Tuesday, August 18, 2020

So what's in a name?

In an opinion piece at CNN today, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote, "My Italian father had a phrase that sums up the qualities of a good man—"
"a buon uomo." It means more than just being a nice guy. It means that person can be trusted, that he is a hard worker, and that he is a reliable friend with a big heart. My father was careful about using this phrase; a man would have to be quite special to deserve it, he would say.
Well, I don't know about all that, but I do try and behave as a good man as often as I can. When you were a kid with a plain first name and a last name that rhymes with homo and were surrounded by inventive wags on the playground, you looked for silver linings where you could find them. I first learned that my last name in Italian translates as "good man" when my dad told the family that when he was at his once-a-month poker game, playing with mostly with his Jewish pals, he'd go by the name "Phillip Goodman." Laughs all around. A hit at the card games, the joke falls a bit tonally flat these days, yet was an early indication to me of the slipperiness of words, how they can move in and out of different contexts meaning different things. I've clung to my half-Italian side my whole adult life, and so the origin of my surname has meant a lot to me down the years; I've carried it as a kind of calling card that I take out at parties and bars. Yet I also consider the derivation semi-seriously, in that it suggests a fate or some pre-ordained behavioral mode that I must live up to, elevate myself to, if sometimes failing in the process. I believe that somewhere in me a voice whispers buon uomo when I'm tempted to act poorly, to betray my better instincts, to act like a shit head, a bad man

In the season four finale of Breaking Bad, future criminal Jimmy McGill reveals his nom de plume  "Goodman" not as a kind of moral road sign to follow, but as a punch line to his first name Saul—as in, "it's all good, man." So, he went another direction. Do I really believe that my name, which I didn't choose, can act so powerfully on my behavior? Perhaps I use it retroactively to atone for my lack of sexy recklessness, for my boringly altruistic instincts that generally lead me to behaving well, rather than dangerously or heedlessly which might have resulted in a more exciting life. My first name derives from the Hebrew Yosephm, which means "adds" or "increases," so, put together, my name can suggest that I, humble I, am an additional good man. Hearty. Cheery, even. Also, boring. If my first name had originated in the word or phrase for lousy behavior, would I have used that as a defense of a lifetime of bad behavior, if I was so inclined?

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