Who you callin’ Beezow Doo-Doo Zoppittybop-Bop-Bop?

Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is the name of a man who was arrested recently in Wisconsin. Yes, that is his legal name. Considering that for much of history, a person’s name was of such weighty import as to be the key to their “power” (in one way or another), Mr. Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is a sign of just how far that history is gone.

As Wikipedia tells us, certain cultures throughout history have thought that something’s name was so important that it was actually a “separate manifestation” of that thing. If you knew the name of a demon, you could exorcise it from a possessed person. If you invoked the name of a god or another spirit, you somehow impregnated your words with their power. If you knew the name of a person, that person was under your control.

Most of us probably think this is silly today. But given the names of these legal figures, maybe they were on to something with the idea that a person’s name can bear influence on the course of their life.

Learned Hand — Every law student comes to know the great Judge Learned Hand. He’s widely considered to be one of, if not the, greatest judge never to become a Supreme Court justice, and his formulation of the test for whether or not a person has been negligent dominates the tort law scene to this day.

William Wayne Justice — Judge Justice is famous (or infamous) for his role in what’s come to be known as the Texas Prison Litigation. This was a court battle that raged for two decades about the conditions in the Texas prison system. Justice dictated that the system be improved in order to meet minimum Constitutional standards, but his role (the role of Justice, that is) was considered by many to be ‘activist’ beyond what is proper for a judge.

Then again, maybe those names are just a happy coincidence. After all, someone, sometime was bound to have a name that coincided with their profession. Either way, in many other societies, your name had an entirely different type of influence on the course of your life. It’s not that if someone knew your name, they had power over you — it’s that if you had the right name, it meant you had power over others. I’m talking about titles of nobility – land, power, and status conferred by inheritance. No mysticism is needed to understand the importance of names in this type of society. With one type of name, you were guaranteed riches and power as a matter of right; with another,well, tough luck.

Today, there can be no question that one’s name is less important than it was during these other periods in history. This decline is probably the subject of some very interesting historical and sociological literature, but it seems likely that the end of hereditary ruling and aristocratic classes indeed had something to do with it. If there’s no longer a hereditary aristocracy, whereby your name entitles you to certain lands and status, it’s less important to be associated with a particular genetic line. (Interestingly, the US Constitution goes so far as to prohibit the federal and state governments from granting titles of nobility.)

Even so, one would not expect names to become entirely irrelevant (just ask a Kennedy or a Rockefeller). But, taking Mr. Zoppitybop-Bop-Bop as an example, it has become increasingly popular to forsake the name of one’s ancestors and adopt an appellation that’s slightly less traditional. Here are a couple of interesting examples from the sports world:

Ron Artest –> Metta World Peace.  World Peace is an NBA player on the Los Angeles Lakers. His choice of names is interesting, as over the course of his career he has garnered more than his fair share of flagrant and technical fouls, and he has generally become reputed for his less-than-peaceful play.

Chad Johnson –> Chad Ochocinco. Chad Johnson is a renowned wide receiver with great talent and a huge mouth. He is now on the roster of the New England Patriots, where he’s had a less-than-stellar season. The name that’s currently on the back of his jersey, you guessed it, is the Spanglish translation of his jersey number – 85.

Jon Koppenhaver –> War Machine.  This guy is a mixed martial artist who liked his nickname so much that he legally took it. Haven’t seen him in the Octagon recently? Well, that’s probably because he’s been in jail for the last three years…

Lloyd B. Free –> World B. Free.   Lloyd came into the NBA to play for the 76ers in the mid ’70s. This name change is particularly cool because his actual nickname was World. He apparently got the nickname for having a 44 inch vertical that allowed him to do a 360 dunk (back in the days before that was a common feat among NBA players). So he went ahead and made it official–how convenient his middle initial!

Often times, these names smack of caprice and/or arrogance. But as a form of self-expression, changing one’s name can in theory be extremely meaningful. There’s literally no better way of identifying yourself with, say, World Peace than to actually make it your identity (though as I mentioned above, I’m not sure I buy that from Ron Artest).

And dropping one’s inherited name (though most often done in favor of names less crazy than these examples) is one of the strongest forms of dissociation available to us. Today we take that to mean dissociation from one’s family for one reason or another. But this is actually something the ancients also recognized: by changing your name, you could avoid an ugly fate associated with your inherited name. An interesting idea for sure — I just hope Mr. Zoppitybob-Bop-Bop’s children get that message before it’s too late.