Honestly You Shouldn’t

Posted on June 25, 2015 by


So many racist jokes get their start from an impression that some black names can make hilariously inconvenient homophones or onomatopoeia. Even John Updike named a young black man Tylenol in his final novel, I’m John Updike and 911 Just Happened So I’ll Be as Racist as I Wanna Get Terrorist.

The funnier joke is how any adverb could be a girl’s name. If we know a Julie, a Hadley, a Waverly, an Ashley … why not Truley, Gladlee, Bravelie or Bashfullaigh?

There’s an extra gag here concerning creative spelling, but I use it to thwart the brain’s habit of reading the common words with their common meaning and help myself see how names perform differently from functional words. We’re not adjusted to names that bring such sidelong significance from another corner of our language processing centers. From these examples we can already start to notice a reason Disney introduced a set of goofish names whose literal descriptiveness distracts quite cleverly from the most eye-rolling (and possibly also racist*) signifying adjective of all, Snow White.

For that matter, Cleverly might be the best name possible in this theme. Not only is it a flattering loop of self-reference, it sounds nice in a way many others of the type (Incessantly, Expectedly, …) can’t claim. Hear how the tongue-hugging affinity of the l’s, each of them rolling off the corner of a harder consonant to lead a lightly-sighing vowel, balances around the perfect pivot of the v. So much more decisive than the late-arriving character needed to pull off the plot twist in Beverly.

Anyway, the difference between the seven odd Dwarfs names and the beauty of the adverb joke resides in the nature that adverbs aren’t so plainly descriptive; they are performative and therefore amplify that dissonance between what words mean—what they do—and what they label. Adverbs manipulate so well, you’re not supposed to use them too much even in sentences. For a long time I thought a wonderful name for a daughter might be Ainsi, a French word (pronounced enn-SEE) which translates as thus or just so. That’s not just an adverb; it’s the ur-adverb, with its combination of power and possibility. It contributes to a declaration which, like a wedding vow or a signature on a treaty or a magical spell, changes the world.

Compare the static austerity of Constance, Grace, Hope, which are frequently women’s names though they also exist independently in the vocabulary. Not that these names can’t therefore also be fertile territory for irony (Ironie another good candidate for a daughter, by the way), like when Emily Barton gave the daughters of a mischievous 18th-century distiller the names Prudence and Temperance in Brookland; there’re just fewer rugs pulled out by the choice.

A trouble with Ainsi as a name is how come it sounds so feminine to me. On one hand my freshman-year roommate had a girlfriend named Ainsley, which has a similar ring. Ainsley is an example in a group of English names, originally surnames, derived from places like Loxley, Wimberley, et al., that have the common suffix –ly, –ley, –leigh meaning a grove of trees. This familiar –ly ending conflated with the usual grammatical suffix for adverbs provides the source for the comedy, making the traditional first name Leigh a sort of honorary or hyperbolic example!

But until the 20th century, names like Ashley and Lindsay, if they were given names, were typically masculine. Think of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. The French word ainsi doesn’t even end in –ly, but it has a late vowel sound that has become in our culture synonymous with the diminutive or adorable. Bobby and Billy are names for little boys, not grown men, but many find themselves comfortable addressing adult women as Bobbi or Billie. This doesn’t have to be patronizing or belittling in every case, but as a global trend that’s the implication. When Zadie Smith in White Teeth chose for the daughter of a Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness and a British World War II veteran the name Irie, which is not exactly litotes but as slang for “pretty good” could be fairly underwhelming, she was making fun on all these levels (including Updike’s).

If we expand the exercise to include all words ending in the same syllable as –y and –ie, there’s no question the worst one would be Taxi. Not only is it too close to taxes and tacky but no spelling acrobatics you could try to defuse the implication of being available for rides for hire—Taxie, Taxxi, Taxee—make things any better. Each reminds me, in the worst way, of the 1980s.

Sticking with strictly adverbs offers plenty of similar ugly entendres (Hourly, Easily, Flexibly, …). And you couldn’t get away from the connotations of Lazily, though from an aural standpoint it sounds nearly as sublime as Cleverly. Plenty others do just fine, particularly if you spike them a standout spelling: Clearly, Fairly, Verily, Yearly, Wildly, Really, Gently, Only, Justly, Swiftly, Cannily.

I’m just giving away brilliant baby names here. I actually know a girl named Actually. But beware one that’s sneakily pernicious: I think Honestly (or Honestleigh, or what you like) is about the most disturbing name for a person you could meet. This comes back again to the difference between names and words. Like artwork, you don’t necessarily expect names in our time to correspond to a truth in the natural world. Names are abstractions. This wasn’t always the case, and indeed ordinary words can be thought of as “names” for the Saussurean referent they signify. But the discovery of all these processes removes some of the candor from their activity. Since names aren’t achieved but chosen a name like Honestly constantly exposes a gap or doubt in its performance, like any storyteller continually reminding you she’s not lying. As Lydia Davis says, “If she insists too much, she becomes wrong, so wrong that even her correctness becomes wrong, by association.”

In other words, look out for the truth that speaks its name. If beauty is embarrassing, that might be because honesty is so often deemed inappropriate.


(*Although not maybe as racist as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.)

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