It all began over a bottle of wine. A bottle of wine from Portugal, to be precise. The wine was from the the Tejo region, named for its proximity to the Rio Tejo, the river that runs through the heart of the Iberian peninsula and on which sits Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. As I pointed out to my wife, the Rio Tejo is known to English-speaking people as Tagus River, a language-based distinction that has always struck me as odd.
My wife noted two other prominent European examples of language-based place name distinctions. The river known to the locals in Prague as the Vltava River is referred to in German as the Moldau. Germany itself is referred to in different ways depending on who is doing the referring. Within Germany, it is known as Deutschland, and among the French it is known as Allemagne.
Perhaps owing to the wine, this modest conversational beginning set us off on an extensive discussion of other naming conventions. The topic switched to family names when, after a mental leap, I wondered aloud whether the family name “Clark” is an occupationally-based name, in possible reference to “Clerk,” along the lines of Smith, Miller, Mason, and Wright? After agreeing that Clark probably is an occupational surnames, we then thought of other examples. We came up with a long list – Barber, Cook, Farmer, Baker, Carpenter, Shepherd, Hunter, Taylor.
While cleaning up after dinner, this exercise became something of a competition. Mercer, Draper, Glover, Joiner, Driver, I said as we rinsed the dishes. My wife responded with Chandler, Cooper, Glazier, Thatcher, Cutler. I responded “Dyer, Teller, Archer.” To which she replied “Piper, Butcher, Weaver.” Later, as I was watching basketball on TV, my wife walked into the room and said “Fletcher.” I responded, “Oh, that’s a good one. Um, what is a Fletcher?” She said, “Someone that makes arrows. Actually, they put the feathers on the arrows. ”
When I came upstairs later, I said to my wife as she was brushing her teeth, “Gardner, Forester, Dresser, Goldsmith.” She looked up at me, rinsed her mouth, and said “Brewer, Roper, Tinker, Proctor.” Later, as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard my wife’s voice in the darkness quietly say “Collier.” To which I responded “Butler.”
The next morning, as my wife sat in the kitchen eating her breakfast and reading the newspaper, I walked into the room and stood by the table. My wife looked up, a spoonful of oatmeal poised above her bowl. “Yes?” she said. I said, “Tyler, Fisher, Stover.” To which she responded “Chamberlain, Boatwright, Sadler.”
As I was putting on my coat before going out to the car, my wife called out from upstairs “Cartwright, Reeve, Bowman, Skinner.” To which I replied before heading out to the garage, “Cox, Dean, Grainger, Groom.”
A while later, I checked my phone. My wife had sent me a text message. It said “Milner, Crocker, Fuller.” I sent her a reply text that said “Fowler, Docker, Frazer.” When I returned home later that day, there was a Post-It note stuck to the bathroom mirror that said “Carver, Sexton, Sawyer.” I stuck a Post-It note on her computer monitor that said “Faulkner, Wainwright, Slater.”
Later that afternoon, I walked into the kitchen as my wife was unloading groceries. Before I had a chance to even open my mouth, she looked up and said, “Müeller, Koch, Schneider, Wagner.” That set me back on my heels. I quickly rallied; after collecting myself, I responded, “Fournier, Charpentier, Marchand, Berger.” My wife looked me straight in the eye and slowly said “Messerschmitt.” That stopped me cold. I paused and said “Before this gets completely out of control, no more foreign names.”
My wife pulled a writing pad out of a drawer, and wrote “Rider, King, Bishop, Walker, Friend.” I wrote below that “Duke, Singer, Knight, Player, Pope.” She took the pad back, gave me a smile, and wrote, “Hill, Brooks, Lane, Woods, Meadows.” I wrote below that “Field, Park, Dale, Rivers, Bridges.”
My wife flipped to a new page of the pad and wrote “Coward, Leake, Strange, Bland, Short, Petty.” I wrote “Craven, Hoare, Savage, Withers, Small, Wilde.” She wrote “Pitts.” I wrote “Gross.”
Time for a truce, we mutually agreed at that point.
Later that evening, I was in my study paying some bills. I heard my wife walk into the room, but she stopped behind me and didn’t say anything. “Yes?” I said, turning around. She smiled and said “Fox, Byrd, Herring, Wolfe, Lyon, Roach.” It took me a moment, but then I replied “Crowe, Bass, Lamb, Drake, Finch, Leach.” She replied “Haddock.” I said “Crabbe.”
It was clearly going to be a long evening. I am sure there is a name for this kind of behavior.