What's in a name? The thought came to mind reading the obituaries of Lawrence Eagleburger, the wise and witty former Secretary of State.
Eagleburger had a peculiar foible. He gave each of his three sons the same first name as himself, forcing them to use their middle names as their first one.
Asked once by the Washington Post why he did it, the eminent diplomat replied: "It was ego; and secondly, I wanted to screw up the social security system."
Of his first explanation, more in a moment. His second though was a non-starter. Social security here works on the basis of a nine-digit number allotted to every citizen. But if the system had been name-based, it would have been comprehensively screwed up long before Eagleburger's little wheeze - and here's why. For reasons I still don't understand, American fathers love giving their own names to their children, especially their firstborn.
It's not as if they have no choice in the matter. No less than 1219 different male first names have been listed by the US Census Bureau, and that on the basis of the 1990 census, two decades ago. Yet there's a fair chance today that John Smith will name his first son John Smith. Why?
Surely not for lack of imagination: whatever Americans collectively lack, in my experience, it's not imagination.
Perhaps the reason is family tradition (the practice appears to have started in the mid-19th century). Perhaps, as Eagleburger suggested, it's vanity; or maybe the habit merely reflects the age-old human quest for immortality.
But everyone does it, from ordinary citizens to the most famous. John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and Frank Sinatra, to name three well-known figures, did so.
Inside a family, there are several ways of getting round the confusion. There's the "Big John, Little John" solution, for one. Or the son can be known as "junior"; or he can find himself a nickname. Alternatively, like the Eagleburger offspring, you can use your middle name.
But it's the formal usage that gets really tricky. When, for instance, should a son be referred to as "junior", and when should the Roman numeral II be employed? In short, when a father gives his son his own name, the latter should be called "junior".
Officially, Roman numerals are used when a son has the same name as a male relative other than his father. Thus if Frederick Smith has an uncle called Frederick Smith, the nephew becomes Frederick Smith II.
On occasion, the system breaks down. I once read of a Texas gentleman named Henry M. Dudley who wanted his son to be a namesake. Unfortunately, his wife produced twins, but no problem: the pair were named Henry M. Dudley Jnr I, and Henry M. Dudley Jnr II.