The Immortality of the Name

It's fun watching kids learning stuff they didn't know. Grownups are more knowledgeable, of course. But we may not be as knowledgeable as we think.
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Once, when she was younger, my stepdaughter Rachel and her mother were driving past a mall when Rachel, always curious, asked her Mom this question:

"Why is a store called Robinsons?"

"What do you mean?"

"How did that store get the name Robinsons?"

Her mother explained. "Robinson is the name of the person who started the store."

"No!" scoffed Rachel dismissively, sensing she was being teased.

"It's true," insisted her mother.

"I don't believe it!"

Her mother persisted.

"A person started that department store. And their name was Robinson."

Rachel seemed literally stunned.

"You mean, there is actually a person named Robinson."

"That's right."

Rachel sat quietly, wrestling with this astonishing new idea.

"What about Macy's?" she finally inquired. "Is that a person too?"

"Yes," her mother assured her.



"Neiman Marcus?"

"Two people. They were partners."

Rachel's jaw dropped in voiceless incomprehension. These places she had frequented all her life. Can they really all have been named after people?

It's fun watching kids learning stuff they didn't know. Grownups are more knowledgeable, of course. But we may not be as knowledgeable as we think.

Sticking to the "things named after people" arena, we know or at least can look up the fact that in 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts deliberately repositioned district boundaries to the political advantage of his own party. This dubious strategy would be known forever after as "Gerrymandering."

Joe Hooker was a Civil War general who, according to one source was "not a very strict military leader and allowed his troops to spend plenty of time in the company of paid ladies of the night", thus, if not originating, then greatly popularizing the nickname, "Hookers", which has remained in our vocabulary ever since.

Another Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, was famous for his unusual facial hair. Flip around his surname and his immortalization in the dictionary is immediately apparent. Sideburns.

There are many examples of this nature - personal tendencies evolving into words we continue to use today. The thing is, through general disinterest, and a spotty educational system, the link between many words and their original derivations has been lost in the murky mists of history.

Let's try and find them, shall we?

You think, at some point, there may have been this troublemaking Irish family called the Hooligans? Siblings in other families start roughhousing, their mother cries, "Stop it! You're behaving like a bunch of Hooligans!" Where could that descriptive have obtained its meaning, if it weren't an allusion to some rampaging family that actually existed?

Not all Irish families fought, of course. One of them, liked to played pranks, their name chiseled in perpetuity - the Shenanigans. Everyone's heard the words, "We'll have none of your Shenanigans!" and we immediately know what that means. Is it not then likely that "shenanigans" derives from a family famous for their whimsical obsession with practical jokes?

Man, can you imagine what happened after the Shenanigans played a trick on the Hooligans? Must have been a real Donnybrook. Another clan you wouldn't want to mess with.

"Oh, come on," you're thinking. "You can do that with any family name."

No, you can't. Watch.

"You're such a O'Houlihan!"


"Stop Schwartzing around."


You see? It's not every family. Only ones identified with exceptional behavior.

A perpetually noisy family -- the Hullabaloos. A family, always making a fuss -- the Kerfuffles. Okay, I may be crossing the line with those two -- maybe. But those earlier ones definitely deserve looked into.

And it's not just families. It's also unique individuals.

Where do you think "finagle" comes from? Bernie Finagle. He messed with the books.

The guy who was always messing up? Seymour Botch. People fail in their efforts - they've "Botched" things up.

A woman driving people nuts by continually clearing her throat -- Rebecca Phlegm.

We use these words all the time. But we never consider where they came from.

"Don't dawdle!" -- after Jennifer Dawdle, always bringing up the rear.

"Makeshift" -- after furniture maker Walter Makeshift. Everything he built almost immediately fell apart.

Hugo Dumbfound -- perpetually scratching his head -- "Dumbfounded."

Peter Scalawag...

"No!" you scoff from wherever you are. "I don't believe it!"

Suit yourself.

But remember. That's exactly what Rachel said.

Earl Pomerantz's blog can be reached at

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