An Irishman's Diary

 

BEAR with me while I return yet again to the subject of funny names. But the fact is that no discussion of this phenomenon would be complete without mentioning the daughter of a famous Texan lawyer and politician, James "Big Jim" Hogg, writes Frank McNally

There could be no doubting Big Jim's delight at the birth of his only female child in 1882. In a letter he wrote: "Our cup of joy is now overflowing! We have a daughter of as fine proportions and of as angelic mien as ever gracious nature [allows]..." Then, for reasons best known to himself, he christened the baby "Ima".

Cynics have suggested that Big Jim, who was running for district attorney at the time (and would later become state governor), may have calculated that subjecting the child to a lifetime of embarrassment was a price worth paying for headlines.

Indeed, years later, it became a running joke (in more ways than one) that whenever Ima and a female friend accompanied him on campaign appearances, he would claim both as daughters, and introduce the second as "Ura". This never happened, according to Ima, who remained admirably loyal to her father throughout her life.

The truth, it seems, is that, amid the distraction of their cup of joy overflowing, it had not occurred to Big Jim or his wife Sarah that there was anything untoward in the name. It was probably chosen in tribute to the child's uncle, who had written an epic poem featuring heroines called "Ima" and "Leila". By the time it occurred to anyone that, from such a short-list, Leila was the better choice, the infant's fate was sealed.

As an adult, she recalled: "My grandfather. . .lived 15 miles from Mineola and news travelled slowly. When he learned of his granddaughter's name he came trotting to town as fast as he could to protest but it was too late. The christening had taken place, and Ima I was to remain."

You would think that going through life as Ima Hogg would be a disadvantage, and to some extent it was. She usually signed herself elliptically as "Miss Hogg", and eventually invented a new middle name, "Imogene". But apart from the endless jokes, her misfortune does not seem to have held her back.

If you must be so saddled, it helps to be well off, and Ima certainly was. She was reared a lady, playing piano from the age of three and going on to study music in New York, Berlin, and Vienna, before returning to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Not poor to begin with, the Hoggs then discovered oil on the family farm - a windfall that, by the 1920s, set Ima on a career in philanthropy.

We mentioned in a previous column the sad case of a woman called Ima Mae Queen, named on the register of a US army psychiatric hospital. Well, Ima Hogg had mental problems too. After being treated successfully, she founded a centre for disturbed children, established the Hogg Foundation for Mental Hygiene, and became an activist for many causes, especially education.

By the early 1960s, she was being called the "First Lady of Texas", a title not begrudged her by the woman who officially qualified for it: the wife of governor John Connally.

In 1969, Ima became one of the first female members of the Academy of Texas, along with Lady Bird Johnson (the ex-president's wife) and a woman called Oveta Culp Hobby - a fact that illustrates why having a funny name is not a major handicap in the US south. After a lifetime spent in the service of others, Ima Hogg died in 1975, at the grand old age of 93.

I THANK again the many readers who continue to send their own examples of apt, inapt, or just amusing names. My sympathy goes out to more than one real-life Irish woman called Annette Curtin. But no matter how many times you've been told to pull yourself together, I suspect that's still better than having to call yourself a hog.

Animal names are a recurring theme, even outside Texas. I'm informed that there is at least one Paschal Lambe in Ireland, who must have a hard time every Easter. And Steven Butler, the curator of horticulture at Dublin Zoo, tells me that the people interviewed for his equivalent job in Chester Zoo included a "Pett", a "Bird", a "Wren", a "Mole", and a "Sparrow". The sparrow won.

Thanks to several readers for pointing out the happy fact that Birdwatch Ireland has a staff member called Niall Hatch; and that, better still, he's the development officer.

But back to the pork sector, as it were, and to that apocryphal joke about Big Jim Hogg pretending to have a second daughter called "Ura". You might think such a name could never happen in real life. And you would be wrong.

Old US census records include numerous references to a similar but even less poetic surname, "Pigg". But as if that were not enough to pass on, several proud parents felt the need to add unusual forenames. The birth of one "Della O.U. Pigg" is recorded in Tennessee circa 1873. In 1900, we also find a "Ure O. Pigg" in Oklahoma. And the train of thought reached its logical conclusion in 1928, also in Oklahoma, with the christening of one "Ure Alton Pigg" or "Ure A. Pigg" for short.

We know nothing more about this unfortunate person. It must be presumed that his or her family did not strike oil.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com