Recently in the Names Category

Back in December, linguistics grad student Gretchen McCulloch analyzed joke variants on Benedict Cumberbatch's name to see what the underlying patterns are. She gave more statistical detail in a post on her blog.

Interesting and fun discussion, but I found it odd (in the Toast article) that it took her a couple of iterations to come up with initial-syllable stress as a factor; that part seemed obvious to me. But maybe she was guiding readers through a process of figuring it out, rather than describing the actual process she went through.

I also would've liked to've seen some further discussion about whether secondary stress on the final syllable of each word is relevant, but secondary stress is tricky and might've been too much of a digression.

...I also found it interesting that some of the specific examples don't work for me; in particular, I would never have guessed that “Bombadil Rivendell” was a Cumberbatch variation. (At first I thought she was saying it was a non-valid example, but then she says it came from the generator.) I think my own personal rules for what sounds like a variant of his name are stricter than the ones implied by the name generator. Another example: “Beetlejuice Animorph” doesn't sound to me like a joke on “Benedict Cumberbatch” except in the context of discussing Cumberbatchian names.

And I think she may not go far enough in some directions. The PronunciationManual joke pronunciation video for Benedict Cumberbatch opts for “Bucket Crunderdunder,” which isn't a perfect variation but is a funny one. And I think if someone said “I'm a big fan of that actor Bucket Crunderdunder,” I would know who they were talking about. Though in large part that's because (as McCulloch mentions) if one of the names is really obvious, the other one doesn't have to be. In other words, the “Bucket” part is almost useless, but “Crunderdunder” carries the variation almost on its own.

(I think The Cumberbatch Variations would be a good Fake Ludlum Title.)

I'd also have liked to see her try to construct new variations to test her hypotheses. For example, we could start with a pair of three-syllable words with initial stress, like “Higgledy Piggledy,” and see whether transforming them in accordance with her rules produces a valid variation:

Ends in consonant: Higgledip Piggledip.

Begins with B and/or hard C sounds: Biggledip Kiggledip.

Second word ends in preferred consonant: Biggledip Kiggledish.

She said that a good variant should have at least three of the listed factors. I think this one probably works: “I'm a big fan of that actor Biggledip Kiggledish.” Probably close enough. I'll go on to add her other rules:

N or M between first two syllables: Bimmeldip Kinneldish.

Has æ in final syllable: Bimmeldip Kinneldash.

Yep, Bimmeldip Kinneldash is definitely a valid variation. (For best results, I would tweak it a bit to Bunnydip Kenneldash.) But that's also because using all five of her rules transforms any pair of dactylic words into being awfully close to the original name. So I think that part of what's going on with those rules is that they demonstrate the allowable variations for certain phonemes to “sound like” certain other phonemes to English speakers. Nasals sound similar, sibilants sound similar, etc. So if you take a word and replace the sounds in it with other ones that sound similar, then you'll get a word that sounds similar to the original.

To be clear: I'm not trying to disparage her rules! I think they're neat, and it's a good analysis, and the at-least-three part is especially interesting to me. I certainly would never have figured out most of this. So I don't intend this post as criticism; just exploring the ideas.

Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony

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Someone mentioned the Emmy Awards the other day, and I realized I wasn't sure why they were called that. I figured they must have been named after some famous person named Emmy.

Turns out not:

[Television Academy] founder Syd Cassyd suggested “Ike,” the nickname for the television iconoscope tube. But with a national war hero named Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, Academy members thought they needed a less well-known name. Harry Lubcke, a pioneer television engineer and the third Academy president, suggested “Immy,” a term commonly used for the early image orthicon camera. The name stuck and was later modified to Emmy, which members thought was more appropriate for a female symbol.

So the Emmy awards are named after the image orthicon camera. I'm tickled by that—to me, that sounds like a newspaper award being called the Linies, for a linotype machine (or possible the Typos?), or a book award being named the Offies, for offset printing. Or even the Movies, for movable type. I wonder if there was ever a fanzine award called the Mimmies. Or Mimsies. Or Mimis.

Anyway, so it seemed amusing and unlikely to me that a major American entertainment award would be named after a piece of technology that was once used in its production or consumption. Until I remembered that the Grammy Award is named after the gramophone.

One might think, given this trend, that the Tony awards were maybe named after the Microtone, a clip-on microphone (that I just made up) first used on Broadway in 1932 (in my imagination), or the ToneTest, a clever little device for doing sound checks (that I also just made up). But no; the Tonys are named after Antoinette Perry, co-founder of the American Theatre Wing, the organization that gives the award. So much for the named-after-technology trend.

