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Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

That venerable Southernism, the double name

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Once or twice ere the hit July 23 program by our native-born musicologist, I found myself referring to "Marsha Ann," and with blank looks being asked, "Who?"

Last time I'd really looked (listened, rather), she was "Marsha Ann" for true. What else to be expected of one whose mother was always "Edna* Florence" (never just one or the other) when she wasn't merely "Sister," sib of best friend Salem Wilson? What had happened indeed? Marsha Ann, I could only speculate darkly, had strayed off into the trackless Massachusetts marshes and there been robbed of (or, knowing not what she did, cast off) her distinctive linguistic birthright, the "binary" (two-part) name.

Double names. They're so common down South they're taken for granted, little noticed. And that they're common here further proves the point impressed on me when I first opened my mouth in New York City: "Ah, you're from the South, aren't you!"

Double names were just part of the landscape for me, starting with "Grammaw Brophy," who to all but her grandkids was "Mary Lou," and was semi-honored in cousin "Barbara Lou." Cousin "Betty Ann" still has to be sorted out from myriad other "Betty Arms" when Christmas card time rolls around. Then there was neighbor "Paul Gene" and friend "Freddy Bill." A quick glance through an old yearbook turned up (not even mentioning the "Betty Anns" and other ti~esomely obvious) at least one each of "Sara Jo," "Leta Belle ... .. Jo Ann," "Betty Jo," "Lura Jean," "Mary Ellen," "Mary Evelyn," and "Mary Ann." And don't fancy it's strictly a "woman thing." Women's names have always shown more variety or imagination, and there may indeed be more twonamed women. But that skip through the yearbook yielded a "Ronald Gene," a "Gary Lee," and (of course) a "Robert Lee." And then the "Billy Bobs" alone are a legion unto themselves, not to be sneezed at.

In mulling the double-naming phenomenon with some incorrigible Wisconsin friends, I happened to tick off a few folks of Vernon County, past and present. The man frowned over it, before turning wistfully to his wife: "I don't think I've ever known a 'Billy Bob'."

Likely the venerable, charming custom is under p.c. attack, like everything else Southern. Just as there are schools devoted to propelling aspiring Southerners onward and upward by teaching them to "talk Northern," for all I know there are (or if not soon will be) clinics that'll rid you of the shame of your double name for a suitable fee. "Nomendectomies," we might term these new surgical excisions, this updated Weltmerian "suggestotherapy": "You're not really 'Billy Joe,' that laidback, good-ole-boy of parental musings! You're 'B. J.,' pronounced in the sizzling tones of one plugged into the 220 outlet if not quite the marketplace."

Let's hope such a fate didn't befall the late-lamented "Marsha Ann." A double name is certain to be seen as a liability in politics, even if not in business.

You just might trust your clunker to "Billy Bob" Bubba's Shade Tree Garage and Garden Truck, but odds are you wouldn't trust him to steer the ship of state off the rocks. Hillary Rodham Clinton might cut it; but "Hillary Belle" or "Hillary Jo?"

Most of us, though, aren't fated to be tycoons or helmspersons of the free world, and parents seem to scatter-shot their progeny with double-barreled names as readily as ever without guilt or fear of cruelly crippling their chances.

Even in these enlightened times I can't seem to glance about without stumbling over a "Shirley Ann" or "Jo Ellen." And I never knew any "Ruth Anns" in olden days, but now I know three, and even an "Anna Ruth." Yes, I know. We all, or nearly all, have middle names, second ones sandwiched between first and third. But I'm referring to something else altogether: those cases where the first and the second names are inseparable, serving the purpose of a single name. Often, indeed, they become single names, growing together. The parents of yet another of my cousins set out to memorialize her two grandmoms, Susan and Ella. The child was christened "Sue Ella" but soon was "Suella." Shades of "Suellen," whose scheming sister Scarlett stole "mah Mista Kennedy." In such cases the wearer can then add another, "true" middle name. "Jo Ann" can become "Joanne Lynn." A next step brings us to "Joanlyn," though one dreads to think what might come after, say, "Joanlyn Belle."

But with all the ingenuity being expended on naming generally these days, surely modem parents are up to the challenge. Come on, moms, and pops! Seriously, I recall books on naming that at least mentioned doublenaming as a Southern tradition, apparently unique to our part of the English-speaking world.

Where once we'd have had well-organized narrative affording pithy, principled points concerning names and naming, rather we have shelves of airy pamphlets ("unbooks," as Richard Mitchell would call them), mere handbooks for parents, alphabetical blurbs of prospective names for Baby, politically-correctly arranged, of course, by "ethnicity" or national origin, anything but a plain, objective idea. Those who decry such divisive notions turn out to be the ones doing the most, if inadvertently, to keep them alive and well.

In absence of analytical sources, we're left to guess for ourselves why double names took hold in the balmy South more than elsewhere.

Can it be because life there is, or was, more sociable and leisurely, and the speech more mellifluous, fitter for the drawing room than the counting house? The same person who respectfully referred to my matronly mother as "Miss Dixie" is the same who called me up with the mournful news, "Your kitty-cat is dead." Back-to-back examples of that ineffable, gentle (i.e. refined) "differentness" of Southernese, that language in which not only Marsha Anns but even kitty-cats get full-blown, drawn-out, poly-syllabic respect.

What a sad day it'll be when those little verbal ruffles and flourishes are heard no more, when "Marsha" has. been further pared down to, say, "Marsh," whether she's strayed off into one or no.

I can't help shedding one linguistic last tear for that delinquent "Ann," somehow, somewhere fallen by the wayside.