July 06, 2016

Horse 2133 - A Bunch Of Nates, Charlies and Ronnies

When someone cuts you off in traffic, or in line at the supermarket, or drops a plate so that it smashes, or bumps into you because they were so engrossed in their mobile phone that they didn't bother to look where they were going, or spills their chocolate milkshake all over you, what pejorative word comes to mind?
This topic came up after a client of ours received a phone call from his wife and  he said that a tradesperson who had mucked up their kitchen renovation, was a bit of a Nate. He explained that Nate was short for Nathan and that at least in his family when growing up, all idiots, morons and dolts were called Nate. In fact, the name had even spawned an adjective. Doing a dumb thing was said to be doing a Natey thing.

In some parts of Scotland, the name Jessie is used to describe someone who is seen as either effeminate, cowardly or excessively emotional. If a small child was crying because they dropped their ice cream cone, then they might be told to "Stop being a big Jessie".
In the 1950s radio comedy The Goon Show, the name Charlie was reserved for those people who were easily duped or potential rubes who could be cajoled into doing something easily. Usually some dastardly scheme would be devised and some Charlie would be found to do the job in return for minimal payment (sometimes as small as a quarter of dolly mixtures).
I remember a long time ago that I'd been to a pizza shop called Ronnie's Pizza House and the pizza was terrible. I don't remember who I was with at the time but I've carried the name Ronnie on as a term for all the stupid eejits in the world and mysteriously, I don't even need to explain why I've just called someone "a bit of a Ronnie". It is as though everyone in the world already knows about the idiocy of all Ronnies.

How does this happen? I can understand why the group of people that I was with starred calling fools "Ronnies" but that doesn't explain why other people who were in no way privy to the initial conversation knew immediately what a Ronnie was and is. Maybe tone has something to do with it too but that doesn't of itself explain why the term Charlie is instantly recognisable as someone who is gullible.

Is there just something inherent about certain names? The names James and especially Geeves have come to have very strong associating with butlers and then there are names like Tommy, Jerry, Fritz and Sven which have become metonyms for entire countries. This is also separate and distinct from national personifications of countries like Uncle Sam, John Bull, Lady Liberty, Britannia and Marianne who all have their own very strong accompanying imagery.

There are of course those specific nicknames which seem to spring up, like Old Nick, Old Harry and Flim-Flam McSham which hold very specific functions, and names like Scrooge, Einstein, Fangio and Sherlock which have forced their way into the public psyche but that's a little bit different. Those names have easily discoverable stories.

People already carry various associations with names, based upon the sorts of people that they already know. All Georges could be dependable, all Katherines are hard working, all Chucks are lazy and all Tiffanys are air heads. There are those names which hold no associations at all, like Mike, Ian, Bob and Steve. Then there are those that hold associations because of history like Tony, Julia, Angela and Winston. None of this explains why Nates, Charlies and Ronnies are all seen as well... Nates, Charlies and Ronnies.

The concept of metonymy is when a thing stands in for the whole. People instantly know that the names Washington, Westminster or Canberra, can stand in for the parliaments which reside in those cities; even though the cities are far more than just a bunch of people in fancy carpeted rooms who yell at each other all day long. As little as a hundred years ago, the name England came to stand for the whole United Kingdom and even the entire British Empire, even though it is just one of the constituent countries that make up the bigger thing.
Are Nates, Charlies and Ronnies the common examples of metonymy which have come to stand for all idiots, morons, rubes and dolts? If so, that's an inadvertently large burden for anyone called Nate, Charlie and Ronnie to bear and certainly one which they would rather not.

As a native English speaker and one who doesn't really help any idea about how this translates to other languages, I'm wondering if this is just a quick of English language or just the particular mish-mash dialect that I happen to speak. The French call the English "Les Rosbifs" (which sounds pretty tame to me) buy do they have a metonymic name for them? Moreover, what is the metonym in French for idiots, fools and dolts? How about in Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Japanese or Urdu? There have to be eejits and knaves in just about every culture surely, because human nature is pretty consistent around the world.

As with all of these sorts of things, some Herbert somewhere has probably written a paper about it. In the rarefied air out a university, where all of the Dexters work in rooms which are just a little bit too dark, I can guarantee that someone knows the answer to this. If not, I bet that they can just make up some hokey story and some Charlie will believe them. That'd be a very Natey thing to do though.

No comments: