Wednesday, August 24, 2005

By any Other Name.

There is a young lady standing in front of my counter; clinically speaking, a fascinating series of events is taking place. The twin clusters of cells that are my eyes are perceiving her dimensions, in their primitive and deeply limited capacity to perceive space and color. They are sending messages to the ancient, instinctive part of my brain called the amygdala. The message they are sending can be roughly translated thus: this is a female of your species, of adequate height, with large, bright eyes, indicating perception and inquisitiveness. Its round, full hips and round, full breasts, respectively, indicate excellent childbearing and childrearing capacity. Her colorful decorative attire suggests good grooming status, an excellent ploy to attract mates and keep offspring free from disease and infection.

The newfangled, oh-so-clever part of my brain called the cerebral cortex translates this information into other words so that I can comfort myself by thinking that I am more than a monkey wishing to pass on its monkey genetic material. It gives me a slightly more refined message: there’s a hot, brown-eyed, brunette, nineteen-year-old college girl with a unique, funky sartorial sense about her, standing in front of me looking to buy a pack of cigarettes.

“Thank you Shandra,” my thorax intones, in a voice deep and soothing, looking to allay fears that corrupt so many wild mating opportunities. My cerebral cortex has translated markings on the piece of plastic she has handed me, cleverly inferring her age and name from them. “That’s a very pretty name.”

Okay, enough of the National Geographic version of this story, for a moment.

Shandra (pronounced “Shohn-drah”), as I hand her I.D. back, perks up immediately. “You said it right!”

That’s because I’m not a drooling moron, I think to myself, and I can add one letter to “Sandra,” and take the wild guess that it’s probably going to be pronounced the same way. But she is clearly flattered by my use of her name, a trick I figured out a while back, because people always are. They get attached to their names, are happy when they are used, take joy when people approve of them, and are saddened when their names are not often used or not approved of.

I’m gonna let the whole world in on something that it is probably completely unaware of: that’s the same thing dogs think about their names.

We don’t name ourselves, after all. Our parents give them to us shortly after birth, to satisfy a legal requirement, but more importantly to train us to come when called, to have a presupposed means to get our attention. Over time, as our brains mature and acquire greater intelligence, we come to associate our names, and the tone of voice which pronounces them, with attention, with food, with affection, with reward, just like Spot and Rover associate their names with Jerky Treats and someone stroking their fur. When our dads were angry, we instinctively knew it from the sound of his voice and concluded that perhaps flight might be a safer response than obedience, just as our dogs pick up on the apprehension in our voices when we call their names but they hear “bath time” in the way that we’ve called it.

William Shakespeare, a smart monkey from 400 years ago, had an interesting take on the issue, from the perspective of a young woman talking about a young man’s name that she wasn’t supposed to like. We might all be wise to listen:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part,
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

What people don’t realize is that their names are simply words, with a communicative, rhetorical value identical to any other word—a name for a thing, and not the thing itself. I can prove this easily enough: if I say that the word “car” is a stupid, ugly word, and that I have no problem with the vehicles themselves but simply dislike the sound of the word, no one but perhaps a few deeply neurotic linguists and engineers are going to get upset as a consequence. It’s only a word, after all. Next I say that I think the words “Jennifer” or “Kristine” or “Mark” are stupid, ugly words, and watch a bunch of agitated monkeys work themselves into a tizzy over it. None of them had any idea how deeply their programming ran, how utterly brainwashed and indoctrinated they are, until that moment. I can say I don’t like the word “Dan,” and Bob doesn’t get upset, but Dan does. How ridiculous is that? We’ve taken ownership of something as if it were interwoven into our DNA and not a convenient label that somebody else gave to us, getting hopping mad in defense of a concept as rhetorically neutral as “bag” or “drawer” or “potato.”

But back to the ranch. I flirt with Shandra for a little while longer. I really ought to get a phone number out of this, but I’m not feeling very assertive today, and she’s an awful lot younger than I am. I wouldn’t even be able to take her to the smoky dive bars that medicate my insanity nightly, and hence I’d actually have to employ the imagination to find other things for us to do. Well, besides the obvious one, anyway. I’ve already overthought the matter, of course, but as a man who routinely writes six-page stories about two minutes of work in a gas station, such is my custom.

I let Shandra off the hook of my unbending gaze, and she flits out the door, nervous and blushing. That one was mine but for the asking, I realize. I’m sure she’ll be back, in case I change my mind. But my mass of monkey cells has just exerted magnetic control over hers for a couple of minutes, by the bizarre, primal power of name usage and eye contact.

