By any other name

There is an article in today’s The Hindu on the use of nicknames and aliases among the criminal fraternity which started me musing about names in general.

In the “olden days” in England, when most men seemed to be called either John or William or Richard, there were various methods of distinguishing them. If you were sufficiently high and mighty you could be “of” an entire principality or county, such as William of Normandy and John of Burgundy. Slightly lower down the social scale come the counties and towns and you find Richard of Essex, William of Lichfield and John of Norwich. At the village level where people travelled less or not at all, it was more useful to talk about trades – Richard Carpenter, William Fletcher, the ubiquitous John Smith – or of distinguishing features – John Crookshank, William Rufus, Richard Whitehead – or of family descent – John Richard’s son, Richard John’s son.

But at some stage things solidified, and we ended up with the concept of a given name and a family name. All forms and questionnaires are based on that fact. So imagine the difficulties most Tamils are faced with when they try to fill in an immigration form, since most people here do not have a family name which passes down the generations. Instead the father’s given name is passed on to the son as an initial (or sometimes several initials). M Ramaswamy’s son would be R Pandy, and his sons would in turn be P Chinnappa and P Murugesan, for example. And the initials are not in everyday use. Most Tamil men are known only by their given name. When faced with the usual form – family name and given name – there is a hard decision which to put where. This is why the equivalent Indian forms ask also for the names of your father and mother, to get the correct identity.

Returning to the article in The Hindu, it was noting that the criminal classes are most prone to using nicknames and that the police have experts in making sure that the criminals fit the crime. Tamil Nadu is gripped at the moment with an on-going saga regarding the murder of a man called N Suresh Babu. This Suresh, however, is universally known as Pottu Suresh, apparently since he put a tilak, or tika mark, on his forehead. Being sought for questioning in the matter is V P Pandi. Pandi, however, is a very common name in the south and this particular Pandi is known as “Attack” Pandi – not it seems due to any predisposition, but because he used to sport an “Attack cut” hairstyle!

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