David Bruce: Names Anecdotes


Jim Thorp

Jim Thorpe’s mausoleum is located in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. The town used to be known as the separate small towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, but after hard economic times hit the towns because coal mining declined, the residents started looking for ways to draw industry and attention to their area. Mr. Thorpe’s widow heard about their situation and offered to move the body of her husband there if they would rename the two towns after Jim Thorpe. They did so, and they provided money for a mausoleum for Mr. Thorpe. At the May 31, 1957, dedication ceremony, earth from parts of the world that had been important in Mr. Thorpe’s life was scattered around the mausoleum. Earth was scattered from his birthplace in Prague, Oklahoma; from the Polo Grounds, where he had played professional baseball with the New York Giants; and from the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden, where Mr. Thorpe had won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. 

Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. When he was a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, he liked the words that rivermen called when they measured 12 feet of water. This much water had a depth of two fathoms, so the rivermen called out, “Mark twain.” The phrase meant, “Note that (or mark) there are two (or twain) fathoms of water.” Since two fathoms of water was deep enough to be safe for the riverboat, the pilot could heave a sigh of relief. Once, Mr. Twain took his family for a trip on a riverboat, and he stood on the deck listening to the cries of “Mark twain” coming from the rivermen. His daughter Clara came up to him and said, “I have hunted all over the boat for you. Don’t you know they are calling for you?” 

Horror writer Anne Rice got her first name from an unusual source: herself. Her name at birth was Howard Allen O’Brien. This name is unusual in itself, and she was given it in part because her father, Howard, had been bullied at school because some other children thought “Howard” sounded like a girl’s name. On the first day young Howard started attending Redemptorist School in New Orleans, a nun asked her for her name. Young Howard replied, “It’s Anne!” This name turned out to be OK with her mother, who said, “If she wants to be Anne, it’s Anne.” Anne received the rest of her adult name after she married Stan Rice. 

When H. Algeranoff was dancing with Anna Pavlova in Australia, a man named Bobbie Helpman came to him for lessons. The man showed talent, and Mr. Algeranoff told him, “This is a country where they don’t take easily to men dancing. I think you’d find it would be helpful if you called yourself Robert instead of Bobbie, and added a second N to your surname; it would give it a slightly foreign sound, which would be more acceptable to the general public.” Mr. Helpman — make that Mr. Helpmann — took his advice, and he made the new more foreign-sounding name famous.

During the Korean War, pilot John Glenn flew several missions that resulted in his getting a reputation for his airplane picking up more flak (pieces of metal from the bursting shells of antiaircraft guns) than anyone because he insisted on staying over targets until he was certain they had been destroyed. Once, he landed his plane and his crew chief counted the holes that flak had left in the plane — exactly 203. After that, Mr. Glenn became known by the nickname “Old Magnet Tail.”

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, had a few nicknames. Because he was nearly six feet, four inches tall, he was called “Long Abe.” When he was a young man, he and a partner had owned a store that went out of business. His partner died, leaving Mr. Lincoln to pay their unpaid bills by himself. Rather than trying to find a way to get out of paying the debts, Mr. Lincoln worked hard and paid off every debt, thus earning the nickname “Honest Abe.”

Henry Brown wanted to escape from slavery and become a free man, so he hid inside a wooden crate that was being mailed from Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although he spent part of the journey upside down, he was happy to be a free man once the crate was opened in Philadelphia. From then on, friends and acquaintances called him “Box” Brown.

Yee Ching Wong was born in China, but when she started attending a Catholic school in Hong Kong, the nuns asked her father to choose a new English name for her. He looked at several names on a list and chose “Flossie” — the name of a recent typhoon that had struck Hong Kong. As an adult, Flossie Wong-Staal co-discovered the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

When Dennis Banks and other Native Americans were thinking of a name for their new activist organization advocating the civil rights of Native Americans, someone suggested Concerned Indian Americans. However, they didn’t want their organization to be known as CIA, so they adopted the name American Indian Movement, or AIM.

Paul Winter’s albums mix jazz music with the sounds of nature, such as the songs of humpback whales. His album Road was aboard Apollo XV when it went to the Moon. Apollo XV astronauts must have liked the album, for they named two Moon craters after the songs “Icarus” and “Ghost Beads” on the album.

The Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s name turned out not to be a handicap to him, although the Latin word cicer means “chickpea.” Once, when he wanted his name engraved on a plate, he joked that the engraver should write “Marcus Tullius,” then draw a picture of a chickpea.

When Maya Angelou’s son, Clyde, grew up, he decided that he wanted to be called “Guy.” Ms. Angelou told him about a river in Scotland that was named the Clyde River, but her son replied, “It’s an O.K. name for a river, but my name is Guy.” Ms. Angelou started calling him “Guy.”

Mildred Didrikson was nicknamed “Baby” when she was growing up, but after she hit seven home runs in one baseball game, a feat reminiscent of Babe Ruth, her name was changed to “Babe.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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