A friend recently gave me, like a wonderful, unexpected gift, a quote from the wizened Chinese sage Chuang-tzu. I will pass this gift on to others: “When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted.” Sounds about right to me.


At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 3:57:00 PM, Anonymous brittney said...

I get jealous when you talk about other girls.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 7:10:00 PM, Blogger zilla said...

"The twin clusters of cells that are my eyes are perceiving her dimensions, in their primitive and deeply limited capacity to perceive space and color."

I think this is a syntactical snafu. Do you mean, "The twin cells that are my eyes, in their limited capacity to perceive space and color, are perceiving her dimensions"?

If so, would it not be simpler to say, "My two eyes, in their limited capacity to perceive space and color, are..."

But really, I'm curious. WTF is up with this verbiage? It's as if you're attempting to create a cold, clinical attitude in response to your most basic, most human instinct, which I assume I would discover, if I were to read beyond the second paragraph, is to bed some hot chick who has had the temerity to waltz into your gas station.

I've been reading your blog since the beginning and usually enjoy the juxtaposition of complex usage and above average vocabulary with very simple truths. However, in this case, I'm a bit put off because you seem to be trying too hard.

More often than not, if you have a base emotion, feeling or impression to express, it does not pay to complicate its expression with excess words.

I'm not suggesting you forsake an air of intelligence; I am suggesting that you simplify.

What is the true distance between what you encounter and what you feel? Why should the route between experience and feeling be so circuitous and lengthy?

"I saw my contractor this afternoon. He was wearing shorts. I wanted to tell him to remove his glasses, so that my glasses would not clink against his glasses if I decided to lick his straight, white teeth."

Honesty works. Simplicity works. Intelligence works.

Posturing behind verbiage works not so well.

Just my humble opinion, Gas Guy.

I'll finish reading your post tomorrow because I'm sure you'll make a worthwhile point.

Keep writing.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 7:22:00 PM, Blogger zilla said...

PS: I'm pretty sure you mean amygdala, not hypothalamus. Hypothalamus regulates things like body temp; amygdala is the "reptile brain" -- the impulse center from which spring forth the survival responses like fight, flight & screw. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

It's fun to look stuff up, though,'cause one thing usually leads to another, and another.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 7:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your writing is brilliant. I suppose you could swap a plexiglass cubicle for a 4-walled cubicle for writing, and cash in on your wit! Keep it up.


At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 8:00:00 PM, Anonymous Frank_Rizzo said...


Could you possibly have anything else better to do than over critique; a blog?

Yikes, move on, so he thought she was hot. In order for monkeys to make more monkeys, situations like today have to happen.


At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 8:14:00 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Another sage passel of prose - so sage, in fact, it adorns the t-shirts of the waitresses at the Darwin's Theory bar in Anchorage:

A smart monkey doesn't monkey around with another monkey's monkey.''

Or something like that.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 8:45:00 PM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...


Thank you for the biology correction; I have amended the post. (I love pawning off my homework on my readers, by the way.)

As to your longer comment, I might suggest, in the future, that you read the whole post before making your judgements. The style was a prolonged joke, that you missed because you got in a huff.

Rough day, my friend? I'm not upset, and I thank you for reading and commenting faithfully, as I thank all of you. But I suspect that your impatience made you miss the point. Take a breath, and repeat, until you get around the rosary, "It's just the silly words some silly guy whom I have never met. It is not worth me cursing and getting upset." At this point you should have calmed down enough to read the rest of the post, and hopefully enjoy the conclusion. Proceed.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 9:47:00 PM, Blogger Nightcrawler said...

Well, whether you made your description of events overly complicated or not, I got the joke and enjoyed the post. Sometimes it's fun to think about the chemical reactions that occur in certain situations. Imagine if all of those sleezy romance novels included a graphic description of the biological events that were occurring at choice times throughout the book...

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 10:26:00 PM, Blogger e_journeys said...

"It's only a word" -- Years ago I heard -- I forget where -- that when people who had never heard English were exposed to various words and asked to choose the most beautiful and most ugly among them, they chose "obsequious" as the most beautiful and "jazz" as the ugliest.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 10:42:00 PM, Anonymous RJGrace said...

You did what? You did what? You let that sweetheart get away? Gadzooks! Well, I sure hope she does give you a second chance, dammit! :>

Good writing, though... Fuel Fool. ;>

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 2:06:00 AM, Blogger Penelope said...

Dear Gas Guy,


(Though I am mighty attached to my name, thankyaverramuch...)

You just made me finally perceive, for the first time in my life, the beauty of Shakespeare.

Thank you.

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 2:13:00 AM, Blogger Twinklestar said...

Rather appropriate that the word prompt made me type in 'sexty' ;)

Glad you did the right thing - if you say she was too young for you, she probably was too young for you.

