/ɒnəˈmastɪks/ noun. Relating to names and naming.
I recently had the pleasure of attending my first roller derby bout (shout out to Kid Vicious and the rest of the Victoria BC-based Rotten Apples who invaded Rat City) and though the actual sport bore little resemblance to my only previous idea of it—which was based on the deadly game in the mid-70s film Rollerball—it was great fun nevertheless.
I enjoyed many things about the event, not least the inclusivity, pageantry, and unapologetically in-your-face attitude, but as a lover of puns—a punthusiast (if you will), or a paronomasiac (if you must)—I was particularly captivated by the derby names. On the Rotten Apples team alone were found the aforementioned Kid Vicious and teammates Black Eye Suze, Scream Soda, and the perfectly-Canadian monikered Tuffy St. Marie…all led by coach Regretel.
I promise not to spend this whole segment doing nothing but listing the punniest names (the only rival for my affection for a name based on a great pun is one based on a really terrible one), but I could. Derby names based on pop-culture forms and universes predominate; examples inspired by video games, musicians, comic characters and fictional franchises are everywhere. For instance, Harry Potter fans can create an all-star team with the likes of Hermione Danger, Luna Shovegood, Maul Weasley, Bellatrix LePain and, of course, Minerva McGonnakill.
But derby names know no bounds. My author dream team at the moment would be recorded in a book by Sylvia Wrath, Malice Walker, Emily Deckinson, Thumpa Lahiri, and Zora Neale Hurts ‘Em. If you’ve had the misfortune of meeting a favorite author and being disappointed and thus prefer their creations instead, then how about a roster including Harlot O’Scara, Mary Choppins, Pain Eyre, Violent Beauregard, and Pippi Longstompings? And many derby names aren’t based on people or characters at all, but are just plain awesome, like Tara Armov, Gefilte Fists and naturally my so-far-favorite Oxford Commakaze.
As you might expect in a sport that embraces all genders and sexual orientations, a scan of roller derby rosters will also reveal a variety of names based on sex and anatomy whose delights I leave you to discover on your own.
The bottom line is, roller derbyists, in explicitly choosing names that fit with the sports’ body-positivity, gender fluidity and aggressive, athletic cameraderie, are both taking part in a fascinating social system with its own complex rules and norms—see Dave Fagundes’ article "Talk Derby to Me" for much more—and becoming intuitive students of onomastics, or the study of proper names.
Onomastics comes from the Greek onoma (a name) and ultimately from the Proto Indo European root no-men-, from which we derive many words obviously related to names and naming, such as nominate and moniker, and others whose connection is less obvious, including onomatopoeia, synonym, antonym, homonym (and all the rest of the -nyms that bedeviled me in grade school).
Onomastics is a fascinating discipline: one few have heard of that delves into a deeply important part of our lives, but one most of us only indirectly consider—if we consider it at all.
Onomasticians are often linguists, but amongst their ranks you will also find psychologists, philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and theologians. This is because onomastics covers a wide range of interests around the history, patterns, and influence of names and naming in everything from advertising and brand names to mythological and religious traditions of all sorts, historical and contemporary. And names, and the power of naming, are constant, critical threads across cultures, traditions and mythologies.
In Ancient times, the power to name something, or someone, was often an act of authority, endowing human beings with dominion over the earth. We see this worked out broadly in the mystical, magical, and philosophical idea of true names—names that are usually highly guarded and kept secret, reserved for use in important rituals, if the names are known at all. And similarly in many religious traditions, including Jewish rituals around disposal of documents with sacred names written on them, the Christian stories of Adam naming the animals, and Islam’s 99 names of God, to name just a few.
More down to earth, the naming of places—and peoples—particularly as part of the long history of human migration and colonization, is a thriving area of onomastic study. Beneath the names chosen, given, adopted, forced, and rejected—in every change, from claiming a new name, or reclaiming an old one, right down to seemingly simple changes of spelling, and lurking inside every toponym, endonym, demonym, and exonym—are fascinating stories and usually bloody political lessons we can hope to learn from.
But besides renaming ourselves—and I welcome suggestions for my roller derby name, then maybe I’ll learn to skate more than a few yards without falling down—the only time most people have a chance to exercise the ancient power of naming is when naming pets and children (whether one of these is a subcategory of the other and, if so, which is which, I leave as an exercise for later). And here onomastics goes well beyond books and surveys of baby names—as interesting as those are—and deep into matters real and imagined, from married and family names and the naming practices of groups and gangs to the manner and meaning of name choices in fictions of all sorts.
The onomastic rabbit hole from which I have most recently emerged is the question of nominative determinism…the idea that people gravitate toward work that suits their name. Spotting names that match someone’s profession can be fun. Real-life examples include Igor Judge, the chief justice of England and Wales, lawyer Sue Yoo, ornithologist Mitchell Byrd, dentist Randall Toothaker, and the urologist specializing in vasectomies Dr. Richard "Dick" Chopp. But research into the broader supposition of nominative determinism, whether people named "Baker" more often become bakers or people with names similar to anatomical parts become doctors, is unclear…despite, in the latter case, a fine paper authored by—you can’t make this stuff up—researchers Limb, Limb, Limb, and Limb.