What’s In A Name Of The Year? (Part I)
A Discussion With Gavin Byrnes and Brandon Michael Lowden
Part I: Name Theory
This transcript has been “lightly” edited.
Brandon (hereafter referred to as BML): So is this, like, a FiveThirtyEight slackchat?
Gavin: I think that’s the plan, yeah. I think we should start with a little background on what we look for in names, and then head into the bracket.
BML: “A little background.”
Gavin: What, am I being too official?
BML: No, I mean, I have WAY too much background on that.
Gavin: Oh, right, of course. Well, I want to hear your background, and so will our loyal readers: my sister, and maybe anyone else.
BML: Then let’s get to it. I’ll try to refer throughout to examples from not only this year’s bracket but years past.
Gavin: I love how official you’re being. Keep it up. I’m going to interject some of my own preferences here, but I don’t think they’re going to be as wide-ranging as yours.
BML: I’d first like to dispel this fiction that the Name of the Year, or great names in general, rely on schoolyard / scatological humor and cheap laughs. Sure, those are funny. I mean, from this year’s bracket, Dick Tips is pretty hilarious.
Gavin: I disagree (which is weird, because normally I go for the cheapest of laughs, but NOT in this bracket, or in funny names in general), but go on.
BML: But I’d argue that the image of “dick tips” is not what makes it funny. There are a number of factors in what makes a name, and obviously this is going to be a very subjective analysis, but I’ll try to be somewhat analytical. I’m basing this on personal preference but also some level of observation of the past winners.
Gavin: Ooh I like this — normally I’m super analytical, but I’m not going to be here.
BML: Now, I’m not exactly closing in on a Grand Unified Theory of Names, but this is a relatively new (or at least underdeveloped) field of scholarship.
Gavin: Severely underdeveloped. Also, I have a simple theory that is going to throw a wrench into the mix, but I’m going to wait a little while to introduce it.
BML: I’m just going to throw some ideas out there, a lot of which will hail from my field of expertise, which is writing and specifically musical theater writing. But these will be familiar concepts like meter, the comedic rule of three, et cetera. And I think you’ll agree they apply well to name analysis.
Gavin: My theory is so much simpler than this, but go on.
BML: I’ve begun grouping my nebulous thoughts into some general areas — again, these are not hard-and-fast concepts yet, just a start — which I’m currently calling Construction, Familiarity, and Sound.
Gavin: I like it.
BML: So, construction — which isn’t necessarily divorced from pure sound, these things all feed into each other — includes one of the basic drivers of name comedy, which is the establishment and breaking of patterns. That includes things like repetition and variation, for example, last year’s winner — Amanda Miranda Panda.
Gavin: Not the choice I would have gone with, by the way.
BML: I mean, that’s an incredible level of repetition, but what really makes it sing is the breaking of the pattern — the last word is shorter, begins with a glorious plosive consonant, and takes a hard left turn from two standard girl’s names into lovable mammal.
Gavin: You have thought so hard about this and I love it so much and I’m just sitting on my one idea.
BML: But it’s good that we have different approaches, otherwise this would be a circle-jerk no one would read, instead of a thoughtful back-and-forth no one will read.
Gavin: Very important.
BML: Another structural feature of great names is compounds. Here is where there are all kinds of wonderful compositions — take last year’s runner-up (and perhaps rightful champion), Lancelot Supersad Jr.
Gavin: A great name on every level.
BML: Here we have two wonderful structural ideas really pumping. (1) Stringing together incongruous mundane words is a classical technique of excellent name construction. Supersad is just a great compound word. (One of my favorites in this year’s bracket, Daystar Smallboy, is another fine example.)
Gavin: Strings of incongruous mundane words are indeed wonderful (and related to my rule that I keep hyping up).
BML: (2) The combination of completely unrelated first and last name. Lancelot. Supersad. Those come from two different worlds, and yet exist in this one name. (A very good example of wacky first-last contrast this year is Tchaikovsky Cantalicio.)
Gavin: This is why I don’t love names like Dick Tips or last year’s Manmeet Colon. I like some contrast between first and last.
BML: We’re going to get to why I kind of like Dick Tips (HEYO) but first let’s look at one more structural feature of Lancelot Supersad Jr.: modifiers. Prefixes and suffixes (this year’s Lil’Jordan Humphrey), hyphenations (Jasmine Albuquerque-Croissant), and titles or appendations, most commonly Dr. or Jr., can really give a name some edge.