Twinks :)

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 4:09:00 AM, Blogger Dublin Saab said...

I know one person with the name "Sandra". It's pronounced Shan-dra. Guess that makes me a drooling moron.

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 4:42:00 AM, Blogger zilla said...

I did enjoy rereading the post to the end! The sentence about which I got my panties in a bunch still trips me up, but I did not intend to overstate my case, which clearly I did, and I apologize for that. I stand by my original sentiment, but I admit to having had the amplifiers way too cranked last night.

I should refrain from commenting after sunset. That's the time of day when the cerebral cortex starts short circuiting and the limbic system takes over.

My bad, Gas Guy. Hope you can forgive me.

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 8:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Zilla, you just need an acorn...or four.

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 10:41:00 AM, Blogger Kristine said...


At Thursday, August 25, 2005 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

Wow, Gas Guy. You are quite a writer. I like the way your brain circuitry works. Quick synapse to great prose.

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

I just breezed through everyone of your posts since I found your blog a day ago. I will now have to painfully wait for more in my cubicle made of carpeted wood while servicing morons who I do not have the pleasure to see into their eyes to see what is truly happening in their souls. Keep up the good work. BTW, have you lost count of the number of times someone mentions you should be writing a book b/c they have not bothered to read any of the previous comments where that has been said time and time again. Good luck wit it!!

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 4:13:00 PM, Anonymous Kris said...

I've been thinking about changing my name for a few years because I'm tired of bearing my husband's name but I don't want to go back to my father's name. The more I considered the options, the more I realized how little it mattered. Now I'm thinking about changing my last name to one that suggests a different ethnicity from what my face suggests, just to fuck with people.

I have about 8 names for my dog.

Thank you for writing, Gas Guy! I hope you're eating well.

At Friday, August 26, 2005 7:32:00 AM, Blogger Jason said...

I actually think "The Importance of Being Earnest" ( - I'm too lazy for a hyperlink today) makes much the same point, and with all do respect, in an even funnier manner. Or just pick up the movie version with Reece Witherspoon, a faithful, if unexceptional rendition of the work.

Great post just the same. And I don't even really like my name all that much (although I'd never tell that to my mother), which is why I don't bother with a blog pseudonym.

My favorite English word is 'mulch'.

At Friday, August 26, 2005 8:49:00 AM, Blogger ariel said...

gasguy, great post.

zilla, honey you need to turn those pumps off and get some sleep, you're getting cranky again.

(p.s. I get the monkey thing.)

At Friday, August 26, 2005 9:34:00 AM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...


You're telling me that I'm not as good as one of the wittiest, funniest, most quotable writers in the history of the English language, a guy that's been taught as an example of his art for 150 years?

Damn you :)

At Friday, August 26, 2005 11:49:00 AM, Blogger xanadian said...

only a word... I think people get bent out of shape over their "names" is because it is the closest thing they can readily use to define themselves. Being a person who has (and still does :P ) a lot of soul-searching, being able to define and identify one's self (or Self) is a big thing. I'm assuming that when you reduce a person's name to being "only a word," there is some base reaction to it; like you have somehow reduced the person to "only a biological organism"...just like a car is "only a machine."

IMHO. ;-)

At Tuesday, August 30, 2005 3:54:00 AM, Anonymous star35 said...

I've always found people's attachment to their names a little odd. Since I was a kid I have gone by one nickname or another, and as an adult I have moved through a number of aliases - some based on names that I liked the sound of, some because they are particularly anonymous sounding names, some out of necessity (that probably is as dodgy as it sounds). My mum was never offended to answer the phone to my nicknames (despite it being a rejection of my birth name) and nowadays my wife and kids know to answer the phone by a number of names without batting an eye.

All the names are me, I don't become somebody else when I use another name (I'm still as sweet!). I actively christen people with nicknames all the time and prefer to use them to people's given names as they seem to reflect the person that "is" rather than what their parents wanted to make of them.

Keep it up Gas Geezer, love the blog.

At Tuesday, August 30, 2005 6:30:00 AM, Blogger not the girl said...

O brilliance.

You communicate a love of language that is commendable and rare.

Shakespeare must have been fascinated with the meanings and conotations of words, just as you are.

Keep writing, I enjoy your blog immensely!!

At Friday, September 02, 2005 12:35:00 AM, Anonymous bookworm said...

Good work gas guy. I suppose the whole point of enabling comments is for you to hear what your readers have to say... Yet, your writing style is your writing style, and I don't believe it ought to be changed to fit a particular 'stlye'. Keep up the interesting posts!


Post a Comment

<< Home