Growing Up Putz

Tending the Low-Hanging Fruit of a Funny Last Name


When I was in seventh grade, Jon looked up my last name in the dictionary.

He spent an afternoon shouting Katie Dick! Katie Dick! Katie Dick! down the hallway.

All I did was laugh and put the dictionary back on the shelf.

I. A Note on Names

A 1948 study by B. M. Savage & F. L. Wells, two Harvard University professors, concluded that rare names had a negative psychological effect on their unfortunate bearers. Of the thirty-three hundred young men they studied, those with unusual names performed more poorly academically than their normal-named counterparts. Savage and Wells’ findings have been refuted numerous times over the decades by countless other name-related studies.

Yet people keep asking “do names matter?”

II. An Obscenity

Once, my mother applied online for an American Express card. The web-form rejected her — and not because of bad credit or that pesky decade-old bankruptcy filing. The form rejected our last name and notified her in red, incriminating, bold face type that she had entered an obscenity.

So we carry Visa.

III. On the Endurance of Certain Names

People know each other by names—first names, last names, full names, nicknames, pet names, mean nicknames. Most of us turn to the sound of our names almost anywhere and forgive the new guy in the office for emailing us mistakenly (no, no… you want the other Katie).

I have an aversion to girls named Casey because of one bad apple bearing the name. A Casey tortured me as a college freshman. She informed me that I was sooooooo nerdy, such a band geek, and extremely boring as a result. She said my life would be sooooooo lame, and no one ever would want to spend time with me.

She underestimated the hilarity that comes with being friends with a true Putz.

IV. Miss Clean

When I was in high school my mother worked on a contract with a pharmaceutical company that had a Germany-based production facility. One of her trips to the site yielded a significant amount of drama, including lost luggage, German nighties, a Jungle-themed hotel room, a button museum, and some amusing pre-trip advice from our Dutch friends.

“Don’t let anyone call you a putzfrau,” Ben said.

“They should call you Frau Putz. Putzfrau means cleaning lady.”

“And Frau Putz means Ms. Clean,” my mother later told me, laughing and wiping the counter.

V. Blood and History

Changing our first name is easy—Daniel goes by Dan, William prefers Bill, everyone calls James Jimmy. Catherine, Kathryn, Katherine are all called Katie, except for the one who prefers Kate and your grandmother Cathy.

Middle names we treat like treasures—little mysteries with deep meaning and few practical uses. Who doesn't get asked, at some point, what their middle name is?

“Oh, Julia? Interesting. I had an aunt named Julia.”

“You don’t have a middle name? Weird!”

“Rocco? Really? Like Rocko’s Modern Life?

Last names, however, are made entirely of blood and history. Most men never change theirs, and women only do when they get married—unless they don’t, that is.

Myself, I cannot imagine being anything but a Putz.

VI. What a Putz, Indeed

My very first class in graduate school was Dip 600: National Security Policy with Dr. Robert Farley. It was the core course in my focus area and I couldn't have been more nervous.

I’d just met my 42 colleagues at orientation and they were an impressive bunch—two Army Captains, a Marine, someone with a PhD, two people who spoke Chinese, and a significant number of impressive young minds. My greatest fear was being the dumbest kid in class and for the first time, it felt like a distinct possibility.

When Dr. Farley got to my name in the list he looked up.

“Are you related to J.J.?” he asked.

I expected a topical question—guns, butter, something war-related. I sputtered, unable to form an intelligent response or even much of an articulate comeback. Worse, I wasn't a baseball fan and had absolutely no idea that J.J. Putz was a major-league relief pitcher—it wasn't just nerves that had seized me. I actually had no idea.

“No,” I managed to reply.

Thankfully, Dr. Farley forgave me. He didn't even grill me on baseball knowledge in my final comprehensive exams. He kept to Afghanistan, no-fly-zones, and defense budgets.

On the day of graduation, however, as I stood with my parents and brother sipping wine and celebrating, Dr. Farley approached. He said a perfunctory hello to my family before turning to me and asking, seriously, “Do you remember the very first thing I asked you?”

I paused. Then I said, “Something about baseball?”

He rolled his eyes, lips twisting into a familiar grin.

“I asked you if you were related to J.J.”

My father chuckled. He knew who J.J. was. A flight attendant had once asked him the same question.

VII. In Jon’s Defense

I attended seventh grade in rural western Maryland. I was the newest kid in school by three years and had just moved away from an idyllic California suburb. Most of my classmates had never been more 100 miles from our school; I’d gotten my first passport at six.

Jon looked up my last name during free time at the end of English class. I told him it would be funny. It would be worth it.

P-U-T-Z

Incidentally, I can’t remember ever being made fun of because of my name. I've been bullied and mocked for all sorts of character traits and physical features. But the low-hanging fruit of a funny last name never got picked. My family spent generations gathering an endless number of stories about our name and sharing them constantly. We tended that tree and its low-hanging fruit with such care that all it bears is sweet laughter and not bitter mockeries.

My father’s default Putz story is the best. It’s an origin tale about how our family got the name. The way he tells it, our ancestors had a very different, complicated Germanic name. When this unnamed ancestor got off the proverbial boat he was asked what his name was. The guy behind him in line answered first.

“Ach, he’s a Putz!”

Some (but not all) names have been changed to protect the innocent. And yes, I recognize the irony.