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Embarrassing surnames

One can only pity the wretched rugby commentator in straight-laced 1930s New Zealand who, on reading the Springbok team list, was confronted with the name “Ebbo Bastard”. “This one, I think we’ll call Smith”, was what he actually said in the end.

In a previous post, I recounted my ordeal over once having to ask for someone whose name was Jacob Poo. Talking about awkward moments for sports commentators, has any one heard of the unhappy cricket commentator who informed listeners, “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”.

Some people are indeed lumped with unfortunate surnames, which surely must leave lasting psychological scars. Ramsbottom, Smallbone, Fokker, Freake … cruel, really. I had a university acquaintance, poor chap, called “Dickman”. I well remember the brief, agonised slump of his shoulders when the reading out of his name evoked a spiteful snigger from a young lady present. I hope she ended up marrying someone called Glasscock.

Some names fall into the almost-too-good-to-be-true category. As one “Hoffy” reported, “I have a friend called Pat Condom. You won’t believe it, but he married a Margret Prick” (adding, almost superfluously in the circumstances, that “the best man’s speech was brilliant”). Then there is my former director, Yehuda Kay. I was delighted to discover that his second name was Yaakov, enabling me to jocularly, and quite accurately, refer to him as Y2K.

A shlemazel member of the Jewish student body at Rhodes in my day was called “Aron Moron”. Probably, this referred to Mount Maron in Israel, but who would want to go through life explaining that? I checked the telephone directory, and there were no Morons in it. Presumably they all emigrated, to the South Pole if they had any sense.

In the theatrical/film professions, having a decent-sounding name is a matter of professional survival. Debonair charmer Cary Grant could hardly have made the same impact as “Archie Leach”, his birth-name, and it is hard to imagine John Wayne, who epitomised craggy American manliness for half a century, becoming more than a bit-part player had he remained Marion Morrison.

Most of the great composers were quite lucky in that their names would seem to be just right. This is especially true, I think, of Mozart, whose very name has a certain sublime ring to it. It needn’t have been that way. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could just easily have been born Uddo Ulrich Schnauzengrubel.

Charles Dickens was particularly brilliant when it came to concocting names for his characters, such as Wackford Squeers, Uriah Heep and Sarey Gamp. Other authors nearly made critical blunders, however. Scarlett O’Hara’s original name was Pansy, and for a long time Tolkien’s Frodo in The Lord of the Rings was called Bingo.

Has anyone else got some funny-disastrous surnames to share?


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.