else left in his shade would have risen in the space left clear by his absence - "were Drayton and Davenant and the short lived Stratfordian, Shakespeare."

And then the students, desperately memorising for the exam: "Yeah, there's Beaumont and Manningham and then that other one - you know, the one who died young and wrote the Roman play with the twins and those weird bisexual sonnets, which I actually kinda like - you know, the guy with the funny name."

But he kept on writing, about bees and kings, and other things and so lost his name and became himself. It can be done, it seems, if one writes long enough and well enough.

But the bar, that bar, is too high.

And the phonetic symbolism of my name is too absolute. The spectre of those gopniks in their crewcuts and parkas rise to overwhelm all hope. It is fixed. I shall remain and now say goodbye - and then vanish as a, and A. Gopnik.

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