A THORN BY ANY OTHER NAME

If April is the cruelest month then January is a close second. It is a month that demands change. After thirteen years Owen Arthur woke up on 16 January to find he is now the former Prime Minister Owen Arthur. On that same morning, David Thompson went from loser of two elections to Prime Minister-Elect David Thompson. This week my pal J. became Dr. J. Respect. January also brings state honours. Dr. Albert X., for example, has been honoured with a knighthood. The newspapers referred to him as Sir Albert only to be forced to print a retraction a few days later, stating that the former Dr. Albert X. wished henceforth to be known as, wait for it, Sir Cyril.

Dr. Albert X’s transformation into Sir Cyril will not surprise many West Indians. Given our history of being transplanted here from so many other places, the West Indies can boast of being the Global Centre of Entrepreneurship in Personal Naming. Where else will you find men called Wavell, Curtley and Philo in the same room?

The Husband tells me the key to fostering this entrepreneurial spirit in personal naming is the presence of low barriers to entry. Sure enough, in Barbados the barriers to adopting a new name are very low. Flicking through the telephone book it would appear that all you do is call the telephone company (free) and ask to change your listing in the good book (again, free). The problem of course is that this can all get very confusing.

If you just want to be known by your first name, Madonna-style, then listing yourself, as Tony 428 8215 is fine. But how do you differentiate yourself from any other Tony because all the phone book says is “Tony”. Not Tony followed by address, like, 2 Swan Street. Just Tony. And how does a girl choose between Dick 425 6352 and Dick 433 7152 – of course with no address? Surely the point of naming is to avoid this kind of chaos. A cursory glance through the phone book has also yielded July 422 4383 (no address) or, more specifically, July Seventh 423 3311 (no address). There is currently no competition for certain dates, but perhaps this calls for a note to the PM-Elect to alert him of this potential revenue stream as people start bidding to be January 1, December 25 etc.

Some of the more ambitious among you will be aiming for the stars. Rather than the common-as-muck name of, e.g., Henrietta Imelda Yardley, you might want to be the heavenly Capricorn. Well hello there, Capricorn 228 3050 (no address). Like Tony, Dick or September you are not alone. There are 104 listings in the directory for “Capricorn” – with no address. And if Capricorn isn’t your particular astrological gig then how does Virgo grab you? It is a very popular choice this year with 107 listings. Perhaps you are one of the 103 “Aquarius” listed and you really fancy hooking up with, maybe a Taurus. Just get your phone book out and choose from the 70 Taurus (no address) listings available. I personally recommend Taurus 422 0073. Just something about that particular combination of numbers gives off a really positive cosmic vibe man.

But the most exclusive listing of all listings in the Barbados phone book must be the Unlisted Numbers that are published. In the last phone book there were 20 numbers with the name: “Unlisted” (no address of course). Apparently the “Unlisted” complained that strangers were still finding their number so this category was finally removed in the 2007 edition.

There is something both liberating and peaceful about this West Indian disregard for traditional names. In a world where we hear terrible stories of individuals, gangs and crowds killing for the “honour of their name” we know we are safe. In Barbados you can be whatever you want to be. Hope 424 4186.

So having a name that is the Guyanese equivalent of Smith may be something I can escape. While it remains my surname everyone thinks they know my relatives or me. There is the well-known Dr. Persaud, a GP with a practice on the west coast. I am constantly being asked if we are related and does he makes house calls. Andre, our handy man, is incredulous that I have not attempted to meet the good doctor. He jokes with me, “Yuh sure yuh eh know he? He’s ah proper big up. Go see he when yuh sick, and tell he, ‘yuh cah charge meh cause you and me is bare family’”.

While I may not be able to procure free medical help I think the Persaud clan may have hidden assets. Not exactly mountains of cash in the Cayman but it could be worth something. It all came to light when I was driving down the congested Baxter’s Road and saw a busy little shop had opened selling “assorted dry goods”. Persaud’s Variety Store is open for business from 7am to 6pm Mon-Fri, 8am to 1pm Sat, Closed Sun. So this is what The Husband is really up to when he says he is “going into Bridgetown”. My suspicions are not totally unfounded. On a recent visit to Guyana, I came across a huge building proudly bearing the sign Avinash Persaud’s Hardware. The history of Lazards, the famous finance house, having started life as a dry goods store in New Orleans, is clearly his inspiration. I plan to let The Husband continue this double life undisturbed. He can do high finance by day and run his dry goods and hardware shops by night. One should only lift the corporate veil if one is prepared to stack shelves.

What I am determined to do is break free of this debilitating name repression forced on me by the constraints of the Babylon that is western society. I am a West Indian damn it and I can have any listing I want in the Barbados phone book. A name is no longer just about identifying where you came from. You can be free! Free! Free to have a name based on any criteria you determine. I can be a month, a star sign, a description (Sexy 424 8006) or a quality (Sufficient 428 8260). Any suggestions, dear reader?

January 17, 2008

1 comment:

Dennis Jones said...

Of course we all realise that our names do not single us out and the Internet world has shown that this needs to change by assigning unique e-mail addresses or web site names. So the development of the name-telephone number is a move toward being unique; but to be sure better add the country code like Ingrid 246 xxx yyyy.

I could live with these functional names, though they are not beautiful and for a parent they are a mouthful. These also do not seem to be race-ethnic driven.

In the US by contrast "distinctively black names" have developed. You should read "A Roshanda by Any Other Name: How do babies with super-black names fare?" (see http://www.slate.com/id/2116449), based on research by a black and white economist duo. Amongst other things the data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name—whether it is a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn—does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But the name is an indicator not a cause of the outcome. Why? Because The data show that the distinctive black names get attributed by an unmarried, low-income, undereducated, teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself. Giving a child a super-black name would seem to be a black parent's signal of solidarity with her community—the flip side of the "acting white" phenomenon.

Just food for thought, and suggestions that you may want to go beyond the phone listing to see if Barbados is heading toward a different kind of social phenomenon.