An inquiry about names

I was reading Plato’s Cratylus this morning (doesn’t everyone?) and a lightning bolt entered my brain. Cratylus is a sort of dry inquiry into the nature of naming of things, and its foundation is fairly ordinary. As Socrates says, he is speaking only of situations where “an animal produces only after his kind, and not of extraordinary births.” The core idea is that names have a “true” nature and are not relative and arbitrary as asserted by the Sophists. I’m not saying I buy into this, but a weird confluence occured.

I’ve been reading a lot of Bakhtin lately. He has a rather unusual approach to the rhetorical triangle of speaker-language-hearer. Bakhtin substitutes “hero” for language in his formation, suggesting that at the top of the language pyramid there rests a sort of idealized notion of the hero which both the speaker and the hearer interact with, when they form meaning from language. Then, in Craytlus, the derivation of hero was addressed:

Hermogenes: What is the meaning of the word hero?

Socrates: I think there is no difficulty in explaining, for the name is not much altered, and signifies that they were born of love.

Hermogenes: What do you mean?

Socrates: Do you not know that the heroes are demigods?

Hermogenes: What then?

Socrates: All of them sprang either from love of a god for a mortal woman, or of a mortal man for a goddess. Think of the word in the old Attic, and you will see better that the name heroes is only a slight alteration of Eros, from whom the heroes sprang.

Interesting thought. That never occurred to me before. Performing a Burkean substitution here, then language, or rhetoric, is love.

That really makes Bakhtin come into focus. Words bring us together, in a natural birth. This also helps me accept the “hero” concept a little better. I’ve always been uncomfortable with them, but as Carlyle argued, it seems as if people need them. The problem is choosing good ones.

Of course I had to do a little more etymological wandering. It seems like the spelling of my name, Jeff, is a mid-nineteenth century formulation. Finding some of the other uses of the name was enlightening. Did you know that as a noun “jeff” is circus slang for a rope? Makes sense, I certainly give myself enough of it at times. It’s also synonymous with “white guy,” in a derogatory sense:

A derogatory term for a man, usu. a ‘hick’ or a bore; esp. used by American Blacks of white men. Also attrib., as jeff artist, hat.

1870 O. LOGAN Before Footlights 202, I thought perhaps they imagined I was a female Jeff Davis, and were going to make a ‘charge a la bayonette’ instanter. 1917 E. E. CUMMINGS Let. 4 June (1969) 26, I escaped repairing with the bums, mutts and Jeffs. 1938 C. CALLOWAY Hi De Ho 16 Jeff, a pest, a bore, an icky. 1946 MEZZROW & WOLFE Really Blues (1957) 375 Jeff Davis, an unenlightened person, a hick from down South; sometimes shortened to jeff. 1952 BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang (ed. 2) (1954) 391/3 Jeff Davis, jeff, a Southern ‘hick’. 1969 Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. LI. 29 Names used exclusively by Negroes..jeff, jeffer, jeff davis, jeff artist. 1970 C. MAJOR Dict. Afro-Amer. Slang 70 Jeff,..a white person;..a dull person; a horrible square. 1973 Black World Apr. 57 He wears a jeff hat and a light raincoat.

A pest? A bore? An icky? Okay, I feel much better about my name now. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not a “southern hick,” I am a Californian. Jefferson Davis had nothing to do with my name, or Thomas Jefferson either. I don’t wear hats or raincoats. And my physique (except perhaps my shoulders) is more round than square. I suppose I’m probably more of a verb than a noun:

‘To throw or gamble with quadrats as with dice’ (Jacobi Printers’ Vocab. 1888). Hence jeffing vbl. n.

1837 Baltimore Commercial Transcript 7 Nov. 2/1 (Th.), We move that the printers of the U.S. divide off in halves, and ‘jeff’ to see which shall go to digging ditches or picking stone coal for a living. 1841 W. SAVAGE Dict. Art of Printing 428 Jeff. See Throw. 1875 J. SOUTHWARD Dict. Typogr. (ed. 2) 58 Jeffing, throwing with quads… One of..[the party interested] takes up the quads, shakes them..and throws them..after the manner of throwing dice, when the number of quads with the nicks appearing uppermost are counted,..the highest thrower being the winner.

Quadrats are blank slugs of metal used to separate type while printing (short for quadrilateral, oddly enough). So perhaps Socrates was on to something, for I’m still taking chances and throwing the dice.

Sometimes I think I enjoy the OED too much. Ah, life’s simpler pleasures. Perhaps though, I’m an extraordinary birth and have nothing to do with the history of my name. Though I might wish to be related to Geoffrey Chaucer, I suspect I’m not. I was born a mistake, though my mother never claimed any animosity over it.

1 thought on “Naming”

  1. Jeff,Where can one find the essays by Bakhtin that you’re reading? I share your interest in him – used to own a copy of The Dialogic Imagination, which seems to have become, for want of a better word, heterotopic. Anyway, I’d appreciate any pointers on availability.Thanks,Tom

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