What's in a name? Your queries answered

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The Independent Online
Ever wondered exactly what the derivation of your name is, or of the strangely named people around you? Dr Vernon Monicker, an expert on the etymology of names, is back again to answer your questions. All yours, Doctor!

I have always been quite pleased that I bore the same name as the famous writer Christopher Isherwood, but it has never occurred to me until now to wonder what the derivation was. Can you help please?

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Well, many names are derived from the occupation of the original bearer, such as Porter or Thatcher or Cook. Christopher comes into the same bracket, as it means "bearer of Christ" and refers to the time St Christopher bore Jesus across the river. Of course, it wasn't really an occupation, more a one-off errand, and I don't suppose he ever carried him across rivers again, however much he hung around hoping to help our Lord, and in any case I suppose Jesus had no need of him after he had learnt to walk on water. Nor do we know what name St Christopher had before he earned the name by which we know him. Obviously, he wasn't called Christopher to begin with, otherwise people would keep saying to him: "Why are you called Christopher if you have never borne Christ across a river?" And he would say: "One day I will, give us time, give us a chance, one day..."

I really meant the name Isherwood, not Christopher.

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Ah. Well, Isherwood looks odd at first sight until you realise it is merely Sherwood with an I on the front. The original name was I Sherwood, but the name and the initials became fused together. You quite often find examples of this, as in Psmith and Pshaw.

It's odd, isn't it, that famous painters often have the names of military rank, such as Constable and Sargent. Is there a reason for this?

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Not only that, but quite often you find that the lower the rank the better the painter. Beside Constable and Sargent there is also the inferior Victorian artist Leader, yet better than all of them, arguably, is Whistler, which was the lowest musician's rank in the old American army.

Many American tennis stars have names of obviously European origin, such as Sampras (Greek), Agassi (Italian) and Courier (French), yet the countries they derive from cannot produce tennis players of the same calibre. Does this mean that you have to emigrate to America to become better at tennis?

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Courier, of course, is another interesting example of a name which comes from an occupation.

That was not the question I asked.

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: I'm perfectly aware of that, but I don't know the answer to the question you asked.

For a hundred years or more, my family name has been Selby-Date. Now, of course, it looks faintly comic, as if we were called Bar-Code or something, so I would like to know what the true origin of this name is.

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: This is another of these occupational origins. It comes from "Sell-Bidet", the name given to a bidet-seller. A perfectly honourable trade, but felt to be embarrassing to the English in Victorian times, who changed it to Selby-Date.

Why have so many inventions been named after Scots? I'm thinking of the macintosh, and macadam and so on. Even McDonald's has become generic for a hamburger. Is there something intrinsically talented about the Scots when it comes to inventions?

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: No, not at all. The fact is that in the old days immigrant workers were divided into two groups for ease of administration, names beginning with A-L, and names beginning M-Z. This meant that those with names beginning "Ma ..." got in much qicker and had an enormous advantage. This included a lot of Scots, of course, but an equally large number of Italians.

I don't believe it. Name one.

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Martello.

Name another.

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Marconi.

Any more?

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Macchiavelli. Maserati, Macaroni ...

OK, OK. Incidentally, is it true that the phrase "Joan Collins" has already gone into Cockney slang?

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: Meaning what?

Well, to sell someone a Joan Collins is, supposedly, to get a lot of money for something worth nothing.

Dr Vernon Monicker writes: My lawyers have advised me not to answer that question. Keep those queries rolling in!