The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Monday, 19 August 2013

The power of naming

I know a boy called Ronni.  That’s short for Ronaldinho.  His parents came to the UK from Romania.  You probably don’t know the little fellow, but you may have heard of the famous Brazilian footballer they named him after.  That was in – fans have guessed – about 2005.  What happens when the famous footballer stops playing well, or hangs up his boots?  The kid gets stuck with the name.  Still, if the name happens to be longer than the career, you can always shorten it to something else. 

You’d think that naming your baby boy Messiah (another famous one) was a safe bet in America.  But a judge there wouldn’t allow it.  The parents rightly complained that there were already lots of other Messiahs around.  It would, in fact, be an excellent choice for several reasons.  For a start, the original Messiah is not likely to hang up his sandals any time soon.  And if the name does become a problem – again, unlikely, but you never know – there is Messi for short. 

Of course, the names of children tell us more about their parents’ aspirations than their own natural abilities. We name more than babies, though, and it can be embarrassing.  A TV viewer recently denounced The Railway Children, a film which has been a family favourite in Britain for decades, as it encouraged children to play on railway lines.  It was the first-ever complaint about the suitability of this film.  Whoever named and shamed it was generally derided, but this shows what can come from our zeal to protect.  The official response was no less ridiculous.  We were reassured that nowadays public access to railway lines is much more restricted, so the film is not dangerous.  So it was dangerous when it was made?

Then there’s the British Library user who found his access to a video of Hamlet blocked.  More red faces.  The official response?  New software was filtering out violent material which could harm children.  It just required a ‘tweak’ to fix.  Type that in.  Tweak number # ... allow … Hamlet.  Done. Given the nature of world literature, there’ll be a whole lot of tweaking going on.  (Rock ’n’ roll was dangerous, too, children.) 

Annoying ‘errors’ aren’t the only problem.  During this awkward time for the Library, there was never any opinion expressed or, I am sure, even secretly supposed, that Hamlet should be blocked by the filter.  Everyone assumed, like a fact of life, without the need for discussion, that it would be wrong to filter out this play.  Why?  Who decides what gets through, on what grounds, and what doesn’t?  What do we do about the dangerous works we have always enjoyed and even praised as classics, not to mention the things we aren’t so sure about? 

A British MP launched a career-boosting campaign to outlaw written child pornography.  Then he realised the need to deal with books like Lolita.  Another famous name.  A classic such as this would, he said, be excluded from the ban.  Really?  At one point in the novel, the narrator shares an orgasm with the 12-year-old girl who is sprawling on his testicles.

In the nineteenth century, Mr Thomas Bowdler tweaked the naughty bits out of Shakespeare’s plays to make them ‘suitable’ for women and, naturally, children.  You can now find him under B in the dictionary, a disparaging three-syllable verb, and a noun with –ism after it.  But he might be on the way back.  The Prime Minister has his own, vote-winning scheme for an internet pornography filter.  He’s going to cameronize the web.  Under C, that will be.

We can’t get away from names, can we?  But pay attention to the whole word, not just how it starts.  To boost sales, the now-defunct News of the World once had a crusade to name paedophiles, which led the public to attack the properties of paediatricians and other names that looked the same, as if anyone would advertise their criminal record, and this sort in particular, on a brass plaque on their gate.

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