RIO DE JANEIRO — Open the phone book and embark on an expedition into the wondrous world of Brazilian names.
A quick search unearths gems: Welfare Almeida, Nostradamus Coelho, Waterloo da Silva, Ben Hur Euzebio and Flavio Cavalcanti Rei da Televisao (King of Television) Nogueira.
Let's call one of these people and find out what the heck is going on with these names.
"My grandfather's name was Moacir, which in the Tupi Guarani indigenous language means Bad Omen," explains Welfare Almeida, an anesthesiologist. "So he named my father Welfare, because it meant well-being, which was the opposite. And there was a famous English soccer player in Sao Paulo named Harry Welfare."
All that seems exotic, but it's actually run of the mill. Parents in Brazil have named their children Xerox, Skylab, Nausea, D'Artagnan, Barrigudinha (Little-Bellied Girl), Colapso Cardiaco (Cardiac Collapse), Saddam Hussein (known by the affectionate diminutive Saddamzinho), Antonio Morrendo das Dores (Dying of Pain) and, in a prodigious burst of inspiration in the city of Recife eight years ago, Tchaikovsky Johannsen Adler Pryce Jackman Faier Ludwin Zolman Hunter Lins.
Brazilians have elevated names to an art form as playful and magical as their music and dance. Brazilians see naming a baby as an opportunity to have fun. Names become talismans; badges of creativity and individualism. Names tell short stories about the dazzling blend of cultures that makes up this society, the layers of superstition and inequality, the tolerance and snobbery, dreams and improvisation.
"In Brazil, the act of naming has a strong magical content," says Elaine Rabinovitch, a Sao Paulo psychologist who studies the psychology of names. "We have this mixed identity that comes from a colony composed of indigenous peoples, African slaves and Europeans. And we have an extraordinarily rich oral tradition. Brazilians are always inventing words. Many names are given simply because the parents like the sound."
Brazilians are not the only citizens of the hemisphere with a flair for language, of course. There are parallels in other Latin American nations. Just across the border from Southern California, in Tijuana, for example, a glance at a newspaper turns up the likes of Dante, Espartaco, Galileo, Hodin, Cuauhtemoc and Odilon.
In Brazil, however, almost anything goes. The freewheeling mentality contrasts with the policies of neighboring nations such as Argentina, where the repressive legacy of Spanish colonists lingers.
Names are a solemn ritual at the registrar's office in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. The bureaucracy maintains a list of acceptable names--mostly of classic Roman Catholic-Spanish origin--which exudes the authority of a sacred document.
Until last week, when federal authorities decided to loosen the restrictions, Argentine parents who picked for their baby a name that was not on the list risked the disconcerting experience of having a haughty clerk reject their choice and send them home to think up an acceptable one. One Jewish Argentine couple won approval for a Hebrew name for their baby girl by presenting a letter from the Israeli Embassy authenticating the name's existence.
Officialdom here in Rio is far less uptight. In the working-class Estacio neighborhood, the authority to whom parents come to register newborns is the kindly area registrar, Waldner Quintanilha, whose father's name was Wagner.
Names Too Long Even for Computers
The white-haired, rumpled Quintanilha has worked 51 years in the windowless, street-front office, with its dusty volumes lining shelves and the continuous murmur of computer printers. Asked about any rules governing names, he smiled ruefully over his spectacles like a schoolteacher caught in the middle of a food fight.
"We are more open in Brazil," he says. "People commit every grammatical aberration you can imagine. Sometimes we get names so long they won't fit in the computer."
Quintanilha wrote a manual addressing the proper spelling of first names. Although he tries to share his expertise, parents insist on phonetic versions, and delight in inserting the letters K, W and Y, which are not used in Portuguese, the language spoken in Brazil.
"They say they like the way a name looks," he says. "They are concerned more with the visual appearance than the etymology."
Hence Diana, popular because of the late Princess of Wales, becomes Tayane. Carolina becomes Kerolyne. Malcolm becomes Myacon. William Holden becomes Willi Horner. Edison, a homage to the U.S. inventor, becomes Edson, the first name of the soccer legend known around the globe by his nickname: Pele.
Edson, Robson, Anderson and Washington are favorite first names in Rio's favelas, or slums, partly because of the percussive "on" sound and partly because American-sounding names are seen as cool and classy.
A step higher on the socioeconomic ladder, lower-middle-class families go to more elaborate lengths, according to Quintanilha.