Who’s in the Name?


by E. John Winner

Recently, fans of a certain aggressive R&B music found cause to mourn the loss of one of the most prolific songwriters in popular music history.

He was christened Prince Rogers Nelson [1], and we already have a problem.  He was not really named after a previous Nelson – he was named after a jazz band, the Prince Rogers Trio, which his father played in.    By the 1980s, he had become, by contractual agreement with Warner Brothers Records, Prince.  In 1993, a creative dispute with Warner Bros. led him through a contractual loop-hole to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol (known for copyright purposes as “Love Symbol #2”), which in Britain is sometimes printed “0(+>).”  Since this is still unintelligible, media mavens came to refer to him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” – a descriptor functioning as a name.  According to one fan-site [2]:

Prince explained his name change as follows:

The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to (0(+>).   Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros… I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was (0(+>), a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name.

We want to believe that names have some necessary, even intrinsic, reference to the people they are used to refer to.  That’s one reason we delight in fictional characters with caricature names – Dickens’ Gradgrind, or Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or Popeye’s perennial foe Brutus (sometimes Bluto).  We know that European names frequently derived from some place, or some profession, or something of value discoverable in a family’s heritage.   There are also the suffixes to indicate familial relationship – in Russia, it was long customary for the middle name to identify the father (Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov = ‘Ivan, son of Fyodor, Karamazov’).   Finally, there are the nicknames, which, if flattering, we bear more proudly than we do our baptismal names – Butch, Duke, Brainiac, etc.

But ‘Prince’ wasn’t a nickname; nor was it a reference to any royal pretentions.  It was who he was, a member of the Nelson family; then it was who he became, when the ‘Rogers Nelson’ was dropped for commercial purposes.   And here, any connection to the history of naming in Europe falls apart.  This is the United States.  In this country, the primary purpose of a name is to construct a legal entity.   No, not “identify a legal entity,” although it is used for that purpose; nor “construct an identity,” because the law doesn’t really care about identities.  It cares about entities to which numbers, history, legal rights and legal obligations can be attached.  (That is part of the reason why, unlike in Europe, many states have laws insisting on the dissolution of an estate as quickly as possible after the death of the person. We do not want the entity that the person is — and remains to some extent in the estate — to get in the way of the fluid exchange of wealth. [3])

What The Artist Formerly Known as Prince discovered in the early ‘90s, was that he had allowed Warner Bros. to participate in the construction of the legal entity identified with the name ‘Prince’, and the only way to get out of that was to reconstruct himself as another legal entity, (0(+>).   We want to say they are the same entity under different names, but according to the law, they were not – at least not until Warner Bros. and (0(+>) at last came to agreement, and (0(+>) once more adopted the name ‘Prince’, in order to enjoy the fruits of that agreement.

But if he ever intended to become Prince Rogers Nelson publically again, he died before he could make such wishes known.


The death of Prince occurred the same week a remark by Dan Kaufman led me to consider reading Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity.  I have a copy now, but I thought I would gather together my own thoughts on names before taking on Kripke.  What follows originated in some musings several years ago, when I was reading an anthology of short papers on Semiosis: Semiotics and the History of Culture, during which I came upon an essay submitted by one of its editors, Thomas Winner [4].

It struck me that the author’s surname was pretty much my own, although I’ve never met Thomas Winner, and know very little about him.   This sort of experience happens to all of us, since no family names are truly unique.  But the day I read Winner’s essay, I suddenly found myself in a fugue.   I imagined Thomas Winner going on to win some academic award for a paper concerning the granting of the Academy Award to a film titled Winner, possibly directed by British filmmaker Michael Winner; and then I would write a criticism of Winner’s text, which would win a Pulitzer Prize.  So one day we could find in someone else’s review of the whole matter, the sentence:

Debating the winner Winner by Winner, the winner by Winner is not the winner, in confronting the true winner, the winner Winner.

“Winner, winner, winner;” I’m reminded of comedian Lenny Bruce’s attempt to discredit the racist epithet ‘nigger’ by repeating it over and over; the chant effectively reduced the word to the rhythm of its phonemes, stripping it of connotation and thus of social power.  Bruce was possibly closer to the target than Gertrude Stein, who attempted to drain the word “rose” of connotation in her famous sentence:  “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  This essentially reduced the word to denotation only, for a species of flower; but while Stein thus squelched the archaic myths surrounding the word (e.g., that found in the Medieval poem Roman de la Rose), she effectively turned it into an “in-itself, for itself” — that is, an aesthetic object.  By contrast, Bruce moves against the connotative power of ‘nigger’, in order to weaken its denotative power as well and reduce it to an ugly sound.

So, “winner, winner, winner.”  Does it simply denote those having this word for their family name?  Can its connotations be shed somehow, or is it destined to accumulate connotations in various contexts?  And can any of these be said to ‘belong’ to one having the name?

