Day 196: What’s In A Single Name?

originally published July 14, 2012

For a fleeting, candy-floss moment of joy I thought I’d stumbled on to the topic of monogamy. Given that I’m not above trolling The lowest of brows in search of humor, certainly I could divine a kilograph’s worth of tawdry sex jokes and subversive masturbation gags from such an easy lob. Then I re-read the header.

My topic today is mononymous people. These are people who, while they can engage in sexual relations with as many people as their beliefs and stamina will allow, will do so with only one name.

Back when the world’s population was no greater than the average crowd at a monster truck rally, there wasn’t a great need for people to have multiple names. Alulim, the first known King of Sumer (in about the 30th to 35th century BC) only had the one name. Legend has it he ruled for 28,800 years, one year for every baud of my first modem. Needless to say, the people who recorded historical events back then needed some practice at accuracy.

The Ancient Greeks stuck to one name also (Plato, Aristotle), unless they needed to tack on a modifier in order to distinguish important people with the same name (Zeno The Stoic vs. Zeno The Discomfortingly Obese, for example). The Romans opted to fill up their scorecards with names in trios. Men would get a first name, a clan name, then a family name (the philosopher Cicero was named Marcus Tullius Cicero). Sometimes men would take on every name they could get their hands on (Emperor Nero was fully named Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus). Women were presumably given whatever names were left over; if there weren’t any I’m sure the local Roman men just assigned them arbitrary descriptive designations (“Hey Julius, isn’t that Boobius Voluminous over by that ox?”)

The Middle Ages were the big boom for doubling up on names. Northern and Eastern Europeans hung onto the mononym balloon as long as possible, but by the end of the period it just wasn’t hip to have only one name anymore.

The Dutch scholar Erasmus, who always looked like he was watching a particularly dull and unengaging documentary on the History Channel, was a late example of single-namery. The Frankish emperor Charlemagne was not, however. His was a blending of the name ‘Carolus Magnus’ (or Charles the Great). I like that idea. I may adopt the same concept, signing all my future writing as Marble (a contraction of Marty the Incredible).

On this side of the frothy beast mononymously known as ‘Atlantic’, the Native population hung on to the single-naming tradition until Whitey (another mononym) showed up and instructed them otherwise. Up to that point there was no Geronimo Greenbaum, Montezuma O’Shaughnessy or Pocahontas von Bismarck. Back then multiple names would have been an unnecessary time-waster.

After the medieval period, the single-name in Europe was a badge of nobility. The commoner who sells lettuce in the town square may want to be known only as ‘Squansky’, but the name probably won’t stick.

The French were all about one-named arts folk. Jean Baptiste Poquelin, the noted 17th century dramatist, changed his name to Molière. Maybe because it sounded better, maybe because there was already someone in the Screen Actors’ Guild with his actual name, I don’t know. Writer François-Marie Arouet changed his name to Voltaire. This served to both formally separate him from his troubled past and allowed him to drop the name ‘Marie’, for which he was no doubt teased.

Gigi, the novel upon which the 1958 Maurice Chevalier film was based, was written by 20th century French novelist Colette. Colette was not an adopted mononym; she simply dropped her other two names and kept the one she liked best. Hector Hugh Monro, a British novelist who was rocking the book charts a century ago, went by the name ‘Saki’, which referred either to a character from a poem or a monkey.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and Iosef Besarionis dze Jughashvili made a lot more friends as Lenin and Stalin. Most royals are still known only by their first names, be it Louis or Victoria or Elizabeth. The popes as well – when elected they take on single names, except for those firebrand rebels of papacy, John Paul I and II.

A number of historical figures are known by mononyms, but really only because they don’t need their other names. Michelangelo had four separate letter-chunks after that first name, but nobody cares. Rembrandt had three, one of which was ‘Harmenszoon’, but no one speaks them. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, who had two successors run France and two nephews in Holland’s royal family – all with the same first name, mind you – only needs to use his first name to secure a table at the most exclusive restaurants. Metaphorically speaking.

The man who spent the better part of the last decade ruling Brazil was simply known as ‘Lula’. His full name is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but that’s a lot of letters to squeeze onto a ballot. You’ll still find one-named citizens in southern India, Indonesia, in Turkey prior to WWI, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Kashyyyk.

A number of people with mononyms don’t really have mononyms, it just seems that way, as with Michelangelo or Rembrandt. “Oprah” has a last name, but she doesn’t need to use it. “Hillary” on CNN seldom refers to Ms. Duff. If you were alive in the 1950s, there was only one Ike.

Nowadays we in the west tend to see mononyms attached to celebrities. Sometimes they are the performer’s first name (Madonna, Cher, Beyonce), sometimes their last name (Liberace, Morrissey), and sometimes just names that stuck (Sting, Bono, Moby).

Bjork’s second name (Guðmundsdóttir – wouldn’t look great on an album sleeve) is, as per Icelandic tradition, a patronymic name. This means it indicates her father’s first name, and is not technically a family name, sort of like Worf, son of Mogh in the Star Trek universe.

The actual list of legally one-named people is surprisingly short. Madonna’s social security card has her last name on it, so does Bono’s. A few legitimately mononymed people are Prince, Cher, Warrior (a wrestler), Pelé (the soccer star), Teller (the silent magician, partner to Penn Jillette), and this guy.

This is Winter. He is undergoing his own experiment of insanity, so I guess we have something in common. We also both like Starbucks coffee. Winter likes it more than I do, because he’s been working since 1997 to travel to every Starbucks location in the world. He’s up over 8400 now. Suddenly a million words in a thousand days doesn’t seem so crazy; it’s nice to be reminded there are others out there sharing the journey of because-it’s-there madness.

Yours truly,


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