The other major award in this category, of course, is the Oscar. I figured that would be straightforward too, named after some then-famous film guy named Oscar, but it turns out the name's origins are mired in obscurity. Some of the claims:

  • Bette Davis named it after Harmon Oscar Nelson, her first husband.
  • Margaret Herrick (librarian for, and later executive director of, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) named it after her cousin Oscar Pierce.
  • Columnist Sidney Skolsky named it after a vaudeville joke.

Wikipedia also currently says it might've been named after Oscar Wilde, but the link to the alleged source for that claim is broken, and I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else. I was going to add “and it seems unlikely to me anyway,” but then it occurred to me that all of the other award-name origins listed in this entry also seemed unlikely to me, so apparently I'm not a good judge of these things.

Secret Service code names

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TIME magazine provides a list of 11 Great Secret Service Code Names. I don't love their discussions and presentation of the names, but I like the names themselves, from Paul Ryan's “Bowhunter” to Barack Obama's “Renegade” to Cindy McCain's “Parasol.” And yes, the gender differences are especially interesting. has a better and longer list without the annoying annotations, though also presumably without the fact-checking. That list has a fair bit of overlap with a list from the NNDB, though I don't know whether either of those two lists used the other as a source. Some of the ones I like from those lists:

Todd Palin
Amy Carter
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Queen Elizabeth II
Frank Sinatra
Maureen Reagan
Dan Quayle
George H. W. Bush
John Anderson
Laura Bush
Prince Charles

For more code names, and more info, see Wikipedia.

Spammer names

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Still clearing out old comment spam, but close to done.

Most of the time, spambots either enter non-name phrases into the Name box or use pretty ordinary names. But I just noticed a cluster of intriguing ones:

  • Conway Hound in the Plain
  • Chalmers House of Lords
  • Culbert Cool and Brilliant
  • Bartholomew Warlike

I Googled a couple of the phrases, and found that they're the meanings of the names, from baby-name kinds of sites.

Which is pretty prosaic after all; the spambots are just taking a first name and tacking on the name's meaning. But I do like the phrase “Culbert Cool and Brilliant”; maybe it's part of the same series as Sarah, Plain and Tall.

(Okay, it turns out that there really is a series, and the other books don't have titles like that. But it's still a good joke, so I'll leave it.)


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Sometime around the beginning of March, I came across the word theophory, which Wikipedia says is "the practice of embedding the name of a god or a deity in, usually, a proper name."

For example, Wikipedia says that the name "Elijah" incorporates both "El" and "Jah," both of which refer to God; it says the name translates to (among other things) "My God is Jah."

All of which is interesting enough to me on its own—I had known that "El" in names sometimes referred to God, but had no idea there was a word for that—but is even more interesting to me because my very own name is an example of theophory.

My parents had various reasons for naming me "Jedediah": partly after Jedediah Smith, for example, and partly because it was, they always said, King Solomon's name before he changed it to Solomon.

Turns out in that context it's usually spelled "Jedidiah," with an i in place of the second e. But regardless, it was in fact a name given to Solomon when he was a baby, and it means "beloved of God"; I never thought of this before, but I now assume the "iah" part at the end refers to Yahweh.

Punny names

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An assortment of real-life British punny names, with more in the comments following the article. Including a couple that are so British I didn't get them. It took me a while to figure out that Dawn Hobbs probably sounds like "doorknobs" in some British accents, for example.

Utah baby namer

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Apparently, Utah Mormon names are often pretty unusual. A couple who used to live in Utah have been collecting such names for the past ten years or so; the result is a fascinating name collection, the Utah Baby Namer.

Names for the (Biblical) nameless


Recently came across an interesting item in Wikipedia: List of names for the Biblical nameless, which "compiles names given in Jewish or Christian mythology for characters who are unnamed in the Bible itself."

For example, the apocryphal book of Jubilees gives Noah's wife's name as Emzara.

Gorilla gorilla


I'm pretty sure that I already knew that the Western Gorilla has the taxonomic name Gorilla gorilla (genus + species).

But I don't think I knew until now that the Western Lowland Gorilla has the taxonomic name Gorilla gorilla gorilla (genus + species + subspecies). (Also known as G. g. gorilla.)

I'm sure that to scientists, this is a perfectly ordinary name. But I'm tickled by it.

And it makes me think that Buffalo buffalo buffalo ought to be the taxonomic name for the Midwestern Lowland Buffalo.

(See also Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo in Wikipedia.)

And perhaps Badger badger badger ought to be some kind of taxonomic name as well.

