No doubt you’ve heard of the usher who said, “May I sew you to your sheets?” And you probably know that such slips of the tongue are called Spoonerisms. William Archibald Spooner, the honoree of this eponym, lived much of his long life (1844-1930) at Oxford University, where he was for many years a loved and respected figure of New College. But today he is remembered by the world only in connection with his supposed verbal ineptitude.
Even more sadly, few authentic “Spoonerisms” can be attributed to this worthy man. Nearly all the ones you hear, such as the gem with which I began this piece, are apocryphal – many perhaps made up by his own students.
But Dr. Spooner’s is only one instance of names which have lived on in ways their owners would never have desired. For example, back in 280 B.C., a king named Pyrrhus won a battle, but lost so many men in the process that it was tantamount to a defeat. Since then, any such questionable triumph has come to be known as a “Pyrrhic Victory.”
Then there was the much more recent case of an unfortunate woman who was the first known carrier of a deadly contagious disease that she herself didn’t suffer from. The disease was Typhoid. The lady’s name was Mary Mallon. And – you guessed it – she was the original TYPHOID MARY. Regrettably, she refused to cooperate with the authorities in New York, where for years she had been working as a cook and spreading the disease – and in 1915 she had to be forcibly isolated. “Typhoid Mary” eventually became a byword for any carrier or transmitter of something undesirable or harmful.
For a slightly more palatable example of this phenomenon, consider the case of Henry Ford’s only son, who sadly died at the age of 50 in 1943. To honor his memory, his first name was given to a much-heralded new model Ford car that debuted in 1958. It was the EDSEL. (Earlier efforts to name this vehicle had included hiring the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore, who submitted a list of 43 suggestions, including “Utopian Turtletop.”) That car became such a notorious flop that I doubt if many couples – outside the Ford family – have, since then, ever thought of naming their baby Edsel.
Nor do I think LOU GEHRIG would be happy that future generations know him best not because of his outstanding baseball career, but because of the disease that killed him. (After all, it’s a little easier to say “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” than “Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.”)
But it’s to the Bible that we owe at least three examples of people whose names have become uncomplimentary labels. First, there was JONAH. Before being swallowed by what the Bible calls “a great fish,” Jonah was on a ship, whose crewmen blamed him for the storm that had suddenly arisen. And sure enough, once they threw him overboard, the sea calmed down. The name of Jonah has thus become equivalent to what we also call a “Jinx.” (Oddly, the successful actress and model Jinx Falkenburg is said to have been given that name by her mother, who somehow thought it would bring her good luck – perhaps in the same spirit as we wish an actor to “Break a leg!”)
In the first Book of Kings, we have the case of JEZEBEL, a queen whose original misbehavior involved encouraging false prophets, but whose name has somehow become eternally linked with “fallen” women and promiscuity.
Then, from the New Testament, comes JUDAS – a name that still reeks of betrayal. And that same characteristic has its more modern embodiment, in the figure of BENEDICT ARNOLD, once a military hero, who is reviled by Americans for having changed sides and gone over to the British during the Revolutionary War. In this case, you have to use his full name, because the name “Benedict” (meaning “blessed”) has, in itself, far happier connotations – e.g., having so far been the name of 16 Popes.
And last of this treasonous trio, we have Vidkun QUISLING, who betrayed his country (Norway) during its German occupation of World War II. To non-Scandinavian ears, QUISLING somehow sounds culpable in itself. The name has earned its place in our dictionaries with the definition: “a traitor.”
It’s been fun sharing with you this collection of dubiously distinguished names – but now, if you and Dr. Spooner will excuse me, I have to go out and boil my icicle.