Human egocentrism being what it is, we find every sign attached to us fascinating.  So I should be forgiven for looking up the etymology of the name ‘Winner’.  I will get to that in a bit, but let’s first consider the usage of the term simply as a word.

Just as a word, we all have a sense of its common American usage, although this usage can actually get somewhat complicated.  For instance, to be a winner in the domain of employment, is to achieve a position close to that which one has sought; but to be a winner economically only means to make a good deal of money.   While we find employment to make money, this doesn’t require that the employment be anything we wanted to do.  So it’s possible to win economically, while failing to achieve one’s desired employment.  Indeed, one can achieve one’s desired employed and not make a lot of money.  And of course there are those inheriting their wealth, who win economically without doing anything but getting born.

Different usages in different contexts cause problems here — one wins the lottery without doing anything special, but it takes a well-trained athlete to win a race.  Winning an argument provides a sense of achievement, but randomly winning a chance to submit to a Publisher’s Clearing House drawing never did much for anyone but Ed McMahon.  Supposedly, winning gets us something we want; but while remarks about winning ‘a trip to the hospital’ or ‘time in the pen’ may be sarcastic tropes, there is still some truth to them.

Having such a word as a name has not been without its problems.  First it is not a very common name, and some people do not even recognize it as a name.  I do not have a speech impediment, yet many people seem to hear the letter ‘t’ spoken in my name where there is none, convinced that I have uttered the far more common name ‘Winter;’ some even hear an ‘s’ at the end (‘Winters’).

But even with proper name recognition, there still have been problems, especially with people who feel the need to attempt intimidation, for whatever reason.  ‘Whiner,’ or ‘wiener’ come easily to the lips of these, although some try to be clever and simply go for a semantic inversion, and call me ‘Mr. Loser.’   But I must say that however viciously intended, such verbal assaults on my name are easy to ignore.   People have poked fun at my weight, my hair color, my political beliefs… and of course I’ve been targeted with various expletives having nothing to do with anything other than the utterer’s need to vent.  So remarks on my name are hardly going to stand out among these.

More disconcerting is pointless efforts to humor me or even flatter me, by complimenting my good fortune in having such a name; e.g., ‘oh, you have a winning name!’  In what contest?

Does the name shape our attitudes towards the person having it?  We want to say, no; but don’t we often find ourselves struggling to squelch the urge to comment humorously about someone’s name we find amusing?  Think of how difficult it was to be among the friends of the daughter of the Texas governor who named her Ima Hogg.


Nobody knows the name my mother’s father was given at birth.  Family legend has it that when he arrived at Ellis Island, the first U.S. official he met could not pronounce his name and left the space on the list blank.  The next processing official then wrote down “Joe Blank.”  Eventually, by the time he needed to sign a marriage certificate, he was known as “Joe Blanchard.”  Now, both “Blank” and “Blanchard,” while not common, can be found as surnames in Eastern Poland.  However, there are a couple of problems here.  Between Ellis Island and his marriage, he was known as “Blankodoff,” which is not found as a surname anywhere.   Further, my grandfather was not Polish.  According to the 1925 census, he was Romanian.  By the 1930 census, he was Austrian, and in 1940 he was reporting as Russian.  To his children, he was Ukrainian, but to his wife he was Hungarian.  Since he could speak all of these languages fluently (the only language he had difficulty with was English), there was no linguistic or inflective means of pegging him to any one of these countries.  It was generally assumed that he had lived in each of them at some time or other in his youth — a rather shady youth that included some military service, and left him with a pile of money, enough to buy a large farm in Steuben County, New York.  (He later lost it all in investments thanks to the Crash of ’29.)  We don’t even know exactly when he was born; he was 35 in 1930, by 1940 he was 49.  The obituary has him dying at age 79, but my grandmother insisted he was 96.  (He had bought her as his bride for 500 acres bottom land, when she was 15, the marriage certificate forged to make her 18.)

If names, as some assert, tell us at least where a person comes from, what are we to say of a man with a blank space for a name?  That he came from nowhere?


And what of adopted names quite clearly intended to subvert the whole social identification of naming?  One may think here, for instance, of stage names of punk rock musicians.  ‘Johnny Rotten’ and ‘Sid Vicious’ were intended to appeal to the disaffected, not the genteel.

But I have in mind the Black Muslims of the 1960s, often dropping their given names, which they believed an inheritance from the legacy of slavery, and adopting the generic familial “X” [5].  If one weren’t familiar with the cultural context, one might read it as a misprint (‘isn’t that the protagonist of a Kafka novel?’).

