The origin of names


As a child, I was fascinated by surnames. Was someone named King descended from royalty? How did Carl come to have so many sons? Then I moved to a small town, where the issue is not so theoretical.

Among my friends, for example, are Dave and Sue The Writers and Tom The Guy Who Does The Maps. There's Lee From The Movie Theater and Lee Who Does The Juniper Furniture. Curt, who tries to work as little as possible, is thus known not by occupation but as Curt Of Curt And Carol.

Scott and Elizabeth seem such a perfect match that each has gained the last name, Of Scott And Elizabeth. There's Glen, Who's Married To Heather the Realtor, and Tim, Katie's Brother, Who Goes With Joy From The Bank.

The girlfriend of Andy From Outward Bound is Amy, Emily's Sister. Emily, of course, is known as Emily, Amy's Sister. It helps that both sisters are rabid Utah Jazz fans with bright red hair. If somebody didn't know Emily's husband, Jim The Baker, one might give Jim this alternative last name: "You know, Emily and Amy, with the red hair. Emily's husband. There's Amy and Andy From Outward Bound. And there's Emily and Jim." Sure, it's a mouthful, but it's a lot more meaningful than some surname passed down from somebody's father, who almost nobody here has met.

Some are known by physical characteristics. Little Robbie is well, small. Big Dave is a giant. One day Big Dave's bride met some of his basketball buddies in a non-basketball setting. She tried to explain who she was, using Dave's last name. Nobody knew it. "You know, Dave, from basketball," she kept saying. She kept getting blank looks until finally someone said, "Oh! Big Dave!" Everyone laughed and understood. "Now," she says, "I've realized my name is Mrs. Big Dave."

Occasionally someone's first name is enough, and we get small town versions of Madonna or Twiggy. The combination of a unique first name and unique personality means that when it comes to people like Anner or Verlynn, either you know them or you don't. Any surname would be extraneous. I think my friend Lexy is headed for this status: You Know Lexy -- Everybody Knows Lexy.

The new last names can make for interesting "families." Daryl The Pepsi Guy and Dean The Pepsi Guy are related only through occupation. Jim Who Has The Little Paper and Lou Who Has The Little Paper not only weren't related but ran competing publications. Meanwhile, who could figure out that Rigger The Chocolate Sauce Guy and John Who Runs The Boys And Girls Club are (biologically) brothers? When small-town surnames collide with "real" surnames, complications ensue. For example, after a Boys and Girls Club meeting, John Who Runs The Boys And Girls Club said to me, "The kids want to get somebody named Rebecca Nesbitt (as a mentor). You have any idea who that is?"

"Sure," I said. "That's Rebecca From The Brewery." His face fell. "She'd be perfect," he said. "But I didn't approve it during the meeting because I'd never heard of this Nesbitt character."

Circumstances were reversed recently when I had to get my house painted. I decided to use Tracey the Painter, whom I've seen around town for years, though I've never known him well. I happen to know his "real" last name because his sister works at the newspaper. Of course, she's known as Shelley From The News (indeed, if she calls me on the phone, she says "Hi, John, this is Shelley From The News"). But her byline, for some reason, features her "real" last name. So I looked it up in the phone book, where I found her brother listed as well.

Tracey and I traded messages, then finally spoke directly. "John Clayton..." he mused at one point. "I could tell from your message that you knew me, but I'm embarrassed to say I can't place who you are."

"Oh, you know me," I said, and tried to describe myself. "Tall, skinny, brown hair. I hang out at the coffeeshop a lot." There was a pause; I could picture him shaking his head on the other end of the line. Then, as if a lightbulb went off above his head, he said, "John The Writer?"

Subconsciously, I guess, I'd wished for something flashier, say, John the telemark skier, but you can't choose your last name in a small town, any more than you can choose your parents. "Yup," I told Tracy The Painter, who probably has similar unfulfilled identity fantasies. "That's me."

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range in Paonia, Colorado ( He lives and freelances in Red Lodge, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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