The High & The Low

The Southern Name Game

Making sense of Southern appellations and sobriquets

illustration: Michael Witte

I come from a long line of people on both sides of my family who named their children after folks they were actually related to. For this I am profoundly grateful. Had my mother made like, say, Gwyneth Paltrow and named me after a fruit, I might have ended up as Fig, her favorite. (Though come to think of it, she likes peaches an awful lot too, and in that case, where I live at least, I wouldn’t have been the only one burdened—or blessed—with that moniker.) Or she could have gotten the jump on the Kardashians and given me and my two brothers names that begin with the letter R. The Kardashians irritate me in ways that you do not want to get me started on, but I am not necessarily against siblings with names possessed of the same initial consonants. I have very fond feelings, for instance, toward a man named Rudy Smith, the owner of a now-defunct towing operation, who once fished my car out of a canal in Harahan, Louisiana. While I sat in Rudy’s office waiting happily for him to declare my car a total loss (it was an ancient Plymouth Acclaim and pretty much of a loss even before I accidentally drove it into a really deep ditch), I leafed through his brochure, the cover of which featured him posing in a suit in front of the St. Louis Cathedral flanked by his brothers, Ricky, Ronnie, and Randy. I liked that. But then, unlike those of the Kardashians, those are names that actually exist in nature.

Also, when Southerners make up new names, it’s usually a more meaningful exercise than simply slapping a K where it does not belong, like when people name their girls after their daddies. This results in the likes of Raylene, Bobette, Earline, Georgette (one of George Jones’s daughters), Georgine, and my personal favorite, Floy (feminine for Floyd). As it happens, I almost got a masculine name (unfeminized) myself. I was named after my maternal grandmother, Julia Evans Clements Brooks, and my mother was dead set on calling me Evans until my father put his foot down on the grounds that that was the kind of stuff that Yankees did. Maybe, but we do plenty of the last name/family name business for girls down here, too. Off the top of my head I can think of three Southern women I love a lot: Keith, Cameron, Egan. Still, it’s a practice not without risks: My former daughter-in-law’s daughter is named Winslow, and she is a very smart, pretty little girl, but it took monumental control for me to resist the urge to call her Homer.

In the end, we did it in my family too. My two nieces are named Evans and Brooks. Which is where it gets confusing. I’ve got a male first cousin named Brooks and a male second cousin named Evans, which was also the name of his father and grandfather. All the recent generations of men not named Brooks or Evans are named Runcie, and all the women are either Julia or Frances. My cousin Brooks even married a woman named Frances, the name of his sister and mother and great-grandmother and probably plenty of girls further back than that. I am not qualified to venture into the Freudian implications of his choice (and this particular Frances is a fine human being), but it does make dividing the passed-down monogrammed linens super easy.

My niece Brooks named her daughter Serena, my maternal great-grandfather’s mother’s name. I am so proud of her in a way that I decidedly would not have been had she lifted it from Blake Lively’s character on Gossip Girl (in my generation it would have been Samantha’s cousin on Bewitched). I love that she reached way back. If I’d had a daughter, I always knew I’d have named her Eliza Bouldin, the name of my father’s maternal grandmother. There are some epic names on that side of the family: Sterling Price Reynolds, Gideon Crews, William Thomas Bouldin Crews. My youngest brother was saddled with the name Reynolds Crews to assuage my father’s irritation over my other brother being a junior (he’d wanted to honor his ancestors and not himself ). Our pediatrician joked (sort of ) that we should just call him R. C., but when you get down to it, that’s like naming someone Moon Pie.

