Friday, 9 October 2009

Are you Smellie?

I’ve been rather preoccupied with the house just lately. I won’t bore you with the details, dear reader. Suffice it to say that there has been an orgy of stripping (oooer missus!), wallpapering and painting, which is likely to continue for some time to come. Yesterday we finished removing the old paper from the living room walls a day earlier than anticipated. So, I have some downtime, and a chance to exercise my mind with something other than decorating.

I’m not the world’s best handyman or decorator. I like to think my skills lie elsewhere. But Mrs. H is convinced that I’ll get better if I do more, and in relation to some jobs she’s being proved right. In those areas where my skills are lacking, I find swearing helps to get the job done. So, if I’m struggling with a roll of wet wallpaper, the wiring up of some lights, or some other technical task, I find it helps to call the job every name under the sun…

And speaking of names, we all have one. In fact, most of us have two or more. Having just one name seems rather pretentious, or even downright egotistical; look at Jordan, Prince, Squiggle (Prince’s now not-so-new name), Superman…see what I mean? The Queen shies away from being called just Queen, for fear she should be confused with the eponymous rock band. And even Dr. No had the decency to prefix his name with his medical qualification; otherwise, could you imagine the confusion? ‘What’s your name?’ ‘No.’ ‘Sorry, I just need your name.’ ‘No.’ ‘Why do you have a problem with telling me your name?’ And so on…you’d be there all day.

How did names evolve? Those who study such things suggest that names fell into five categories; whom you served, whose son you were, your occupation, where you lived…but these are all pretty dull stuff. The most interesting category is the nickname. Now, there’s a great tradition in this country of giving nicknames which probably confuses the heck out of The Rest Of The World. A short man is called ‘Lofty’; a chap who’s not terribly bright is deemed ‘Einstein’; another who wears glasses is landed with the name ‘four-eyes’. As you can see, some of these are rather insulting, and, within the last few years, there have been attempts within the police service and other public bodies to ban nicknames altogether. One former colleague who hailed from Wales was taken to task by ‘the management’ because he called himself, and was happy for others to call him, ‘Taff’. Many people rejoice in their nicknames; within an organisation like the army or the police, it gives an individual a sense of having ‘arrived’. If your colleagues like you, they’ll come up with a nickname for you, and you’ll be happy to answer to it, albeit some would say you were being ‘complicit in your own oppression’. Hmm…

However, be they pleasant or offensive, our nicknames are just that - nicknames. They are not our surnames, and we don’t have to declare them in our passports, admit to them in job applications, or have them engraved forever on our driving licences. But things were a bit different in the middle ages, where a nickname effectively became an individual’s surname. Although the peasantry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have long since closed their eyes upon this world, and left no mark upon it to speak of, their names live on - in manor court rolls, deeds, military muster lists and taxation records - and all of those I am about to impart are genuine. There were some innocuous, and even pleasant names, of course. Agnes Singalday might well have delighted everyone with her ballads; Gilbert Wysdom seemed like the sort of chap you would go to if you had a problem; and the man or woman who rejoiced in the name of Smalbyhind would no doubt have been as happy about the fact as s/he would be in our present century. But the medieval English were possessed of a wonderful sense of humour; so it is equally possible that Agnes’ caterwauling was sufficient to wake the dead, Gilbert was in reality renowned for his utter stupidity, and he or she of the small behind might have had a rump that would put an elephant to shame.

Ironic or not, the above pale into insignificance as we uncover a somewhat less pleasant group of names, and I start with poor Alicia Shitte. How on earth did she come by such a name? Does the surname denote that her character? Or her smell, perhaps? Or did she suffer from (as our ancestors would have it) The Flux? Sadly, we will probably never know. Whereas we have a fair idea what William Aydrunken (always drunk) must have been like. Perhaps, after a particularly heavy session with Messrs. Drinkalup and Potfulofale, he would have picked a fight with William Milksop? Or woken from a boozy night in a pigsty belonging to Reyner Piggesflesshe? He might even have propositioned Letice Uggele. And, with any luck, she would have declined his no doubt tender blandishments and booted him into the aforementioned pigsty…

Sex was not a taboo subject in the middle ages. So it is, perhaps, no surprise that a few…how shall we say…’racy’ names make an appearance. Those of you who have a delicate constitution might want to look away now. To the rest of you who clearly have a stronger constitution, I have to say that I would blush to comment upon the attributes of the owners of the following names; I merely present to you John Fillecunt, whose name appears in written records in 1246, Bele Wydecunthe, who puts in an appearance in 1327, her contemporary, Matilda Strokelady, and the relatively fortunate Alice Strumpet. Hmm.

We live in enlightened times. We no longer think a person’s name is likely to denote his or her character. We don’t expect Mr. Wagstaff or Mr. Shakespeare to be belligerent (incidentally, ‘Shakespeare‘ was also a name given to a gentlemen who enjoyed the act of, how should I say it delicately, ‘self-ravishment'), any more than we expect Mr. Bastard (yep, there is such a surname!) to be the product of an unmarried couple. Oh, I dunno, though…but wouldn’t it be fun if we still received our surnames in the old-fashioned way? What would we have now? An inveterate social networker might be called Gilbert Facebook or Alice Twitter. What about those who use ‘recreational substances’ when clubbing? John Offhisface or Laura Snortpowder, maybe. And how about some names for the financial fraternity? William Bonus or Anna Reckless. And we can’t forget politicians, can we? Gordon Pinchpension, David Emptywords, Nick Notahope…you’ll notice that, like the BBC, I’ve been balanced and fair in this last category, and this is probably the closest you’ll ever see me get to a political comment!

Not quite sure what I’d be called in this new medieval age. Chris Beard? Chris Workfree? Chris Notsotall? Whatever it might be, judging by my current standard of DIY, it certainly wouldn’t be Chris Handyman

8 comments:

Oh My Goddess said...

Dear Chris Unhandyman,

You may call me Elise Blogsalot.

Thank you.

Derrick said...

Well Chris, I see no reason why you shouldn't get the 'Handyman' moniker if we're in a contrary mood.

A veritable rogues' gallery you've painted for us. Now, I could be Derrick: 'Sheffield' or 'Leslieson' or 'Gift' maybe. None very inspiring though, eh? 'Rhymer' now, that's a little different!

I wish you well with the decorating.

chris hale said...

OMG - Either that, or Elise Overseas (I'm a poet but I don't know it!)

Derrick - Derrick Rhymer it is...and without a hint of sarcasm or irony!

Madame DeFarge said...

I suspect I'd be X Talksalotsayslittle.

mo.stoneskin said...

"But Mrs. H is convinced that I’ll get better if I do more"

There are many of us men who suffer in this way, doomed to an eternity doing DIY on the off chance that we may get better, which we don't.

chris hale said...

MDF - Don't put yourself down! Let us do it for you! Seriously, I'd give you the name Fiona Wordsmith. Except you're probably not called Fiona.

Mo - I used the same principle re the tea-making skills of junior staff members; make a decent cup and you keep the job. Make a lousy cup, and you keep going until you make a decent cup. And then you keep the job.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I shall try and think of a neckname for you ...

chris hale said...

Raph - hello! I shall look forward to hearing what my new neckname is!