©Michelle Quraishi, 2012

You can’t get away with a silly name for a character in fiction unless you’re Dickens, who was of course The Master of Character Names, and who gave us one of my favorites, the teacher Mr. M’Choakumchild in Hard Times.

Naming characters is an art, although if you browse the web, you’ll see that it has become commodified: lots of websites dedicated to telling you how to get just the right name for your characters, missing the point that the best names of course cannot be separated from the characters: Madame Bovary, Hamlet, Anna Karenina, Pip, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch. I tried the fictional character generator on one site and got one good hit: “Goddfried Rodriguez.” He will have a complicated past, I suspect, but wouldn’t it have been better to write the past before the name?

While most fictional characters have ordinary names, I always relish those names that stand in bold relief: Holly Golightly, Yossarian, Humbert Humbert, Eustacia Vye, Queeqeg. To me these names sound wonderful, quite apart from the characters. And they are so clearly the names of characters, not people. On the other hand, I’ve noticed a trend in the naming of children: more and more of them are named as if they are fictional characters.

I do like names that are different. I’ve always liked the Bruce Willis-Demi Moore girls, you know, Scout, Rumar, and the other one.  I like “Dweezel,” well enough. (“Moon Unit,” not so much.) But I can’t remain silent when I know that Bob Geldof has a daughter who I believe should have been a character in a comedy about prostitutes with hearts of gold: Fifi Trixibelle. Of course, I’m avoiding discussion of the very great names for various James Bond female characters.

At the risk of offending large numbers of people, I must admit I’ve never cared for “Tiffany” or any of its variants because I’m old fashioned. I was brought up to believe that children should not be named for commercial establishments. I’m also not fond of “Brittany” as a name for anything but the lovely area of France or the breed of dog (Brittany Spaniels). And I’m particularly un-fond of variants that seem more like parental misspellings: “Britney,” “Tifini.”  Will there ever be a serious, literary novel with one of those names for the main character?  Not in my lifetime, I hope. (By the way, one of Sylverster Stallone’s sons has a phonetic name, perhaps the first I’ve ever seen: Seargeoh.)

I heap equal scorn on “Dakota,” “Austin,” and “Shane.” Shane is one of my all time favorite western novels, which is probably why I dislike hearing kids named that.  They’ve probably never heard of the book or the movie. And as for “Dakota,” of course, I always want to ask, “North or South, capital Pierre or Bismarck?”  But I don’t. They probably don’t even know it’s a state, just a cute name. But “Pierre” or “Bismarck.” Now there are a couple of good names.

A baby-name website I found has a section on Shakespeare names, if you are so inclined.  I can just see someone happening on “Iago” and thinking “what a great name.”  I tell ya, don’t name the kids after characters or places unless you’ve read Othello, or grew up in Austin, or own land around Fargo.  On the other hand, some of the Shakespeare names did appeal: “Dogberry” (Much Ado About Nothing) has a certain insouciance and seems appropriate for a little boy.  And I’m rather fond of “Dull” (Love’s Labor’s Lost).  Gee, I don’t know why.

I do have a modest proposal to stave off the darkness: we need to return to the greatest name ever, a name of dazzling character and substance, a name from the time when a name meant something.  And it’s the name of a fictional character.

There has never been a name more redolent of substance and meaning to me than “Stupefyin’ Jones,” of Li’l Abner comic-strip fame, or more particularly, Stupefyin’ Jones as she was represented by Julie Newmar in the 1959 movie version of Li’l Abner.  We have Julie Newmar to thank for the embodiment, but Al Capp to thank for the name. He can rest easy in his grave, just knowing that, if nothing else, he gave the world that name. Al Capp was a master: Moonbeam McSwine, Senator Phogbound, Marryin’ Sam, and Appassionata Von Climax.  Why a drag queen or a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco hasn’t appropriated the last one is beyond me.

But my heart belongs to Stupefyin’ Jones. She was—how shall I put it delicately?—a bombshell, or more accurately, a secret weapon. All she had to do was show up, give her hips one good swivel, and men were frozen in place.  She was, after all, Stupefyin’ Jones.  She stupefied. (I’m sure that some women would argue that she didn’t really have to go to all that trouble, that we men are innately stupified, anyway.) Please note that it is very important that you not pronounce the first part with a “g,” as in “Stupefying.”  That’s just wrong. And remember it’s a two-part name: not “Stupefyin’,” or “Ms. Jones,” but “Stupefyin’ Jones.”

So, instead of going the Dakota–Britney route (or as I like to call it, “Da-Britney Route”), let’s return to names of significance: Gargling Stewart (Rod), Glacial Stewart (Martha), Gimlet-Eyed Stewart (Jon). This is sort of like a return to names like “Jack the Tailor”—or “Baby Face Nelson” only more fun and without submachine guns. I would be enjoying the Republicans debates much more right now if I were watching Wild ‘n Crazy Perry, Party-poopin’ Paul, or Vascillatin’ Romney.  My only consolation is that we’re not watching Brittany Bachman, Dallas Perry, Austin Paul, Dakota Cain, and Shane Romney. That would be the end of civilization.

We really don’t have much time.  The darkness is gathering. Nicholas Cage named his son “Kal-el Coppola Cage,” which does raise the very serious question, “What planet are you from?”  Unfortunately, the answer is “Krypton.”

©Steve Tollefson, 2012

Steve Tollefson, BAWP 1978, has been teaching writing at UC Berkeley since 1973. He recently retired as Director of the UC Berkeley Office of Educational Development, but continues as a lecturer in the College Writing Programs. As the son of a Lutheran minister, he tries to practice what he preaches to his students.

4 Responses to “The Greatest Name Ever by Steve Tollefson”

  1. jane juska Says:

    I am with you all the way and would follow you even into your Olli classroom were it not sold out and I on the waiting list.

  2. John Levine Says:

    Funny! (So this is what your research was for…)

    My favorite line: “I’ve always liked the Bruce Willis-Demi Moore girls, you know, Scout, Rumar, and the other one.”

    You remember Julie Newmar, but I’ll always think of Ruthie DeMatteo, who played Stupefyin’ Jones in my high school’s production of “Li’l Abner.”

  3. andrew Says:

    How do you do this

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