What's in a name?
23 December 2002
Actually, Juliet was way off the mark with that one. Without wishing to get into the whole chicken versus egg debate, would she really be so turned on by a fourteen-year-old called Gareth as she was by her co-titular lover? It's pretty bloody unlikely, especially with exotic punters like Mercutio and Paris around to compete for her affections. Without a good handle, you don't stand a chance.
I've given a lot of thought to the importance of good names for animals, but I'm starting to see how much of a difference your own label can make. Considering I managed to get through the first eighteen years of my life with one of the perennial common-name list-toppers and didn't even notice its effect on me, the last six or so have been quite an eye-opener. I'll let you in on a little back-story.
Picture the (not unusual) scene. First term of new university, making new friends, two of you have the same first name. As I just said, pretty common occurrence - in fact, it's happened at pretty much every new institution I've joined. The normal way round is the creation of an identifying tag, normally by a pertinent epithet or nickname - hence I would become Fat James, or Green James, or Elf. But these are already focused on your extant features; they don't give you the chance to change anything. But what a transformation becomes possible with the approach we used! Simply change one of the offender's names to Jamie and voilą! a new identity! Suddenly, I was transformed; all the connotations of fun, trendy Jamie (how many footballers keep their first name as James?) were thrust upon me, and I embraced them gladly. Instant success with the ladies, not to mention general popularity from my outgoing yet sincere nature; I reached a new summit. Then I joined an office where I was the only James and went back to the old me.
The point is, names mean everything. They're not just a means of identifying people - they identify a type. Why else would you label someone a Tracy, or a Norman? You are what it says on the tin. Would John Wayne have got anywhere at all as Marion Morrison? Can't see it happening, really.
Speaking of the film world, that's where the evidence is strongest. Coming up with a name for your leading role can't be easy; that's why every second action hero is called Jack. Just enough of an everyman name for the audience to relate to, with the added advantage that it does sound like it belongs to a red-blooded male who can handle himself in a fight (not an aspirant middle-class flop like James). But it's so bloody unimaginative. I wouldn't dream of stooping so low myself; that's why I've got some possibilities lined up for when it's my turn. Step forward Sirocco Strang, private investigator, and his nightclub-owning brother, Memphis. You wouldn't want to mess with those boys - and you haven't even seen them yet. That's what I'm talking about...
Take Fight Club. Think Tyler Durden. No half-hearted cliché names here - and doesn't it show in the character. Let's face it, if you were going to have an imaginary friend, you'd want someone like Tyler whose achievements and looks you could be proud and envious of (and not only because of his resemblance to a certain stuffed tiger). But for me, this raises a question: was Tyler conceived as this cool yet unhinged character and then named Tyler Durden, or did his essential characteristics - his contempt for society, his destructive temperament, his unique vision - develop inevitably to fit the moniker he was given? Or put another way, if I create an alter-ego named Fat Reggie, will it be allowed to take shape independently, or does the name itself have too many connotations and implications to take its own course? Compare this with Ed Norton's character, who goes unnamed through a variety of guises before settling on his own role as the anti-Tyler; as Rupert, Cornelius, or whatever you want to call him, he's the vaguest of individuals. Note that in the script to the film he's referred to as 'Jack'...
So I go through the same thing. Jamie is my Tyler Durden, the vehicle for my release from the suited straitjacket of the responsibilities of daily life, the antithesis of my own character, whom I admire and envy above all others. I still see him, fleetingly, from time to time, like a subliminal flash by the photocopier, biding his time before he comes back into my life long-term.
And don't forget about that book/film/TV show about Memphis and Sirocco Strang. You heard it here first...