Treating a name as an art form


Brazil: For people here, naming a child is a chance to have fun, to become creative, and on occasion, to simply invent a word.

June 15, 1999|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Open the phone book and embark on an expedition into the wondrous world of Brazilian names.

A quick search unearths gems: Welfare Almeida, Nostradamus Coelho, Waterloo da Silva, Ben Hur Euzebio and Flavio Cavalcanti Rei da Televisao (King of Television) Nogueira.

Let's call one of these people and find out what the heck is going on with these names.

"My grandfather's name was Moacir, which in the Tupi Guarani indigenous language means `bad omen,' " explains Welfare Almeida, an anesthesiologist. "So he named my father Welfare, because it meant well-being, which was the opposite. And there was a famous English soccer player in Sao Paulo named Harry Welfare."

All that seems exotic, but it's actually run-of-the-mill. Parents in Brazil have named their children Xerox, Skylab, Nausea, D'Artagnan, Barrigudinha (Little-Bellied Girl), Colapso Cardiaco (Cardiac Collapse), Saddam Hussein (known by the affectionate diminutive Saddamzinho), Antonio Morrendo das Dores (Dying of Pain) and, in a prodigious burst of inspiration in Recife eight years ago, Tchaikovsky Johannsen Adler Pryce Jackman Faier Ludwin Zolman Hunter Lins.

The magic of names

Brazilians have elevated names to an art form as playful and magical as their music and dance. Brazilians see naming a baby as an opportunity to have fun. Names become talismans; badges of creativity and individualism. Names tell short stories about the dazzling meld of cultures that make up this society, its layers of superstition and inequality, tolerance and snobbery, dreams and improvisation.

"In Brazil, the act of naming has a strong magical content," says Elaine Rabinovitch, a Sao Paulo psychologist who studies the psychology of names. "We have this mixed identity that comes from a colony composed of indigenous peoples, African slaves and Europeans. And we have an extraordinarily rich oral tradition. Brazilians are always inventing words. Many names are given simply because the parents like the sound."

In Brazil, almost anything goes. The freewheeling mentality contrasts with the policies of neighboring nations such as Argentina, where the repressive legacy of Spanish colonists lingers.

Names are a solemn ritual at the registrar's office in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. The bureaucracy maintains a list of acceptable names -- mostly of classic Roman Catholic-Spanish origin -- which exudes the authority of a sacred document.

Until last month, when federal authorities decided to loosen the restrictions, Argentine parents who picked for their baby a name that was not on the list risked the disconcerting experience of having a haughty clerk reject their choice and send them home to think up an acceptable one. One Jewish Argentine couple won approval for a Hebrew name for their baby girl by presenting a letter from the Israeli Embassy authenticating the name's existence.

Brazilian officialdom is far less uptight, but, theoretically, here too the law forbids names that could expose children to ridicule. In 1990, a magistrate in the northeastern city of Salvador drew the line and refused to let Miraldo do Moura Eugenio, a carpenter, name his son Rambo. The judge rejected the mother's compromise proposal: Sylvester Stallone.

The defiant father told reporters he would inscribe the child in another city, declaring: "He's my son, and I'll name him anything I want."

Parental second thoughts

The law is enforced sporadically at best, although some parents eventually have second thoughts and seek a name change for a school-age child who is being teased too much.

"That happens quite a bit," says Waldner Quintanilha, the kindly area registrar in the working-class Estacio neighborhood. His father's name was Wagner, and he is the authority to whom parents come to register newborns. The white-haired, rumpled Quintanilha has worked 51 years in the windowless street-front office, with its dusty volumes lining shelves and the continuous murmur of computer printers.

He tries to share his expertise -- he has written a manual addressing the proper spelling of first names -- but parents insist on phonetic versions, and delight in inserting the letters K, W and Y, which are not used in Portuguese, the language spoken in Brazil.

"They say they like the way a name looks," Quintanilha says. "They are concerned more with the visual appearance than the etymology."

Hence Diana, popular because of the late princess of Wales, becomes Tayane. Carolina becomes Kerolyne. Malcolm becomes Myacon. William Holden becomes Willi Horner. Edison, an homage to the U.S. inventor, becomes Edson, the first name of the soccer legend known around the globe by his nickname: Pele.

Edson, Robson, Anderson and Washington are favorite first names in Rio's "favelas," or slums, partly because of the percussive "on" sound and partly because American-sounding names are seen as cool and classy.

Seeking status

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