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To BeBe or not to BeBe

What, after all, is in a name?

July 1st, 2012

BY LANE BROWNING

My grandma Annie liked cocker spaniels. Specifically, blond cocker spaniels. The first one was a gift from her adoring husband after their two children moved out. She was used to dogs, because there were collie hybrids on the farm where she lived, and the cocker, being a spaniel, would be a good herding and chasing dog, too, but it was soon apparent this was a house pet and lap ornament, a companion, a surrogate child. Her name was BeBe. I don’t know why, and the reasons are lost now because my aunt, who surely would have known, died last year, at ninety-one.

cockerspanielBeBe herself died over and over and over again. That’s because each time one BeBe bought the farm (so to speak), a new puppy would arrive as if by magic. And the new puppy was always named… BeBe. There was no grieving; there was only substitution. Lickety-split: bury one Bebe, welcome the next. It was clean and unsuffixed: there was no “BeBe the Second” or “BeBe Redux” or “Yet Another BeBe” or “Still Yet Another Freakin’ BeBe.” No. It was just… BeBe.

Sort of like cloning, but without cells or science.

The first two BeBes were blond. The second one was killed by lightning. It happened when my grandma was away and her brother went out to do some fencing. BeBe trotted along and — zap! Cocker cinder. I think my grandmother never really forgave her brother (clearly he summoned the fatal bolt), but she regrouped quickly, and along came the next two-pound BeBe. One thing changed, though. This puppy was black, and from then on all the BeBes were black. She couldn’t bear to look at another golden one, that buttery coat an echo of skyborne death rays.

Anyway, we knew this, in my family, from the time I was a very small girl. Grandma always had a BeBe. She didn’t seem to care or even know which iteration it was, which number in the sequence. All of the BeBes were females, and all had those sad watery eyes and smooth droopy silken ears and short legs. Not a fan of the breed myself, I couldn’t really understand why she didn’t throw the occasional Schnauzer, Schipperke, Poodle, Pomeranian, or Cairn in there. She owned bulls until the day she died, but never a pit bull or bull terrier.

Grandma Annie was a very short woman, maybe 149 cm. tall. She didn’t stay in school past third grade, and my grandfather “rescued” her after her fiancé was killed in WWI. I guess he was a replacement, too, like all those BeBes. Annie grew up in a tiny Canadian town and almost never left Alberta. Her world was not much bigger than she was, but she did have those cows and bulls, and she had very smart children and an adoring, capable husband. She did not, however, have imagination when it came to naming her pets.

And did it matter what the dogs were called? Let’s explore the idea of names. Expectant parents generally put a lot of thought into what they will name their children, but their perspective isn’t about what the forty-year-old a daughter will eventually (probably) become, it’s about some connection they feel to a name: they name a child based on where she was conceived (Ron Howard did this) or what was happening when she was conceived (Margaux Hemingway’s parents did that) or based on a relative or friend who was important (Earl Woods did that with Tiger/Eldrick) or based on an admired film star (all those Katharines and Kates were in honor of Hepburn) or leader (more than one “Martin” was named for the Rev. King, who was himself a junior).

In the last five years, hordes of demented parents have felt the sickening “creative” impulse to name their daughters “Heaven spelled backwards.” I have met two of those Nevaehs, and I always think, “Isn’t heaven backwards hell? Having that name certainly would be.” The unfortunate handle has finished first on several “most hated names” lists. Not only is it Hades to spell, it is sometimes pronounced “Neh-VAY-uh” and sometimes “Neh-VEE-uh.” Often it is not pronounced at all, due to mispronunciphobia.

Why don’t people spell “Joy” and “Love” and “Ecstasy” and “Happiness” backwards? I know Bob is happy to spell his name either way, but the planet has long since succumbed to a surfeit of Bobs.

So into the world goes the baby/toddler/teenager, with the parents’ notion of fun. If she or he dislikes the name, or if it causes resentment or teasing or laughter or confusion, the burdened protagonist will usually say, “Well, it’s my name, people just have to deal with it.” So a Jenniphur or a La’Ta’sh’a or a Suzen or a Rileigh or a Dillen or Kassidee or Azhten simply lurches on, decade after difficult decade.
The notion that your name is “yours” is a little cockeyed, because in truth your name belongs to everyone else — they’re the ones who have to read it, spell it, pronounce it, and summon you (or excoriate you) with it. Other people (if you’re lucky) call it out during moments of passion or whisper it reverently against your ear or announce it at prize ceremonies.

My grandma Annie married a man named Gasser. That was his surname and the surname of his relatives in Wisconsin. It is not pronounced to rhyme with “Passer”; it’s a name rooted in the Alsace Lorraine (Elsass-Lothrigen) region in Europe, a sort of hybrid of German and French, and it comes from the German word for alley or small street (Gasse). The second syllable rhymes (more or less) with “fair.” The inflection is on that syllable, too, so the name is pronounced (again, more or less) “Guh-SAIR.” My dad used to say, “It’s like for your car, gas and air,” but that isn’t quite right. Some of his friends called him “Gus,” the first part of his last name.

Gasser was my father’s name, so it was on all the uniforms he wore in the Marine Corps, and on his published articles, and on his deployment papers and promotion papers. It’s on the Medal of Freedom he won and it’s on the headstone in Arlington National Cemetery (as well as, of course, on those headstones in Canada, and the ones in Wisconsin and Ohio and Switzerland and Germany, and so on).

