What’s in a name? Sometimes too much.

Neil Patrick Harris announces he’s expecting twins (though how he’s going to squeeze them out is uncertain). A gravely ill Zsa Zsa Gabor has summoned a priest to give her last rights — at least, that’s what they think she asked. Dr. Laura Schlessinger quits her radio talk show, mad at the world because the world is mad at her. Osama bin-Laden continues to elude American forces.

So what do these seemingly disparate personalities have in common? They all go by three names. At least if you count each “Zsa” separately.

Celebrities have come to be so numerous that they’re running out of things to call themselves. The conventional two-name format that served us so well for generations may have worked for the likes of Bob Hope and Gary Cooper, but people aspiring to the limelight today apparently feel the need for a little something extra to set themselves apart. So they add a third name.

It used to be that only notorious assassins would go by more than two monikers. You’d have thought parents would’ve learned not to give their children three names unless they wanted them to grow up to be killers. Even their childhood playmates had to know the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Mark David Chapman weren’t destined to become astronauts.

Or maybe they used only two names in their pre-criminal days, but when the criminal justice system got mad at them, it sounded just like angry parents: “Sara Jane Moore, get over here, young lady! Did you try to assassinate President Gerald Ford? How many times do I have to tell you: don’t try to murder leaders of the free world. If I told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times! Now go to your room for a minimum of 30 years and don’t come out until you’re sorry.”

Now, every Tom Dick Harry to arrive on the brink of stardom in the world of entertainment seems to be sporting the triple-name. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Jennifer Love Hewitt. Evan Rachel Wood. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s like they think their chances of success are increased by half if they sport 50% more names.

There may have been a few trinomials back in the old days, but they were rare indeed. I can only think of people like Mary Tyler Moore and Martin Van Buren off the top of my head, and only then because of their hilarious turn as co-stars of the 1965 rom-com “She’s the President.”

The current trend may have actually begun with famous actresses who got married, and wanted to take on their husband’s names while still holding onto the label that made them famous. I’m thinking here of Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Patty Duke-Astin. Both soon learned that divorce was common in Hollywood, and that adopting the surname of someone like Lee Majors was just asking for trouble. There are a few modern-day actresses who have yet to learn this lesson — Eva Longoria Parker, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Courtney Cox Arquette — but I have a feeling it’s going to dawn on them real soon what a bad idea that was. I’m just grateful that we don’t have a Catherine Zeta-Jones Douglas.

The only male actor to fall victim to this trend was martial arts star Jean-Claude Van, whose marriage to Albert Damme actually helped kick-start a career that led to a series of action hits of the early Nineties like Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Universal Soldier. This rare four-namer has recently enjoyed a resurgence in a French comedy/drama titled JCVD, wherein Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself as a down-and-out former movie star.

Some figures in the industry may be extremely creative when it comes to thinking up blockbuster thrillers and quirky TV hits, and they want that extra boost in recognition that additional letters can give them. But they just can’t seem to come up with fully realized ideas. So we have folks like M. Night Shyamalan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael C. Hall, Samuel L. Jackson and John F. Kennedy. Not surprisingly, most of these people experienced “initial” success but have since faded onto the “B” list or — in the case of our 35th president — worse.

The other strategy certain stars are using to deal with the shortage of two-name labels is to create a title so bizarrely spelled that they can hope at least a vague impression will stick with the public. (“I know her — she was that cheerleader on that ‘Heroes’ show”). There was little wrong with a name like Marion Morrison, besides the fact that it sounded like a girl, and yet this iconic actor felt compelled to change it to John Wayne. No such concern exists for Jake Gyllenhaal, Demi Lovato, Shia LaBeouf, Peter Sarsgaard, Hayden Panettiere and Mariska Hargitay. The old publicity adage that “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right” will never apply to these figures.

Finally, I’ll mention the minimalists who have decided to go in the opposite direction and use only one name, as well as a disturbing sub-genre that is experimenting with new concepts in name technology. Mostly found in the world of music, the mononymed include Shakira, Bono, Pink, Diddy, Usher, Prince, Eminem and Rihanna. Their pioneer hero was Cher, who had little choice but to get by with a sparse four letters after the “Sonny and” part of her act skied into a tree and killed himself.

The newest trend, one that threatens to end civilization as we know it, involves adding either punctuation or unnecessary articles to a name. The groundbreaker here was Ann-Margret, the sexpot movie and singing star of the Sixties whose use of a hyphen sent many a young boy’s hearts (mine included) soaring. Following in her footsteps today are the unlikely trio of basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire, singing sensation Ke$ha, and hip-hop artist The-Dream. Lacking the punctuation but still in the same approximate category is U2 guitarist The Edge.

So what options lie ahead for celebrities of the future who want to make a unique name for themselves? There are still some unused articles left, and we might eventually hear from the actor “An Oliver” or the singer “Some Steve”. Punctuation possibilities still abound, so maybe the next teen sensation out of the Disney machine will be somebody like “#arold” or “Ho!!y” or “(harles” or “+homas” or “Virgu/e”.

I just hope that by then I’ll be known as “The Late DavisW”.

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3 Responses to “What’s in a name? Sometimes too much.”

  1. Paul Dixon Says:

    “There may have been a few trinomials back in the old days, but they were rare indeed”…

    Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Josef Haydn, Georg Friedrich Handel, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bela ‘Bob’ Bartok, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Alva Edison, Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Anderson, Alexander Graham Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Wilkes Booth, etc.

    You didn’t try very hard. And I was just kidding about Bob Bartok 🙂

  2. Paul Dixon Says:

    And of course, we can’t forget the inventor of the peanut, George Washington Carver, who was ultimately responsible for the election of Jimmy Carter as President.

  3. tom1950 Says:

    And let us not forget that great personality, and spokesperson for the American Dental Association – Alfred E. Neuman.

    T.O.M.

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