My wife’s full name is Sue Ellen Peters Morris. With a name like Sue Ellen, you know she is from the South. Indeed, consider the names of all the girls in her family: Sue Ellen, Rebecca Ann, Mary Beth and Martha Lee. Get the idea that they are not from New Jersey?
I think Southerners have a distinctive approach to naming their children. Their naming knack is unlike anyone else’s. Who else would pick Scarlett as a first name for their little girl. Certainly not a New Englander. For them this name would probably inspire visions of giant A’s tacked onto the front of a sinner’s dress. You know—the scarlet woman. (Although Hester Prinn is not without merit as a humdinger of a name.)
Think of the stereotypical Southern belle’s name—cognomens like: Lulu Belle, Daisy Mae, Ellie Mae, Sadie Mae, Cindy Lou (Who?), Missy, Sissy, and Prissie. Whew!
Such monikers are rife in my family. My own mother’s name was Nelmer Nay Morris. Yep. Allow me to repeat it so that you do not think I made a typo. Her name was Nelmer Nay. Now lots of people had difficulty grabbing hold of such a appellation. So many people called her Naomi. (I sometimes wonder if they thought she had a speech problem and couldn’t pronounce her own name. We all know Southerners can’t talk anyway! HA!) Now Naomi is a good name, a biblical name, an acceptable name. But it wasn’t her name. She was Nelmer. I always preferred those who simply called her “Nell.” At least this was a diminutive of her actual name.
Now it may puzzle you as to why anyone would name someone “Nelmer.” Interesting story. In my mother’s family it was not uncommon for someone in the family other than the parents to name a newborn child. It seems that just when my mother was born a distant cousin happened to be visiting my grandparents. Mama’s folks were all set to name their little girl Caroline. Good, wholesome, pronounceable name. Then this cousin pipes up. “I’ve got a little girl back home [somewhere in the wilds of West Virginia, I think.] named Nelmer Nay. I would be mighty proud if you would give your little girl the same name.” So, Mama became Nelmer.
Sorta odd to think that there are actually TWO Nelmer Nays in the world, isn’t it?
Mama wasn’t the only one in her family with an unusual name. Her oldest sister was named Alzura. We called her Allie. Aunt Allie was given this name because it is supposedly from the Scriptures. We were told this was the name of the woman whose child was spared by the sword-wielding, wise King Solomon. What bit of apocryphal literature this came from I have no idea. She also had a sister named Lourinda. We called her Aunt Lou.
I mentioned that many people called my mother Naomi. Maybe calling people by a name other than their actual name is also a southern tradition. (The ubiquitous “Bubba” may be a watered down version of this tendency.) At least in my family, this practice was common. Nelmer was Naomi. Aunt Lou was called Winnie by many people. Their sister Margaret, Mattie for short, was also called “Lean.” (I never knew Aunt Lean. She died before I was born. But I have seen many pictures of her. She was a typical Morris—i.e., anything but lean.) Another sister was named Hester. Yet, believe it or not, she was called Hester. (She never had to wear a scarlet A, though.) Aunt Hester may have been called Hester, but she did have a daughter named Irma that everybody called Toots. Can’t let the tradition die. She also had a two other daughters, Maxine and Betty Lou. Maxine was Macky. Betty Lou was simply Betty Lou. With a great sounding Southern name like Betty Lou…well, you don’t want to mess with that. My maternal grandmother was Mary Ann. She was known as Betty. My maternal grandfather was named Hugh Lea Morris. They called him Lil. (Who else but a hillybilly Morris would have an aunt named Lou and a grandfather named Lil?) As I ponder these facts, I have come to the conclusion that my family lived to give genealogists, historians, and county clerks massive migraines!
Lil Morris, known as Papa to most of the family, came from a background with a rich tradition in bizarre nomenclature. Papa had a sister named Drusilla. Not too bad. He also had a sister named Tildie Verdie. I love that name. As a kid I would hear someone mention it, and immediately want to laugh. Sounds like a ride at the county carnival. (“Did you ride the Tildie Verdie yet? I got sick and threw up all over cousin Sadie Lou!”) By the way, my sister, Connie, has been doing some research on the family history. She has discovered that Great Aunt Tildie Verdie’s real name was Matilda Verta. Verta? (“The momentum m multiplied by the square root of the verta will result in the equivalent of the force of the object in motion.”) Somewhere lurking in Papa’s background was also an unsavory character named Layfat. I don’t who, where or when Layfat Morris fits in the picture. I only remember being told the name as a child. I am sure he was not a nice person. Perhaps he was a Lafayette who didn’t quite make it. Did he engage in amateur obesity, as opposed to professional? With a name like Layfat I am positive he must have moved to Tibet and joined a monastery. Only way to deal with the shame.
Oooooooh! I almost forgot one of the best. My cousin Durt. Yep. I am probably one of the few people in the world who can say that. I have a cousin Durt. As I recall, he is actually a cousin something-or-other-removed a few times from my father. Now I ask you, why in the name of all that is sensible and rational would you name your child “Durt”? If you have any brains at all, you have to know that this child is not going to survive elementary school in one piece. And he must have no self esteem at all. (“Hello. I’m Durt.”)
I must not leave out Tater Bug! Dear Tater. She was a cousin with whom Connie and I were fairly close. She was the daughter of Aunt Allie. Her given name was Ann Roach. (Yes, her mother was Alzura Morris Roach.) When Ann was born, she was short and round. The family said she looked like a potato bug, hence “Tater Bug.” And the name stuck. She carried this designation till the day of her death. I know, I preached Tater’s funeral.
I must hurry to a finish…but I cannot forget other family members with most interesting names. (Though dearly loved, one and all.) First, there is Pamela, who was never called Pam, instead she was known as Tessie, but we called her Sissy. Pam/Tessie/Sissy had a sister, Buttons. Then there is Leatrice, and Lester, Hester and Halice, Bernice and Booty, think I’ve gone fruity?, Josie Belle and Artemis, Sowers and Suckey, Viranda, Keziah, Lively and Peachey…But now I sound preachy.
(And yes, these are all real names in my family tree.)
If you read southern literature, or watch plays or films based in the South, then you come across this tendency for extraordinary names. It seems to be part of our culture. I think I now understand why Tennessee Williams and Edgar Allan Poe both went North to die!