A Story About Names Never Fails to Get Our Attention

Our recent podcast “How Much Does Your Name Really Matter?” generated a lot of response. Here are a few interesting ones. First, from F.D. Stein of Tennessee:

Loved this podcast; sorry you guys did not find the developer my company worked with in the 1980’s. He was from Oklahoma; his name was Never Fail. His brother was named Will Fail. Never (and his son Never Fail Jr.) were quite successful, and dashing examples of real estate developers at the time. 

I feared this one was too good to be true, but Mr. Google backs up Mr. Stein here, here, and here. Stein later wrote in with a further bit of comment:

They were the developer of Waterford Place Apartments in Chattanooga. Bill Severins was their project manager, former Kansas City Royals baseball player. Never Fail looked like Peter Grant of Mission Impossible; striking, tall, white hair perfectly groomed. The 1986 tax law killed them as real estate developers.

We also heard from Tim Harling, who shared his parental naming criteria:

When I was discussing baby names with my wife it seemed to me that the first priority was to throw out any suggestions that had no chance of making it to the “final list,” as it were.  The first immediate thought for me was if the name triggered an immediate emotional response to a real person in my life, past or present, and if it was negative that name obviously thrown out (almost as if I was making sure they stayed out of my present life? Retribution?).  The second instinctive thought was to think how another child might use the name to ridicule my child. Only after passing those two criteria would a name, no matter what it was (think historical family names) get any serious consideration. If names play no destiny maybe how others treat you because of your name does? 

Agatha Torku sent an interesting note about the distinctively black names we discussed in the podcast, some of them old and some recent:

I would like to point out that … AmbroseMoses and Percy were common in the U.K. and that three of the four “black” names mentioned in the podcast have European origins (according to the word of Wikipedia): Tyrone, Marquis, and Demetrius.

So I would argue that maybe the revolution was not about being different, but about trying to be better than ordinary, much like the English obsession with ancient Greece and ancient Rome.  I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to point this out to you, but just in case, I’d thought I’d drop a line.  Full-disclosure: my name is Agatha (feminine form of Agathe, which is Greek for “Good.” I blame British colonial neoclassicism, for my parents grew up in Ghana).  I may be a bit biased.

And then there was this roundabout tale from a reader named William:

I enjoyed today’s podcast on names, as I have more particular reason to imagine what life would have been like with a different name. When I was born (July 1986), I was named Colmán. I was baptised Thomas (Dec. 1986), and by the time of my first birthday, I had become William. I am still Colmán on my PPS record (social security), but for all other official purposes I’m William, as my parents got me a new birth cert after they married in 1989. I’m now a firm atheist, so my name according the Roman Catholic Church is just a curiosity, rather than something that I’ll need to bring up when I marry. I have very faint memories of friends of my parents calling me Thomas and telling them I was now William.

Then it all happened again. My brother (b. Sept. 1997) was named Rowan on his birth. Then he was baptised Oisín (Dec. 1997). By the time of his birthday, he became Thomas, so they’d started recycling names.

So they moved between traditional Irish names of Colmán and Oisín, before settling on conventional English names of William and Thomas.

My sister (b. 1990) was always Ursula though.

Please feel free to share further naming tales in the contents below.


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  1. Shane L says:

    I worked briefly in market research when I lived in Australia years ago. Sometimes this involved phoning named customers of a company to ask them their thoughts on the company’s service, and I used to dread seeing very long names from, I think, Indian customers pop up on my computer screen. How awkward: I had no idea how to pronounce such names and felt a fool stumbling over them, worried that I would anger or offend the respondent.

    It later occurred to me that some perceived racism might be caused by things like this. An employer choosing between two applicants where one has a difficult-to-pronounce name might choose the other, just to avoid the awkward moment on the phone.

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  2. Amanda says:

    From Australia…my son (stillborn) was already named Thomas Ambrose…Thomas because I liked the name and it went against the grain of fancy names that are a trend here (eg, inappropriate apostrophes, Jasper, Storm, and overly popular names like Jake, Liam etc) and Ambrose because my husband’s father’s (dec’d) middle name was Ambrose (of Welsh/English descent). Love the work you do, cheers.

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  3. Charles Barbour says:

    I’m curious about name recycling by families. Jr, III, etc.

    Charlie was my grandpa.
    Chuck was my dad.
    Charles or Chaz is what people call me.
    Chase is my son.

    I’m actually Charles Starr Barbour V.

    My son is obviously Charles Starr Barbour VI.

    I’ve never seen or met another V and only a couple IV’s. It caused me some troubles a few times. Once at the DMV when their computers didn’t quite know what to do since they only went up to III. Another when my father who had a less than stellar financial history caused some debt collection confusion.

    Thanks God it’s tied to SSN rather than name.

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    • Brittany says:

      My husband is George Ovander Herbert IV and my son will be the V. My husband is the first to go by “George”, his father is “Bubba” Jr is “Van” and Sr was “Buck”. Our son (V) will be “Vander”.
      Buck got divorced and remarried after having Van and a few other children. He began a line if George Washington Herberts that go by “Wash”, “Tub” and “Washtub”.

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    • Divad says:

      I went to high school with a IV, and knew a IV and V in college. The two from college (which was in New Mexico) had both grown up in New Mexico, were Anglo, had typical Anglo names, but came into college going by “Quatro” and “Cinco” respectively.

      I quickly eliminated my name as an option for my son, as I have a “D” name, and my wife and her two sisters all have “D” names. I did not want to get him stuck in that. My mother-in-law’s sister was annoyed that she was too slow to get the “D” names she wanted, and settled for giving her 3 daughters “J” names. Then another cousin of my wife married into a family with 6 children, male and female, who all have “G” names.

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  4. RGJ says:

    A bit off topic as it was a nickname based on a real name. When I was in high school there was a teacher named Courter who was cursed with a slight simian cast to his feature…..lot of body hair, ears stuck out, bit of a snout, Moe Howard haircut,. ….hard to describe but definitely looked simian.

    His nickname became “Courter Monkey”….

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  5. Robert says:

    A Medical Dr. has his office near where I live. The office is on Queens Blvd. in Queens, NY.The Doctors name is Dr. Dillip Doctor- Dr. Doctor

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  6. AGW says:

    My neighbor, who is in the construction business, told me of an old time Vermont construction worker named Lester Valyou. He went by the name Les, and the pronunciation of his entire name is “less value.” I believe he had a small construction company that went by his nickname, hence Les Valyou. This is for real. Here’s his obituary.

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  7. Cyril Morong says:

    “Peter Grant of Mission Impossible;”

    Did you mean Peter Graves?

    A college I used to teach at had a religion & philosophy professor named Holyer

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  8. James says:

    No article on odd names should be considered complete without mention of the prominent New York financier, Preserved Fish: http://politicalstrangenames.blogspot.com/2011/07/preserved-fish-1766-1846.html

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    • nobody.really says:

      Or the famous jurist, Learned Hand!

      Kinda hard to imagine his parents holding their new-born son the maternity ward and saying, “He’s so cute. I know — let’s call him ‘Learned!'” (Ok, the truth is that Learned was actually his middle name, but he used it as his first name.)

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