Gavin: We’ve got a Lieutenant this year, which makes me excited.
BML: Yes, Lt. Charlene Sprinkle-Huff, a strong contender with multiple modifiers. But they don’t always work. I feel like “Dr.” doesn’t add much unless it’s helping the rhythm of the name, but we’ll get to that later with this year’s doctors.
Gavin: Yeah I don’t really like Dr. but I’ll let you finish.
BML: What works so well about Lancelot Supersad Jr. is that it’s amazing on its own, then there’s a secondary reaction of, “Holy crap, there was ALREADY a Lancelot Supersad in this world!” And I think that gets at the underpinning feature of all the patterns and contrasts, compound words, incongruous combinations — serendipity. How did all the parts of this name end up together? It’s wonderful to live in a world where that could happen.
And this leads into the next area of focus, familiarity. Uniqueness is good, of course, so one would think the more foreign or unfamiliar the name, the better, right?
Gavin: NOT NECESSARILY is what I think is coming here.
BML: Indeed. I think a wholly uncommon name is much less funny than a name that combines deeply familiar elements with the uncommon, or uses them in new and surprising ways.
Gavin: I tend to agree.
BML: I mean, take these words: boy, day, small, star. Whatever. But Daystar Smallboy? Holy shit!
Gavin: I also tend to dock points for a name that is legitimately common(ish) within its culture, like, again, last year’s Manmeet Colon.
BML: That’s true, too.
Gavin: Or Dr. Wallop Promthong should be funny, but I think Promthong is like a perfectly reasonable Thai name, so it feels a little weird to laugh at it.
BML: I’d agree. But take Dr. Kim Nazi. Now, it’s not the funniest of the bunch, but it’s clear that the combination of SUPER NORMAL Kim and SUPER CHARGED Nazi is a match made in heaven, comedy-wise. And part of this overlaps with the structure — “Dr. Kim” is definitely NOT leading us to “Nazi.” We’re breaking the pattern.
Gavin: Yes. And it works better as Kim rather than some long first name and then Nazi.
Gavin: I would prefer it to be Dr. Jeff Nazi, but that’s splitting hairs.
BML: Another way that familiarity can be bent into humor in these names is the use of otherwise mundane words that aren’t normally names. Perfect example: Jerusalem Monday. Neither word is odd on its own. Even in combination, they’re not strange. But as a NAME? Goddamn. The platonic ideal of this concept is last year’s Cherries Waffles Tennis.
Gavin: You’re so right.
BML: And my conclusion in thinking about these varying roles of familiarity is that often, great names fall into the Uncanny Valley — is this a concept general audiences are familiar with?
Gavin: I’m not totally sure if I know what it is myself.
BML: The Uncanny Valley refers to the shape of the graph of human comfort toward human-like objects. As an object becomes more recognizably human, we become more comfortable with it. But just before the graph reaches fully human, it dips into a valley where we are totally creeped the hell out. This is why dead bodies, mannequins, and lifelike robots make us uncomfortable.
Gavin: Okay, I understand this, and it is horrifying. It reminds me of a Snapchat I got from a friend today in which she had replaced her eyes with her mouth. Eye teeth are now my least favorite things.
BML: But in applying this to name analysis, I think the Uncanny Valley is the funniest area — where the name is extremely recognizable, but just different enough to be identifiable as a simulacrum, which strikes the mind in an odd way.
Gavin: Okay, I like this.
BML: The perfect example of such a name is right there in one of the region names. Godfrey Shithole would be a funny name. But Godfrey Sithole is fantastic. It’s just so perfectly slightly off.
Gavin: Correct. This is similar to our conversation the other day, in which I correctly posited that Donovan McNabb would have been a much greater quarterback and person had he been named Donovan McNarb.
Gavin: One question about these categories: do you then tier or somehow order these different types of names in your mind and prefer some to others? Or is it more “which name best exemplifies its category?”
BML: I consider each name on its merits. Not every good name has to abide by all the rules. These are just helpful concepts to think about WHY we like certain names.
Gavin: Of course.
BML: Again, serendipity plays a big role. And that leads to our final category, the very sound of the name.
Gavin: You definitely want to read the names out loud.