But consider that the authors of the Superman comic book once decided to invent a magical imp they dubbed Mr. Mxyzptlk [6].  The male address ‘mister’ should not confuse us — the imp only had the one name, it was neither personal nor familial, and this was apparently customary for those from his other-dimensional world.   The invention of the name was a coup.  Unlike many other invented names in fantasy and science fiction, it doesn’t appear to be derived from a previously existing naming structure one finds in various Earthly languages, and it certainly doesn’t try to read like a name one might be familiar with.  It actually reads like an invented name, and that is part of its charm.   But more importantly, as an invention, it doesn’t refer to anything except the designated character.

But the name does have a use beyond this designation: if Superman can trick the imp into saying the name backwards, he disappears back to his home world.  It therefore also functions as a magic charm — a charm having only power over the imp himself, but magical nonetheless.

What we are seeing here are responses to the process of naming itself.  The Superman authors wanted to invent a magical imp to challenge Superman intellectually (his powers cannot combat magic), and only then invented a name seemingly appropriate to this.  The Black Muslims were intent on rejecting the legacy of slavery embedded in their given names, and only then adopted the generic X as sign of that rejection.  The immigration officials, frustrated with their inability to speak my grandfather’s name, signed him with the mark of this frustration, “Blank.”  My grandfather, intent on burying a possibly scandalous past, buried with it whatever his real name might have been, along with his actual age, his place of origin, the source of his wealth.  Before we get to the name, there is the question of why we have any names at all.


Returning to the etymology of my own name, ‘Winner’ [7]:   The lineage of the word in English is fairly easy to trace and almost always indicates ‘victor’; but it does link eastward to some interesting cognates.  In Poland, for instance, one ancestor (“winny”) labels a ‘guilty party.’  Probable Indo-European roots can be found in Sanskrit, the ancient written language of India: “vijayin,” or conqueror; or perhaps “vijñā”, to make known.

Here I must make known my own particular use for my name, for it was not the name I was baptized with.  My father’s name was Joseph Connelly, and I was intended to inherit that from him.  But he left home when I was two.  In my twenties, my parents at last agreed to a divorce, and I decided to change my name.  I dropped the Joseph, and adopted my confirmation name as my personal name.   I was not a great fan of Joe Blanchard’s, so I chose ‘Winner’ as a surname name, found among old papers of my mother’s mother’s family — which I later found out was not a name, but an occupation: a misinterpretation by a clerk from the Polish “Winiarza” (“wine merchant”).   By then, I was stuck with it.

The reader can be forgiven for some upset or confusion (a feeling shared with my friends at the time, though they’ve since gotten used to it).  Flippant name changes (and I was young and flippant at the time) occurred with notorious frequency during the 1970s, and are on the whole somewhat suspect. (At least I didn’t change my name to Aquarius, as one young model did [8].)   Most Americans feel comfortable with the linearity of familial heritage found in names and are disconcerted when they find it disrupted.  But after all, America is the country of lost history and self-invented futures — from cowboys like Billy the Kid (whose birth name is somewhat uncertain), to Harvard literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates, whose genealogy traces back no further than Jane Gates, an unwed laundress and midwife of the mid-1800s.


We want our names to be special forms of personal identification — they should not only be who we are, but in some way what we are, belonging somehow to us by right.  But they are mere words, after all; social identifiers with multiple uses.  Thus they are malleable — tools that can be adapted to fit a use.

– – – – –

[1]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_(musician)

[2]  http://princevault.com/index.php?title=Prince

[3]   By the way, if you don’t want your estate dissolved after your death, the solution is to incorporate (like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., creator of Tarzan), since corporations are considered fictional persons with indeterminate life expectancy.

[4]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_G._Winner

[5]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation_of_Islam

[6]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mister_Mxyzptlk

[7]  I’m not going to reproduce here the full etymological research I undertook.  That would change the shape of this essay.

[8]  http://www.davida-art.com/aquarian/  “She had changed her name to Aquarius because during a meditation her spirit guide spoke to her and advised it.”


  1. I saw Dick Gregory perform once. He was on his way to destroying the currency of ‘nigger’ by deploying it a lot. I tried to find a video of that old performance but couldn’t. There is what looks like an interesting movie with him and James Baldwin on ‘nigger’ on YouTube, but I haven’t looked at it. It’s pretty long.

    Of course one should never call anyone a ‘nigger’ nor a ‘wop’, etc. Though ‘nigger’ is worse.

    But saying “Mark Fuhrman called OJ a ‘n-word’” is ridiculous.

    This hype sensitivity to merely saying ‘nigger’ gives the word to much power.

    Mark Fuhrman called OJ a nigger!

    Fuck, I avoid saying ‘fuck’ much because it fucking robs the word ‘fuck’ of its fucking usefulness!

    We should say ‘nigger’ when discussing it; just don’t USE it!

    Interesting post Daniel. I thought the whole prince name change was some strange vanity, publicity thing. Of course, I lost track of rock and roll when the Beatles broke up =;_). Hopeful his fans knew.

