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What’s in a name?

January 14, 2013 | Scott

If you met a chap called Nicholas Brody you’d probably call him Nicholas, or Nick, or Nicky – not Brody, although funnily enough that’s what his wife calls him. But more about that in a minute. In the meantime, here’s a look at other one-named (or to use the long word that describes them, mononymous) people through the ages.

It all began a very long time ago. Alulim was the first king of Sumer (which as you no doubt are aware was an ancient civilization in Southern Mesopotamia somewhere between 4500 and 4000 BC) and may well have been the first king anywhere in the World. He has one of the earliest known names and as you can see, it’s a mononym. This had all changed by the time of The Roman Empire when people had multiple names, although they would often be known by a mononym – for example Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was known as Emperor Nero. By the time we get to The Middle Ages (5th – 10th Century AD) mononymity had all but disappeared in Europe although in The U.S.A. it was still prevalent as late as the 19th Century – after all, we’ve all heard of Pocahontas and Geronimo haven’t we? Philosophers like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle favoured the single name approach as did mathematicians like Euclid and Pythagoras. It’s popular with emperors (Napoleon, Caesar, Hirohito) and royalty (The British Royal Family and the aristocracy often only use one name) too. Meanwhile European writers started adopting mononyms that had little or nothing to do with their real names – in France François-Marie Arouet became Voltaire, the German writer Georg Friedrich Philipp Freiherr von Hardenberg somehow came up with Novalis, while in Russia Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov chose Lenin as his pen name. And in the art world Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Titian all chose to be professionally mononymous.

In modern times it may seem that everyone has one or more Christian or given names with an inherited surname or family name, but it’s interesting to note that surnames were only introduced in Turkey as late as the 1920s, and that mononyms are still common in Mongolia, India, Tibet, Afghanistan and Indonesia. In the Western World mononymity is often adopted by entertainers and sportsmen – Björk, Rihanna, Madonna and Beyoncé all use their first names while Mantovani, Liberace and Morrissey are strictly surnames only. Nicknames work too – Gordon Sumner was bass player with The Phoenix Jazzmen when he bought a yellow and black hooped jumper and was called Sting by the bandleader, while ‘Moby Dick’ author Herman Melville was the great-great-great-granduncle of Richard Meville Hall, who is better known as the musician and DJ Moby. And up and coming young Dublin singer Paul Hewson was nicknamed Bono Vox by his friend Gavin Friday; he didn’t like the name until he was told that it was derived from the Latin word Bonavox which means ‘good voice’. These days he just calls himself Bono. In the sporting world footballers are fans of the mononym – for example Edison Arantes do Nascimento is (much) more well known to us all as Pelé while Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima only uses his first name. But maybe the most extraordinary mononym story of all is that of the American magician Teller of Penn And Teller fame. He was originally called Raymond Joseph Teller until he changed his name to just Teller. No first name – just Teller. It’s on his passport and everything. Pretty cool huh?

So – why does Nicholas Brody’s wife call him Brody? We don’t know. Sorry. But if you wear our ‘Why Does His Wife Call Him Brody?’ t-shirt then you never know, someone from back in the homeland might tell you…

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