Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Crappy Names

Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), chapter 3 (The Country Towns), p. 54:
In only two of the dozens of extant census declarations does a metropolitan family have more daughters than sons (and then only one and two more, respectively). A Greek custom which the metropolites continued was that of discarding unwanted neonates [newborns] with the rest of their refuse. Egyptians, whose religion forbade infanticide, often rescued babies left thus to die. The law allowed them to adopt foundlings or raise them as slaves. The origin of such children was often memorialized in the names they were given, Kopreus and its many variants, meaning 'off the dunghill'.
The Greek word for dung is kopros.

When I lived in Atlanta, I knew a gentleman who was an inexhaustible fount of amusing stories. I was never sure which were true and which were tall tales. One was the story of an unwed teenager who gave birth to a daughter in a big-city hospital (probably Grady in Atlanta). She had trouble thinking up a name for her newborn baby, until one of the waggish doctors suggested the euphonious name Latrina. The unsuspecting mother liked the name, did not see its resemblance to the word latrine, and so her unfortunate daughter supposedly went through life saddled with the name Latrina.

I laughed at the story, but doubted its truth. Soon after I moved to the Twin Cities, the newspapers were full of the tragic story of a little girl accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting. Relatives of the victim were interviewed. The first name of one of the relatives? Latrina. Google gives many other examples. If Latrina is an acceptable name, why not Toiletta?

According to the United States Census Bureau, 0.002 percent of females in this country are named Latrina. By contrast, 0.001 percent of the population have the same last name as I do (Gilleland). Kopreus does not appear as a first or last name in the United States.

Latrine comes from Latin latrina, a shortened form of lavatrina, derived from lavatus, the perfect passive participle of the verb lavo (wash, bathe). A word with a similar meaning and derivation is lavatory.

Another crappy name that amused me when I first read it was the name of Japan's prime minister from 1987 to 1989, Noboru Takeshita. This is just an accidental resemblance to an English obscenity, but apparently there used to be many intentionally scatological Japanese names:
In the Heian period and after, it was common to use "Kuso" in names, which means just what you think it means. The famous poet "Kinotsurayuki," who wrote the Tosa Diaries, is a notable example. His birth name was "Ako Kuso," which means "my child...shit." Amazing that a man with this kind of name grew up to be successful in life. Nor is he an isolated case. Names like "Kusoko" and "Oguso" were in vogue among the nobility. The book explains that this has to do with the belief in the god of the toilet. Since the toilet god keeps you healthy, it stands to reason he would be helpful in rearing a healthy child. This seems very out of place in the Japan of today, but it persists in a small way in the superstition that a pregnant woman should keep her bathroom clean if she wants to have a beautiful baby.
I'm curious to learn more about the Japanese toilet god. In Roman mythology, the toilet deity was a goddess, Cloacina, whose name comes from the Latin word for sewer, cloaca.

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