What’s in a name? An awful lot, actually, discovers Mel Byars, as he recalls long-lost pets and the pseudonyms of serial killers.

Illustration by Félix Decombat
Illustration by Félix Decombat

“Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things.”
—Henri Poincaré

Claims are that we name things because, when we do, we own them. Anthropomorphism also plays a part. Some people are convinced that their pets, ranging from dogs to gerbils, are small humans. Comic books and animated films are filled with talking mice, rabbits, pigs and fish in human clothing. There is even the operatic Mighty Mouse and a married rodent couple: Mickey and Minnie. Even the Minions have names, nine of them, including Dave and Kevin. If you know the names of all nine, you need a life.

I have named many of my vehicles. There was Cynthia for a vintage Rolls Royce when it was cheap, Heinz for a pre-owned 1966 BMW motorcycle when it was also cheap, Sophia for a 1975 Ferrari, likewise inexpensive then. They were all pains in the ass, unlike Wilhelmina, my current BMW sedan, equally low-priced due to its ten-year age.

I had an adorable Wire Fox Terrier named Hannibal. He chewed a hole in a rare quilt, and thus landed into the hands of my building’s janitor. Then there was a Springer Spaniel called Fred. When I was in hospital due to an automobile accident he was given away. And there were three others. No matter how hard I try, I’m not good with dogs, in fact bad. They shed hair, need walking more than once a day (even once is too much) and need caring for like a child. 

“Even the Minions have names, nine of them, including Dave and Kevin. If you know the names of all nine, you need a life”

Eventually, I rewound my bad-pet or bad-owner regrets by dog sitting, if for only a couple of days each time. My barber’s West Highland Terrier was Sherman; I loved Sherman. Later, from time to time, I kept Vanilla, a boss’s black Standard Poodle. She or it was smarter than most humans—not a great compliment because most humans are not smart.

Maybe my rejections have been due to my having had a small dog, when I was about eight, that I hated. It was a sweet, nice animal, but because my mother nagged me incessantly to care for it, I despised the poor thing. When it died at less-than-a-year old I was delighted even though I acted disconsolate.

Humans name everything. Because carmakers are populated by branding ignoramuses, they invent oddball and unpronounceable model names, which are impossible to remember. One of the worst is Tiguan by Volkswagen—an absurd combination of tiger, the same in German and English, and leguan in German for “iguana”. As far as I know, a tiger cannot crossbreed with an iguana. Are VW nuts? Due to the absence of imagination at the carmakers, a contest was conducted by Auto Bild magazine. Tiguan was chosen from submissions by nitwit readers, who also suggested Nanuk, Namib, Samun, Liger and Rockton. 

BMW uses a more sensible system of branding. Its models include 328i, 530i and X1 through X6. Furthermore, when you see a 328i, for example, you don’t know the year. This means that no one knows that my 328i Wilhelmina is a 2007. It could be a 2011. They look similar. The same rationality has been applied by Audi to its A3, A4, A5, A8 and TT. Why couldn’t Citroën stop with C4 for its sedan? They had to add Picasso to it and, thus, pay the Picasso family a huge royalty.

“Because carmakers are populated by branding ignoramuses, they invent oddball and unpronounceable model names”

The quintessential marque is the Rolls Royce Phantom, the longest running name in car history—continuing from 1925 for eight generations. Even so, a Roman numeral has been added to signify new models over a century, such as John Lennon’s 1956 Phantom V that was painted in a vivid psychedelic motif. 

Then there are children’s names. Show-business personalities have a predilection for naming their children oddball, even creepy, names. There is a website that lists some of the stranger ones. Here are the top six: Heiress Harris, River Rocket, Henry Wilberforce and brother Spurgeon, Audio Science and Ace Knute.

Shakespeare was wrong; names do matter. The children of famous criminals have changed their family names and even moved from the towns where their family had lived. And, concerning bad people, high-profile criminals in the US are frequently referred to in the press by pseudonyms. John Wayne Gacy was “The Killer Clown” and Angel Maturino Reséndiz “The Railroad Killer”.

There are babies being given the names of towns, like Brooklyn, footballer David Beckham’s son. Memphis is a unisex forename. There is also Cleveland. Georgia and Virginia have been around for a long time.

And about Memphis: eleven towns in the US, an undeniably inexplicable country, are called Memphis. Seven are called Paris. There are town names that question sanity: Rough and Ready in California, Three Way in Arizona and Spread Eagle in Wisconsin. Continuing are Horneytown, Hooker, Blue Balls and Climax. Someone lives at 25 Queen Street in Intercourse, Pennsylvania. I swear they do.

No matter the town, village or city, every estate agent knows that neighborhood names are important because of the pretentions of potential buyers about class status. How many times have you heard that “location, location, location” is very, very, very important? Belgravia, Monte Napoleone, West Village and Marais suggest wealth and exclusivity. 

“I was born Melvin Elbert Byars, but you won’t find it on my passport, on any of the books I’ve written, in a Google search (until now!) or on my Wikipedia entry”

The social status connoted by neighbourhood names is the same everywhere. They tell you where rich, bourgeois or poor people live. On New York City’s Manhattan island Hell’s Kitchen is often referred to as Clinton, and formerly undesirable neighborhoods are called by acronyms such as Dumbo, NoHo, Tribeca, Nolita and the once grimy SoHo. In the 1960s, when I first lived in Manhattan, I never ventured onto Avenues A, B, C and D, where I could have been robbed or maimed; now they are collectively Alphabet City. 

I was born Melvin Elbert Byars, but you won’t find it on my passport, on any of the books I’ve written, in a Google search (until now!) or on my Wikipedia entry. Melvin begs changing because it has a nerdy connotation. I have something in common with versatile entertainer Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky), cartoon-voice-maker Mel Blanc (Melvin Jerome Blanc), and singer Mel Tormé (Melvin Howard Tormé). It’s no surprise that actor Mel Ferrer (Melchor Gastón Ferrer), one of Audrey Hepburn’s husbands, abbreviated his name. While TV-personality Mel B was born Melanie Janine Brown, not Melvin or Melchor, she deserves mentioning because someone pointed out to me that her stage name and the “MEL B” on my automobile license plate are the same, though not intentional.


This feature originally appeared in issue 34

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