Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's in aName?

By Jacqueline Damian

My home state of Rhode Island is known for its colorful political characters, most famously Buddy Cianci, a former Providence mayor, convicted felon and pasta sauce purveyor (under the “Mayor’s Own” brand). Lesser known but no less zany were a couple of politicians who tweaked their names to better their election odds.

Back in the 1960s, Mario Russillo added a small “a” to the front of his surname to gain the top ballot spot in the race for town administrator, in the days when primary candidates were listed alphabetically. When challenged in a subsequent primary by a man who overtly stole his strategy, styling himself as Ralph aRusso, he simply tacked on a second “a,” becoming Mario aaRussillo. Note: he won both times.

We laughed at the time, but in retrospect, these guys seem prescient. Sticking a lowercase vowel onto a proper name has become a 21st century verbal tic.

First came “e,” as in e-mail, e-card, e-vite, e-paper and, of course, eBay, the bane of copy desks across America. (What do you do when the company name starts a sentence? I’ve seen EBay and Ebay in print, while some editors cave and just run with eBay, tossing out the rule that a sentence must begin with a capital letter.)

Next came “i,” for iPod and iPhone and a bunch of others. Whereas the “e” in e-mail and its kin stands for something comprehensible (electronic), it’s a little less clear just what the “i” means. Information? Internet? Or, as our nephew David said as he showed off his iPhone for us last night, plain old “I,” as in me, personally, like the Beatles’ song “I, Me, Mine”? How ironic, though, to take the proud capital I of the personal pronoun and knock it down to mini size.

Moving down the vowel list, I’ve seen the occasional lowercase “u” stuck in front of a word -- a product name, say -- in the context of the electronics industry. To the engineering community, it stands for the Greek mu, which is used to signify “micron.”

With all the other vowels pressed into service in one way or another, can “o” be far behind? Something along the lines of might be a place to start.


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