Magazine article Russian Life

What Is in a Name?

Magazine article Russian Life

What Is in a Name?

Article excerpt

Johnny Cash had a number one song in the 1970s, A Boy Named Sue, written by Shel Silverstein. It is about a boy who grows up angry and aggressive, cursed with the burden of a feminine name ("I grew up quick and I grew up mean, My fist got hard and my wits got keen"). The boy grows up, tracks down the father that named him Sue, they fight and, just before the boy is to knock the father senseless, the dad pleads for understanding. He had to leave the boy alone in the world, he said, and "I knew you'd have to get tough or die. And it's the name that helped to make you strong."

Names have power.

What we call things colors our perception of them.

Consider what your expectation would be, driving somewhere across America, if you saw a "You are now entering" sign for these towns: Burnt Corn, Two Eggs, Painesville, Hell, What Cheer or Monkey's Eyebrow. They all exist, and you have to bet there have been some interesting conversations over the years.

"So, where are you from?"


"Excuse me?"

"Hell, it's in Michigan."

Our country is certainly not unique in the creation of oddball town names. Russia has its share as well: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Advantage), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Good), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cats), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Deep), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Evil), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Scrofula--a tuberculous infection of the skin of the neck), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (No Drunkards), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Burned Down), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Nothing to Eat).

One cannot help wondering how such names (American or Russian) came about. Was it a local with a bizarre sense of humor? A county official with a score to settle? An insiders' nickname for a place, indiscreetly mentioned to a traveling geographer?

Russia's Communists were quite intentional about naming and renaming places after they came to power. It was a monumental honor to have a town named after you, and hundreds (if not thousands) of "heroes" of the Bolshevik Revolution were immortalized (or so they though) when their names were plastered on streets, towns, cities and regions. Places like Gorky, Kirov, Stalingrad, Brezhnev, Leningrad, Ustinov, Andropov, Kalinin were only the more prominent. …

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