''TONGE.'' The man at the table with me sounded it out a few times, letting it trip off his tongue. ''That's right,'' I said. ''It rhymes with bong, gong, Hong Kong, you name it.''
It was one of those business luncheons that we who write for a living are involved in from time to time. We had just exchanged cards, and he was commenting on my ''unusual'' name. ''The only other Tonge I ever met,'' he added , ''was a Norwegian.''
''Norwegian!?'' I wondered. ''Just how much more international will the name get?'' My father is English, and the name is English. Admittedly it can't compete with Brown or Smith, but there are enough Tonges or Tongs in United Kingdom telephone directories for me to be pretty sure it is English. But did it originate in England?
Sometime during elementary school in South Africa I became aware that I had a name like no other in the classroom, even in the entire school except for my sister, and she didn't count. I wasn't sure I liked being all that different at the time, so I questioned my father about it during dinner.
He was rather vague. He's never been bothered by the unusualness of the name and so hadn't given it much thought. But he did seem to recall hearing it had originated in France a long time back.
So obviously I was French - though way back, of course.
That theory was reinforced many years later after I had moved here to the United States. An English friend of mine, whom I had met in the US and who went in for brass rubbings in his native land, had stumbled across a brass of Sir William de Tonge (1389) of All Hallows by the Tower. He had, so the records suggested, been a member of Parliament for several years.
There was a Norman French name if ever there was one. And a knight of the realm, too! He, I decided, would prove most acceptable as an ancestor. Come to think of it, the wax rubbing taken from the grave did reveal a family likeness that became more obvious as the days went by.
Once during a travel-writing assignment in Ireland I learned of an Irish king who was having trouble with some of his fractious subjects. So he sent across to England, not long after the Norman Conquest, and suggested that those Norman knights who cared to might help him control the more unruly among his subjects. They would, of course, be rewarded with certain landholdings.
Apparently, those knights who hadn't managed to carve out a decent piece of England for themselves quickly came across and helped the king out. The king's name has since gone down in infamy in the Emerald Isle, but it seems the knights weren't all that concerned.
That evening I returned to my Dublin hotel room and looked up Tonge in the telephone directory. There were 18 of them, descendants of those Norman bully boys, I'll be bound.
Now convinced, beyond all doubt, of my Norman ancestry (some of it questionable), I returned to the United States. Within a few months I was introduced to a man who said he had long wanted to meet me. Seems he was married to an English lass whose maiden name was Tonge.
''It interested me very much,'' he said, ''so I researched it. Fascinating how it came about.'' According to this man's research, the name was English from the start, originating not long after the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes had moved in at the expense of the Celts.
A young man had fought with some valor for a local chieftain who said he would reward the serf in question with as much land as could be encircled by a given number of cowhides.
Somewhat less than satisfied with the chieftain's generosity, the young man cut the hides into narrow thongs and thus encircled a far larger piece of land than had ever been envisioned by the chieftain. From then on he became known as the man of thongs, or the Thong man, which later became Tong or Tonge.
So now I had a dubious choice: ancestors who threw their weight around in a less than pleasant way or one who was a clever cheat!
That situation existed for several years before another assignment took me to Holland. ''Ah, your name sounds Dutch,'' I was told in Amsterdam. ''It means tongues,'' the man said. Indeed, he went on to tell me that there are two towns in the province of South Holland named Tonge - Oude Tonge and Nieuwe Tonge (Old Tonge and New Tonge), to be exact.
To make sure, I went to look for myself and found Oude Tonge right where the map said it would be. It's a pretty little place and my wife took a picture of me standing next to the sign. (I would have preferred one next to Nieuwe Tonge, but there wasn't enough time for that!)