A big lift for a heavy name

Prince George Alexander Louis JOHN STILLWELL / Associated Press
Prince George Alexander Louis JOHN STILLWELL / Associated Press
Posted: July 28, 2013

It stung like a wet locker-room towel snapped hard across my face. I was sitting with an admissions officer at a desirable liberal-arts college, getting ready to make my case.

"I have one question before we start," he said. "What name do you go by?"

I was puzzled. "My name is George."

He looked perplexed. "Really? Well, my first name is George, too, but I go by my middle name, Gary. You actually use the name George?"

"Well, yeah," I replied warily, almost adding the word sorry.

He shook his head in amazement, and the interview began. I wound up graduating from the college, but I never forgot that exchange. I went away that day with an awful realization: "I have a dorky name."

Growing up in a mid-20th-century America filled with Bobs, Bills, Marks, Steves, and other practical, easy-on-the-tongue names, I'd quickly come to realize that George was not the most modern name.

In the first grade, I decided that adding another middle name might do the trick. I announced at dinner one night that I wanted to be called School Bus. This evoked gales of laughter from my parents and two older siblings, but it somehow never took. Later, as a teen, I imagined Hunter as a suitable middle name. The years rolled on, and I kept my guard up.

But lately, things have been looking up. The fact that William and Kate, perhaps the world's coolest couple, chose the name George for their new prince will surely boost the renaissance that the name has been enjoying in recent years. I'd seen this coming. In taking my young son to the playground, I've been heartened to hear moms calling to toddlers: "Here, George, come here, Georgie." Now, I expect to see many, many more.

George is an old, heavy name, laden with historical baggage. Think of the many Georges. There was the indomitable George Washington, who was fighting the rule of King George, notable recently for the Madness movie.

Of the presidential Georges, there's George H.W. Bush, whom I truly admire as a patriot and a model of aging with grace and determination. As for George "Dubya" Bush, I'll let history have the final word.

Also coming to mind are George S. Patton, an overinflated alpha male if I've ever seen one, and George Armstrong Custer, who foolishly got in a little over his scalp at Little Bighorn. Poor George Pickett will forever be remembered for the calamitous charge he didn't want to lead at Gettysburg. Gen. George Marshall, on the other hand, led the military through World War II with an almost divine hand.

Speaking of divinities, there's George Burns, who played God himself. He was a beloved comedian who would be a spry 117 years old if he were alive today. His given name, though, was Nathan Birnbaum. And, yes, he was old, really old, just like the grandfather I was named after, who was born in 1889.

Among characters named George, the real beef I've had all these years is with Jason Alexander. In Seinfeld, he portrayed the most annoying guy I've ever seen, and, of course, the jerk had to be named George. That was the punch line to his awful joke of a character. I watched the show only a handful of times, and told my wife, who was a big fan, that it was like watching fingernails being scraped across a blackboard. Just the other day, she said to me: "You hated that show because of the Jason Alexander character being named George, right?"

"Yep," I admitted, finally realizing that my motive for hating the show was as transparent as my hair, and (ha-ha) Jason Alexander's.

Jason himself must be feeling a little guilty because after Prince George was born, he tweeted: "So honored that the future King of England will bear the proud and noble name of 'George.' Serenity now!"

Thanks a load, Jason, but it's way too little and too late to make up for all the damage you've done.

So, bless you, William and Kate. You've lifted the spirits of Georges everywhere, but for God's sake don't call him something cute like "Chip" or "Skip." Those are swell nicknames, but at long last, it's George's turn to get just a little bit trendy.

George R. Carter is an Inquirer editor. Contact him at 215-854-2411 or gcarter@phillynews.com.

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