  2. Intriguing.

    “Most Americans feel comfortable with the linearity of familial heritage found in names and are disconcerted when they find it disrupted…”

    Yes, this feeling is pretty widespread. A friend of my father’s was called Victor Gubgub, Armenian I think.

    He had a Ford dealership which he wisely called ‘Victor Motors’; and a beautiful ballerina daughter (at least she trained in ballet).

    Our family was always a bit surprised that he stuck with the name he was born with.* But it didn’t stop him becoming rich and successful. (Maybe it helped!)

    * I Googled him. Actually his family name was Moghabghab. So he deleted the Mo and opted for phonetic spelling, saving the sound of the name.

  3. At the recent White House Press Correspondents Dinner black comedian and comedy central host Larry Whitmore who is also black and grew up in apartheid South America called President Obama the n word but of course the president was not offended because of the accepted context between two people of the same race and shared experience.


    Likewise in the racially segregated south the word was freely used by both the whites and blacks, and blacks often used it between each other in a slang context. The true negative was not the word but the conditions of the society and blacks being kept by law so beneath the whites, even if the whites were just as poor and even less educated. The true hurtful meaning of the word for modern African Americans when used by any group outsider is an assertion of unfounded superiority. The historical law itself made the word retain its contextual meaning.

  4. Thanks all for your interest.

    One of the objectives of the essay was to raise questions concerning problems of denotation and connotation; for instance, can a name that is recognizable as a word be responded to independent of the connotations of the word? If not, can any word be used purely denotatively, or will there always be connotations within various contexts? And of course one issue here is that context seems more determinative of how we use a word – even our own names – rather than simply the need to refer to something directly.

  5. I would have thought that the conservative commitment to familial linearity which you describe and which I alluded to is largely about wanting to see surnames as objective (rigid?) designators. Denotation trumps connotation. (At least any connotation beyond a family or clan or national identification.)

  6. Mark,

    But “Victor Gubgub” trumps Moghabghab; And ‘Victor Motors’ trumps even that. If you want to buy a car from “Moghabghab” motors, you’re going to have a problem, since that doesn’t exist (at least within the given context).

  7. For most people, their first experience with the legal system is the purchase of a home, and the “closing” is more of a cultural ritual not witnessed by priest or holy men but lawyers. The signing of one’s name to a legal document requires the presence of legal witnesses to witness the signatures or the act of signing and not the names which are previously stated on the contracts.

    Speaking of Lenny Bruce and using of the n word, Mel Brooks adapted the same method with a slapstick visual comedy. For 1974 it was very provocative but the satirization of the users greatly changes the context and their attempt to assign the other race to the lower social rung; which is the basis for most of the scenes.


  8. If you’ve ever had strong feelings, whether love, anger, annoyance for another; the mere mention of that person evokes those feelings or our brains may be more emotion than logic. Little wonder legal language, deeds and contracts are so full of binding language which identifies the party of the first part who lives at 10 Clover Lane, that is the son of the party of the…….

    As a young boy growing up in the 1960’s, I would take 75 cents from my mother and go to the neighborhood barber shop. There was an old Italian barber named Frank who cut my hair many times. As I sat in the chair he would engage in his barber talk, “Whatsa your name?” and I would say Victor. “Thatsa nice, do you have a brother?” Yes I would say. “Whatsa his name”, Frank would ask. His name is Leonard I would reply. “Thatsa a nice, I have a brother his name is Leonard too”. After a while it would turn into a Bud Abott Lou Costello scenario where I would be saying to myself as I sat in the barber chair, “I know what he is going to ask me……..”

    My grandmother died in 1971 and I remember at the last night of her wake, I saw a man standing by the casket. It seemed strange because I had met everyone else at the wake except him. He seemed to arrive late and I did not see him previously. A few weeks later I overheard my mother saying to my father “they called”. I was soon to find out her family story that her father was previously married and she had three siblings, two sisters and a brother who was the mysterious man standing by the casket. “They called” because his brother-in-law died of cancer and they requested the deed to the family cemetary mausoleum which my grandfather purchased circa 1918. The story went that all four children were raised by my grandparents until 1922 when my grandfather died at age 35. The three siblings maternal uncle took the children to raise and after some time there was a family falling out. Since my mother was young, she had no memory of them until she was told as a teenager. You could liken it to having cousins that you never saw.

    We had a reunion with them later that year when I met them. I thought it was strange that the family name was Solimanto, but my Uncle Luke did not have that last name or the Italian surname of his adopted uncle. His last name was Stevens. My aunt explained that Uncle Luke became a photographer after WWII and entered the advertising industry in the 1950’s when he chqnged his last name. She also said he worked as a model. She said you’ve actually seen a picture of him. When you sat in a barber shop in the 1960’s there was a row of hair tonics and one had the back of a man’s head…..

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