Along with a talent for driving on the wrong side of the road, the English create unique names for their children, towns, and food. I can't imagine residents anywhere else coming up with a quiet vegetable dish with a noisy name like bubble and squeak, or a breakfast creation called Toad In The Hole. As for towns, unless you're Lewis Carroll, it's hard to beat Newbiggin-by-the-Sea or Stow-on-the-Wold.
But the English really excel when it comes to naming their children. True, Americans have come up with their share of unusual first names. After all, State Rights (what the late head of Braniff Airlines, Harding Lawrence, named one of his sons) isn't your everyday Tom, Dick, or Chuck. Celebrities, for some reason, seem to have this need to make their children even more visible by giving them first names like Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Kal-El (Nicolas Cage).
But the English know that putting the first and last name together takes real genius. How can anyone possibly be grumpy when they come across Cuthbert Purse? (Uncle Cuthy to my British wife.) And who would not want to have tea poured and sugar offered ("one lump or two, my Pooh Bear?") by a nanny like Tiggy Legge-Burke?
The fact is the English affix names to children that just aren't replicated west of the North Sea. You'd have to dig pretty deep in America to find a schoolmate with a moniker as evocative as my wife's childhood chum Drusilla Duffel, a name that conjures up visions of a Wagnerian soprano belting out the "Ring" cycle in a tweed suit and sensible shoes.
The ability to create apt monikers is not a new skill for the Brits. They were terrific at coming up with different names for their kings for centuries, until someone started sticking numbers at the end. The Anglo Saxon House of Wessex gave us Ethelred the Unready. (I always wondered if his childhood nickname was "oops!") The first Plantagenet Edward was known, and not just to close friends, as Edward Longshanks.
Whether for King or commoner, English names capture the essence of the person being named. Could Algernon Charles Swinburne and Percy Bysshe Shelley be anything but poets? Can you imagine someone named Beatrix Potter writing horror stories? And who better to represent nobility than Gilbert Theophilus Clifton Abney-Hastings, the third (and last) Baron Donington?
They're even better than us with fictional names. We offer Rip Van Winkle; they give us Tristram Shandy. We try to be clever with wussy creations like Natty Bumppo, while Dickens tosses off Uriah Heap and Wilkins Micawber.
Occasionally, Americans get it right. I recall a high school basketball star from my youth named Paxton Lumpkin, a name any Englishman would be delighted to put on a grocer's awning.
Which is why I see – with binoculars, I admit – signs of hope on the horizon. The trend toward hyphenating last names has resulted in monikers that reflect the American melting pot. For example, my son's amor proudly wears the name of Genevieve Gonzalez-Turner. Algernon Charles Swinburne here we come.