It didn’t end up mattering much because both boys were almost always referred to as Brother or Bubba, and to this day no one in my immediate family or its orbit has ever called me anything but Sister. Which leads us to another Southern phenomenon. There’s Tennessee Williams’s Sister Woman, of course, and a character in a Lee Smith short story is named Uncle Baby Brother. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether these sorts of sobriquets are simply early nicknames that stuck or actual appellations. For example, I have an especially lovely friend in New Orleans named Sweet. Hers is a family name and the middle name she goes by, and it’s a good thing she really and truly is a very sweet person because no one wants to be a walking, talking irony. But I have known other people all my life—Baby Doll Walker, Bebe Shackelford, Buddha McGough—and I have no idea if the names they go by are on their birth certificates or if they’re what their mamas or nurses or whoever started calling them when they were young. I know my friend Bo Weevil Law is actually named Sid, that Honk Morson’s real name was Andrew and that his nickname was short for “honky-tonk,” that Ug McGee’s name was Humphreys but he was so pretty they dubbed him Ugly and abbreviated it to Ug. (In Honk’s case, when his stickball teammates asked him if he knew what a honky-tonk was, he replied that it was a donkey. After howls of laughter, they dubbed him Honk. Naturally.)

Some folks give you clues up front that their nicknames are just that. There were two famous state legislators from the Mississippi Delta whose names I never saw in print any other way but H. L. “Sonny” Merideth and C. B. “Buddy” Newman. The latter even has C. B. “Buddy” on the marker alongside his memorial highway. The former, who is buried in a field not far from that stretch of road, was also a lawyer and had a client married to a man named Marty “Bullets” Albinder. When Marty’s wife caught him messing around with another woman, she lay in wait and pumped the contents of two guns into his chest. There are three miracles here: Marty survived the shooting, Sonny managed not to have his client charged with the “alleged” crime, and Marty gave his own self his nickname and was so proud of the new handle he had it printed on the nameplate he wore at the riverboat casino where he found employment after his recovery.

Southerners also have a famous proclivity for the double name. My favorite show as a child was Petticoat Junction, largely because of the three sisters, Betty Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Billie Jo (the blond and gorgeous Meredith MacRae, the one I most wanted to be), even though I’m sure that show was set somewhere in Upstate New York (Hooterville was the same town, after all, to which Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor decamped from Park Avenue on Green Acres). But since the characters were supposed to be bona fide country bumpkins, the surest way for Hollywood scriptwriters in the 1960s to get that across was to give the girls Southern names, as in Elly May Clampett (the daughter on The Beverly Hillbillies who was in fact born in Tennessee). Once when I was bitching about Siri’s persistence in misunderstanding most everything I say, my pal the artist David Bates suggested that some enterprising Southerner should invent an app called Siri Ann. I laughed hard at that, though I have to say I prefer Siri Sue. But double names can be a tad dangerous. My best friend’s middle name, LeAnn, is a mash-up of the names of her paternal uncle and aunt. When they divorced, she kept the name—and the friend- ship with both—but then she’s an angel and most people are not.

My niece is currently pregnant with her second child, and she is digging deep into my father’s family tree rather than turning to the countless baby-name websites that have become so insanely popular. On babynames.com you can even find out what names are trending daily. As I type, the second most popular boy’s name is Caleb, but I’d be willing to bet that a whole lot of the mothers and fathers out there randomly choosing that particular forename have no idea where it even came from (son of Jephunneh, representative of the Tribe of Judah during the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land, Numbers 14:30). If she lands on the name Gideon, which goes back to at least my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, she’ll have to remind people of that fact lest they think she is like so many of her hipster contemporaries, picking stuff like Atticus, Noah (number two on mom365.com), or Liam (number one on the same site). They are time-honored names, to be sure, but to me, grabbing them out of thin air is not unlike buying a Shinola watch. Still, my niece and everybody else for that matter could do worse than Gideon. He’s a biblical figure too, a military leader, judge, and prophet whose battles were won through strategic thinking and faith rather than arms alone.

To be fair, I do get the impulse to turn away from family for a name. There might well be too much baggage there. Also, sometimes people just come out looking like what their name should be, like my dog Henry, whom I realize is not an actual person but close enough. Some sweet baby might simply look like a Jack or a Sam or a Mary or a Jane. (Still, while I’m beating this horse, I bet no one comes straight out of the womb looking like Madison, one of the most popular names of 2017, nor does anyone look like a Khloé or a Kourtney— at least not without a boatload of filler and silicone and God knows what else.) But here again is another slippery slope. We should keep in mind that one of Honk’s teammates on the stickball team was Moonface Abernathy. Sometimes looks can’t help but name the man.


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