BML: It’s important. Imperative. There is a certain mellifluousness that you just can’t explain.
Gavin: I think a good example of this is 2014’s winner, Shamus Beaglehole. It’s just really fun to say.
BML: Yes. Length of name, length of each component of the name, these all play into it. Individual phonemes make a difference — some sounds are just funny. And the way the sounds are arranged… take this year’s Chizu Shimizu Buckalew. That just rolls off the tongue in a way I can’t quantify.
Gavin: It reminds me of one of those rap verses were you think it’s one cadence and then it starts going faster. Chizu ShiMIzu.
BML: Yes. And there’s no one kind of meter that works better than others; it’s just one of the ways we can analyze why we like the names we like. And this brings us back around to Dick Tips. Which I think is run of the mill, as the bracket goes, but what levity it does bring comes not from the obvious “LOL dick! Dick Tips! Like the tip of a dick!” but from the way “Dick Tips” just flies out of the mouth. Short and sweet. Melodious.
Gavin: Glad we cleared that up.
BML: So I guess this whole discourse was to say, who knows. It’s aesthetic. It’s subjective. But these are factors that contribute and help us to understand why a certain name delights our ear.
Gavin: Yes, I agree.
BML: Now I’d like to hear your theories.
Gavin: I have a couple. First theory: Names that rhyme had better be really REALLY good. I find that they get overrated so easily in the tournament. This was my issue with Amanda Miranda Panda (although you have convinced me that that is a special one), but like… 2014’s Becky Lecky. There is nothing there. (And well, it was a 16 seed… I think their seedings occasionally make sense, though they are by no means perfect.)
BML: Just checking over this year’s… we have Muna Tuna, which is strong.
Gavin: I don’t love it.
BML: Well, an important question is, “Moona” or “Myuna”? I think it makes a difference.
Gavin: I think you’re right.
BML: Also, for a Pittsburgher, the word “tuna” is always funny.
Gavin: Fair enough. Okay, so I am a big fan of “short first name with long complicated last name.” Or “very long complicated first name with short humorous PUNCHY last name.” The former being this year’s Cosmo Bjorkenheim, the latter of course being Brodarious Hamm.
BML: And that’s related to some of what I described above. The contrast, and the punchiness being crucial to the sound.
Gavin: Yes it is. I’m saving my final theory for the end. I think I’m ready to propose it. And it really is based on the idea that a name should be greater than the sum of its parts.
BML: Ooh, that’s a compositional area I did not explore. But hugely important!
Gavin: In my opinion, for a number of reasons (related to what you had said and my own beliefs), the funniest name — it is not real — is Jarvis Butthelmet.
BML: I am indeed laughing quite a bit.
Gavin: So for all of these names, I will be considering what the name would be if the first name were replaced with Jarvis, and then if the last name were replaced with Butthelmet. If it’s funnier with those replacements, the name isn’t living up to the competition!
BML: WHOA. This is a fascinating way of analyzing this stuff! I never thought of that. Brilliant.
Gavin: Because the first name and last name should be working together in such a way that they can’t just be improved upon by plugging in a generically hilarious name on either side. I’ll give you an example: Tillman Buttersack is an absolutely AMAZING name —
BML: It so is.
Gavin: But! I think I’m laughing just as hard if not harder at Tillmann Butthelmet. Hm, maybe that’s not the best example because “butt” is in there already. (Butts are funny, this is not disputed.)
BML: Buttersack’s first-round opponent, Jango Glackin?
Gavin: There we go. Jango Glackin is fine, but Jango Butthelmet is funnier. On the other hand, take the name Boy Waterman. It’s fine, but Jarvis Waterman is not funnier.
BML: I’m not 100% sure I can use this method of evaluation consistently.
Gavin: It has the drawback of diminishing returns.
BML: But I agree with what you’ve drawn up here.
Gavin: It’s going to be a part of my thought process, but again, as with Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, you just have to know a funny name when you see it. Though again I agree that you have come up with some great reasons here.
BML: It’s good to have multiples ways of looking at this. It’s a growing science.
Gavin: We’ve been talking for an hour and we haven’t even gotten to the bracket yet.
BML: Well, I am going to grab another drink, and then let’s hit the bracket, shall we?
Gavin: Sounds like a plan — I will reach over to my table for my root beer.
To be continued…