What’s in a Name?

If you are going to have a name that is difficult to spell or pronounce correctly, I recommend that it start with “A”.  I have a vivid recollection of the first days of each new school year, listening to the teacher remorselessly working down through the roster.  To make the wait even longer, the teacher would frequently stop to say hello to each student.  As they moved through the J’s and K’s, I would dream that I would finally be blessed with a teacher who would instantly recognize the Name and pronounce it correctly.

It never happened.  Somewhere in the P’s each would pause, brow furrowing before, “Er…Plaaa-chee?  Is that how you say it?  Or…is it Plah-shay?”  (Ah..a French major.)  They tried hard, and were really very kind, but  a grammar school student instinctively knows the problem is really his fault.

“Plachy,” I would say amongst the giggles of my friends.  ” Like Blackie, but with a P.”  Occasionally, a teacher would say brightly, “Really?  What nationality is that?”  “German,” I would say, doing my adenoidal best to make that word as dull and uninteresting a conversation killer as I could.  All I wanted was to have the spotlight move on as quickly as possible.

I have read how, when the good folks at Ellis Island met some miserably unpronounceable pile of European consonants, they would autocratically transform it into something the American tongue could comfortably wrap around.  “That is your new name,” they would declare, and so it was.  Not with my family they didn’t!  I have for years had a fantasy of some uniformed bureaucrat encountering P-l-a-c-h-y, recognizing it’s brief indecipherability and briskly changing it to “Black” or “Plack” or something else…only to be frozen into immobility by a coldly Prussian voice icily informing him, “Wir heissen Plachy und so es steht!”.

It is just a fancy, of course, but it would be totally in character.  If there is a more consistent set of arrogant contrariness than my family, I have never run into it.  And it is only one family, mind you.  If I ever meet another with the Name, I know we are related somewhere along the line.

Some of you, in tracing your family trees, may have been entertained to see how your names have changed and mutated through the years.  Not mine.  Once I found a warlike Bavarian prelate back in sixteen something or other in an encyclopedia.  Bishop Plachy.  Same spelling and, from what I could gather from the brief tale of his battles, same charming character.

After a while, you develop a sort of inverse pride in such a curse.  It has never really occurred to me to change the Name.  It may just be good training, but somehow that is unthinkable.  The Name just is.  German and immutable.

But heresy can come to the best of us.  In college I studied German (what else?).  My professor had the same pronunciation problem as my grammar school teachers.  Hmmm.  Plachy, I realized, didn’t look or sound terribly German, Prussian origin or not.  That “chy” as a strong “kee” sound is just not a Teutonic construction.

One day, browsing along in other studies, the great event happened.  There, before my very eyes, I found it.  A name ending in “…chy,” with a pronunciation guide showing “kee”.  Wow!  Talk about exciting!  Only one problem.  The individual in question was indisputably not German.  He was not even Austrian.  Horror of horrors…he was Czech!

One example, after all, can be dismissed.  I tried to.  Having mentioned the idea of a Czech name to the family, I was given strong encouragement to forget it.  Heresy, having begun, it is hard to stop.  Somehow, whenever I picked up something about Czechoslovakia or even its ancestor, the old Kingdom of Bohemia, I kept running into that same impossible ending.

Intellectual honesty, of course, could only lead one way.  So I did it.  I stopped reading about middle Europe.  That worked for years.  But Truth, they say, will out.  One day a very nice man with a strong accent came into my office.  My name he said, looked Czech to him.  Since he was a native Czech, I wasn’t dumb enough to disagree.  In fact, he said, he thought it was an archaic Czech word.  Did I want him to look it up?

Did I?  Why that put a whole new complexion on it!  With visions of “Strong In Battle” or “Wise Counsellor” dancing in my brain, I literally begged him to try.

He was as good as his word.  Sometime later he dropped into my office again, grinning with triumph.  He was right, he declared, Plachy was an archaic Czech word.  It meant, “Timid, Fearful or Shy.”

Well…  Um…Gee thanks, Joe, that’s very…nice.

I won’t pretend it was easy to absorb.  It didn’t suit my self-image nor anything at all about my psychic inheritance.  But, gradually, it not only began to sink in, it came to make an inverted sort of sense.  It gave me a feeling of inevitable logic that armored me at the next family gathering.  Bracing myself, I defiantly announced,  “This whole damned family is a blatant case of Over-Compensation!”

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