David Kirby

The Names
November 29, 2015 Kirby David

The Names


My student Natasha, who is Greek but is now living in Turkey,
tells me that in Greece, it’s acceptable to be very frank
in social settings, so that if someone cooks dinner for you, it’s okay
to say, “You could have put more salt in it,” although I would
be tempted to reply, “I could have put more arsenic in it.”
“Natasha” tells me she is “Elizabeth” now
that she lives in “Istanbul,” which, of course, used to be “Constantinople.”

But what do I know? Until I got here, I thought “Atatürk” was
a phrase of encouragement, like “Attaboy!” and “Nice shot!”
and “Our sales team has already exceeded last year’s
goal, and it’s only October!”  In Turkey, it’s against the law
to make fun of Atatürk. I’d like there to be a law against
making fun of me. Wait, no, I wouldn’t—
if people can’t make fun of me, they won’t feel free to love me as much,

not that that was a problem for Atatürk. What name would
make people love us more? Some people name their babies
the way the old Puritans did: Patience, Prudence, Chastity,
Felony. Well, not that one. Mine means “beloved” in Hebrew,
though no one has ever rushed up and thrown their arms
around me and said, “I don’t care how horrible
you are or what you look like or how much money you don’t make—

I love you because your name means ‘beloved’ in Hebrew!”
In the early part of this century, a lot of wealthy older men
had affairs with younger women named Jennifer. Why,
though? Easy: because, from 1973 to 1984, Jennifer was
the number one name for female babies. Only the problem
is that when these old cacklers lure
younger women with their gold and their penthouses, that means younger

men don’t have as many choices in their own age group
and that more older women end up talking to themselves
on the subway or to the little white dog that they take with
them everywhere or to the greeters at WalMart who wish
they’d find somebody else to talk to. “Poetry is a naked
woman, a naked man, and the distance between them,”
says Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but they’re not going to get

any closer together if there’s a wealthy plutocrat in the way!
All the poetry in the world won’t help with that.
In New Zealand, names are not allowed if they resemble
an official title or rank, so you won’t find any children
named “King,” “Princess,” “Majesty” or “Knight,”
although some peculiar names have been approved,
such as “Midnight Chardonnay,” “Violence,”

and “Number 16 Bus Shelter.” In 2008, a 9-year-old New
Zealand girl named “Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii”
was made a ward of the court so that her name could be
changed, which just means, as long as you don’t live
in New Zealand, that one’s up for grabs. It turns out
that Natasha became “Elizabeth” in Istanbul because,
in that city, “Natasha” is a slang word for “Russian prostitute,”

though when we are back in the states and Natasha comes to visit
us, she is Natasha again, since that name means nothing
here. Maybe we should change our names from time
to time as people do at conventions when “Peter Jones”
swaps his name tag with “Mary Smith” and vice versa
and everybody says LOL ohhahaha Peter’s pretending
to be Mary unless they did the same last year when they

were too drunk to remember, in which case nobody
says anything. Whatever happens, it couldn’t be any worse
than that Jennifer mess. Besides, running into someone you knew
as “Robert” who is now “Stanislaus” or perhaps “Lisa” could
spark a lively conversation that in itself might lead to major
breakthroughs in various fields of human endeavor or at least
be awesome, as the sophomores say, also funner.

David Kirby teaches at Florida State University, where he is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. His latest books are a poetry collection, Help Me, Information, and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them. Kirby is also the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement described as “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” He is currently on the editorial board of Alice James Books.