Note that in Badger, MN, they allow badgers to create and provide badges, so those are Badger badger badgers; I hear that Badger badger badgers Badger badger badgers badger badger Badger badger badgers.

Now I want to start putting together sentences like "Buffalo buffalo Gorilla gorilla gorilla buffalo buffalo Gorilla gorilla gorilla."

Or maybe "Gorilla gorilla gorilla Buffalo buffalo buffalo badger Badger badger badgers."

(I'm assuming that Gorilla gorilla gorilla can be used as a plural, which may be grammatically dubious but makes for funnier sentences.)

protein name

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There's a drug called rapamycin, which is showing promising results in anti-aging studies.

But that's not why I'm mentioning it here. I'm mentioning it because of this sentence from the abovelinked article:

A review committee decided to test this agent because rapamycin blocks a protein called "target of rapamycin," or TOR.

For all I know, that's a completely standard way to name proteins, but I'm nonetheless tickled. It's like naming a plant "FOD," for "food of deer." Or changing the term "President" to "GOP," for "goal of politicians."

Makers of computer software and hardware have to give each new version of a given product a new label or name, to distinguish it from other versions.

There are a variety of different approaches to version naming; a given company rarely continues a given naming scheme for more than about three or four versions. I think marketing people get antsy if you don't change the naming scheme every few years to make the product seem even newer and fancier than before.

For example, just look at Windows version numbers. A very rough outline: 1, 2, 3, NT, 95, 98, 2000, Me, XP, Vista, 7.

Or, less extreme, Dreamweaver version numbers: (roughly) 1, 2, 3, 4, MX, MX 2004, 8, CS3, CS4.

Mac OS stuck with consecutively numbered versions for a long time, but then came "System 7" (still numbered, but not quite as simple), and then Mac OS 8, 9, and "X." (The official pronunciation is "Mac Oh Ess Ten.") That OS hasn't yet gone through a period of being named by year.

After the named-by-year period there's generally a period of names that have nothing to do with version numbers--which is arguably what Apple's already done with the big-cats theme, but they still use version numbers as part of the name. And they've also missed the usual period of being named by a cryptic but cool-sounding two letters that suggest something but don't technically stand for anything (NT, XP, MX, SE, LC, cx, ci, etc), though the "X" in "Mac OS X" serves somewhat the same purpose.

Interestingly, Apple's gone through almost all those phases with hardware names; I wonder if that's part of why they've mostly avoided those phases with OS names.

I wrote most of the above on a mailing list about a year ago, during a discussion of future code names for OS X, before the name "Snow Leopard" had been revealed. Various suggestions from various sources included Cougar, Ocelot, Lynx, Bobcat, Lion, Mountain Lion, and Liger. (Also Cheetah and Puma, but those were internal code names for versions 10.0 and 10.1.)

I jokingly suggested Serval because they're super-cute, but that and Ocelot and Liger seemed to me too obscure.

And Cougar, Bobcat, and Mountain Lion all seem like a step down from big fancy cats like Leopard.

I can't resist noting one more suggestion: someone in the Unofficial Apple Weblog poll suggested Lolcat as the next OS X version name.

Anyway, speaking of animals and version names, none of that is what I meant to write today. The main point of this entry was meant to be this item from today's swine flu news update:

The World Health Organization says it will stop using the term "swine flu" to avoid confusion over the danger posed by pigs. It will instead refer to the virus by its scientific name, "H1N1 influenza A."

I understand the goal here--apparently lots of people are avoiding eating pork to avoid getting swine flu, and I'm sure the world's pork producers are unhappy about it. But I don't think the WHO is thinking clearly about that particular aspect of the problem. I'm pretty sure that few news organizations or people on the street will refer to this as "H1N1 influenza A," not when they've got a perfectly good, catchy, short, and seemingly easily understandable alternative in "swine flu."

So I propose that the WHO take a page from the computer industry or the hurricane namers, and start giving version numbers/names to major disease outbreaks.

For example, the current flu could be designated "Influenza 2009 A." Or "Flu Pandemic 2.0" (1.0, of course, having been the Spanish flu, a.k.a. "Influenza 1918 A.") Or "WorldFlu XS." Or it could have a catchy code name, like "Flu Wildfire"--part of a natural disasters theme (so the next one might be "Flu Hurricane" or "Flu Earthquake").

Band name

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Just saw this headine:

Supreme Court Rules that Government Can Fine for 'Fleeting Expletives'

--Washington Post, April 28, 2009

Wouldn't "The Fleeting Expletives" be a good band name?

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