Invariably people said the name as if it were Passer with a G, so hahaha, there were lots of flatulence jokes. For a time I tried using an accent over the e when I put the name in print, and people got sort of close to the right pronunciation, but my publishers and editors often omitted the accent (which was really an affectation anyway). Other spellings I tried: Gassaer, Gassair. The latter worked pretty well (I was frequently surprised by how creative people were in not saying something phonetically), but it wasn’t my name.

My sister escaped by getting married and adopting her husband’s name (a name she cursed post-divorce); my mother escaped by remarrying (though the surname she took wasn’t much better, being another joke-ripe clutch of syllables). My older brother the linguist, rather than change the spelling, threw up his hands and opted for “say it the way it looks, say it the way people want to say it,” so everyone who knows him knows him as Dr. Gasser-rhymes-with-Lasser. Language evolves by usage.

My other brother has stayed with the original spelling and pronunciation, and his children say the name that way, too, the way old Charlie Gasser said it back on the farm.

I, however, am a Browning. I didn’t marry anyone; I simply threw my dad’s/grandfather’s/great-great-great grandfather’s etc. name away (though I managed to retain the “small street” part with my first name). I had the most trouble with the surname, because I was the first one with a published “brand” and because my first name was so problematic. In tandem the two names created discomfort in speakers or readers. Heck, they created discomfort in my employers, my employees, my roommates, people at the DMV, people at doctors’ offices, people on the phone.
For a long time I was huffy — “Well, screw ’em, that’s their problem” — and I had my name on desk signs and campaign posters and newspaper stories and stationery. I blared it in their faces. “Yeah, you wanna make something of it?” I just accepted having to explain pronunciation and dodge inane jokes.

But I know a lot about names. I type other people’s all day, on their documents and in proposals and emails. I know the tremendous power of a label. I know a “wrong” name can shoot you down and the “right” name can launch you forward. I also know that when you put your name out in the world, whether by speaking it to someone at a dinner table, or uttering it as you shake hands with an interviewer or landlord, or affixing it to a piece of correspondence, you’re giving it away. You are putting it in the heads and ears of other people, and at that point, it isn’t yours, any more than all those BeBes owned their monikers. I’m sure those pooches wouldn’t have chosen such handles, decade after cold-Alberta-winters decade.

So I changed my names, both of ’em, and emerged mid-life a new person.
Yes, a new person. I was suddenly smarter, prettier, more talented, and waaaaaay more interesting. In some cases the reactions were downright amusing, if for me a bit sad. I could have sputtered, “But I’m still the same person,” but the truth is, I wasn’t the same person. I’m not the same person. New name begat fundamental shifts, all good.

There is a woman in Connecticut who has the first and last names with which I was born. She likes them. More power to her.

If you were plopped down on the planet, fully grown, but had no name, how would you choose one? Would you look through books and pick a name attached to someone you admire? Would you go online and look for names meaning “brave” or “smart” or “immortal” or “resilient”? Would you pick something exotic, something mundane, something easy to pronounce? Would you interview your friends (or strangers) and ask them what they thought you should be named? (“Do I strike you as a Doris? Or maybe something in the Lisa/Anissa segment? Am I more Sylvia than Sandra?”) You’d want a name that worked, not simply a name you liked. (If you were partial, for example, to “Hitler” or “Isotope” or “Carbuncle,” you might need to take a poll.)

I have on more than one occasion dated a man without telling him my name. My favorite was the guy who decided he would call me Stanley. “Oh cool,” I said, “then I’ll call you Ollie,” and off we went.

I always liked the tradition in which babies weren’t named until they’d been alive at least a year. By that time, it seems to me, you know way more about what that person’s name actually is.

The long line of BeBes ended when my grandma died. The final black cocker was in a playpen next to Annie’s body, which was found on the living room floor. The legacy did not endure; my aunt didn’t like dogs and no one in my immediate family would cotton to a cocker. So it was bye-bye to the Bebes.

Buh-bye.

Recent data I unearth from Canada tell me that the most popular female dog names are Sadie, Chloe, Bailey, Abbey, Daisy, Lucy, and Molly. So Grandma was in line with the masses in choosing a two-syllable name ending with the sound “-ee” (more like “eeeeeeek!”). Her husband’s name, Charlie, is on the top-ten list for male dogs. And she came very close to the second most popular name for any dog, which is Buddy.
Buddy, BeBe. Maybe that’s what she meant all along.

As I write this, the most popular dog names in the United States are Bella (Alleb backwards) and Max. And yes, Max is the top name for a dog in Canada, too, and an extremely popular name for human babies.
(I have one in my family; so do Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson and Charlie Sheen and others of bizarre celebrity prominence. So does the founder/editor of this paper.)

I uncovered some interesting quotations about names. A puzzling and bizarre quotation:

The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.
— Marshall McLuhan

A pretentious and preposterous quotation:

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.
— W.H. Auden

An insightful quotation:

Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth's marvels, beneath the dust of habit.
— Salman Rushdie

A beautifully visual (if curiously inaccurate) quotation:

I have fallen in love with American names, the sharp, gaunt names that never get fat.
— Stephen Vincent Benet

And my favorite, the definitive one that could have been a necklace around the throats of all the BeBes — gulp — had they been human:

People's fates are simplified by their names.
— Elias Canetti

Bingo! Or should I say… “Ognib!” •

Editor’s note: Gorgeous, brilliant, clever, and fascinating as Lane Browning is now, as one who knew her when she was, officially and unofficially, Gay Gassair, I can testify that she was not a bit less intelligent, beautiful, talented, or interesting back in the day. Loved her then, love her now.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Browning | Link to this Entry

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