High-concept, high-risk names
The bedtime story in the Wattenberg family this week is Ellen Raskin's 1975 puzzle-mystery The Tattooed Potato and other clues. (More about the book below.) Much as I love the story, I'm having trouble focusing on reading it aloud. It keeps distracting me -- in a good way -- with names.
Some of the character names are jokey, like Mrs. Panzpresser and the corpulent, white-suited Mr. Mallomar. Others are enigmatic, like the artist known only as Garson. But what sets The Tattooed Potato apart to a name enthusiast is the way it engages with the idea of names and their relationship to our places in the world.
In the book, art students experiment with twists on their names to make their signatures seem artist-worthy. A man named George Washington III, descendent of an immigrant who changed his name to sound as American as possible, feels a special link to Washington Square Park. And most of all, the central character grapples with a name that has always felt like a burden to her: Dickory. Ms. Dickory Dock.
Dickory dreads telling anyone her full name, bracing for the nursery rhyme that inevitably follows. One character tries to get her to see the blessing in this, noting, "Not everyone can make people happy just by telling them their name." Indeed, for some real-world people a name like Dickory Dock would be a powerful asset, an instant conversation starter. A Ms. Toker I once knew, who officially changed her name to her longtime nickname of Midnight, comes to mind. The Dickory of the story, though, isn't the jovial, laugh-along sort. She's quiet and serious, and resents being pulled again and again into a joke that was never funny to her to begin with.
This is the dilemma of what I'll call "high-concept names." Like high-concept movies (Snakes on a Plane) or books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), high-concept names have a hook. They build off of established conventions to make an unmistakable impact, sometimes at the expense of subtely. In the world of entertainment, where public attention means everything, a high concept is a great way to get yourself noticed. In the world of names, though, a high concept carries as much risk as opportunity.
An ordinary name is defined by the person behind it. It may conjure up images or color your impressions, but it doesn't really exist until it's embodied. A high-concept name, in contrast, scarcely needs the person. Dickory Dock and Midnight Toker are self-contained messages, pithy and complete. That's not to say that an individual Midnight or Dickory can't make the name her own. (As The Tattooed Potato puts it, "a name is just a label; it can stand for whatever a person makes of it.") It just takes a certain kind of person to embrace the challenge of a high-concept name and take advantage of the social opportunities that it brings.
If you're considering such a conspicuous name, be sure to leave room for the possibility of a child with a more private personality. One option is to bestow the "hook" as a middle name. That gives you the option to call your daughter by that name in the short term, while in the long term she'll have more control over the kind of attention her name attracts.
And finally, as promised, a few words about The Tattooed Potato and other clues. First, I must apologize for recommending a book which is so hard to get hold of. (Puffin Books, are you listening? Reissue time!) If you recognized the name of author Ellen Raskin, I'm betting you share my love of her 1979 Newbery winner The Westing Game. The golden Newbery seal has kept that book selling briskly, while most of Raskin's other books have fallen out of print. Right now her only other title available new is The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Also worth seeking out is Figgs & Phantoms, a one-of-a-kind comic fantasy that's incredibly moving and life-affirming, but appreciated best by adolescents and adults despite its reading level.