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What's in a Name, You Ask? Sometimes It's a Punch Line--or Two


WASHINGTON — I love funny names. I notice them, collect them, remember them. Some names are funny because they are eerily appropriate to the person or his occupation, as with the hard-serving tennis pro Anna Smashnova or the glad-handing, vote-schmoozing Iowa state legislator Steve Sukup, or Secret Service Agent Jeffrey Undercoffer, or Federal Trade Commissioner Orson Swindle.

But some names are just plain hilarious on their own, like the former head of the Washington-area United Way, Oral Suer. (To be entirely fair to Mr. Suer, I should point out his name is not pronounced like a waste sluice. It's pronounced "swear," like %&%!)

From time to time, I have seen fit to laugh at names like these, and each time I receive a letter or two from outraged readers.

Sure, the letter writer is often named something like Orkney Gruntflaster, but his point is not without merit: People do not choose their names; ridiculing them is unfair and immature.

I have come to see the wisdom of this. As a public act of contrition, I decided to apologize to people whom, in my former immature state, I might well have made fun of.

"I'm just phoning to tell you that I do not find your name even remotely amusing, Dr. Gesundheit."

Neil Gesundheit is a prominent endocrinologist and professor at Stanford University's school of medicine.

"You're calling about my name?"

"Yes, but definitely not to make fun of it."

"I've been working on the medical school curriculum here, and when you said the Washington Post I thought you'd be asking how the new curriculum is going to be distinctive."

"Yes, in fact, that is much more interesting than your name. Please tell our readers about your new curriculum, Dr. Gesundheit."

"Each student is not only going to be a physician when he graduates, but a real scholar in his field of choice."

"Wow!" I said. Dr. Gesundheit sounded pleased.

This catharsis thing seemed to be working. So I called to apologize to Cantwell Muckenfuss III, another innocent who might formerly have been a victim of my childish humor. Muckenfuss is a big muckety- ... I mean a big-shot Washington lawyer, a banking expert who served under four presidents in the Treasury Department. He goes by "Chuck." Chuck Muckenfuss. I told him I found his name interesting, though certainly not comical, and wondered where it came from, purely as a matter of genealogical curiosity.

"It means something like mosquito foot." "Ha-ha-ha," I observed.

"Yes, I suspect the roots are not aristocratic."

Next I called another lawyer whose name is not funny. New York City litigator Sue You does mostly defense work, anyway, so where's the joke? Believe it or not, though, she has heard some snickers over the years. "I am Miss You, so that can lead to comments," she said.

Eventually, I found myself talking to one of the most prominent pediatric endocrinologists in America. He has one of these really grave and wise and dignified doctor voices, rich with age and wisdom and compassion, a voice that can make a person feel very puny indeed.

Dr. Wellington Hung asked why I had called. I tried, but I just couldn't get it out. Apologized for bothering him.

The conversation left me shaken. Sure, I had changed, but was I letting myself off too easy? I needed absolution, and there was only one place to find it--back where I began.

"Dr. Gesundheit, do you feel that someone who finds your name funny, or might have found your name funny at some more immature point in his past, is ... a bad person?"

He paused. I braced for the answer.

"No, not necessarily."

God bless you, Dr. Gesundheit.

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