What’s In A Name
I always dreaded the first day of school. Not only for the usual reasons of uneasiness over fashions, cliques, and fitting in. Nope, I had another complication. I would be attending new class after new class, each with a new teacher, each with a new roll call. The names would be read alphabetically, I’d be towards the end of the list. The teacher would go through the roll, getting closer to my name: “Peterson (here), Ramsey (here), Sutton (here), Thompson (here)” then it would happen. See the teacher pause, see him scrunch up his brow, see him began to speak:
Him (absorbs that, reconciles it against the name on his sheet): “Too-mahl-ah”
Him (going on pure sound now): “Too-oh-muh-la”
Him (hesitantly): “Tuomala”
The next day the teacher and I would repeat the same dance, sometimes with less steps. By the third or fourth day, he’d typically have it down (a wave of his hand, “don’t tell me – I got it”) and would adopt the same cocky manner while saying my last name as all my acquaintances and friends have gained over the years – the satisfaction of having cracked the code, of being part of the club.
The small theater of first-day roll calls increased over the years. My classmates, of course, had long ago learned to pronounce my name. When the teacher got to me and paused, snickers ensued. But the laughs were directed at the teacher, not me. The kids had the knowledge, he did not. Knowing my pronunciation put them all ahead of the curve, if just for a bit. And things would be fine. Until a new school year rolled around.
Tuomala. It’s a Finnish name, pronounced “too-wah-muh-luh.” (That’s as close as I can get without breaking out the phonetic symbols.) It’s not an uncommon name in Finland – a page ripped from a Helsinki phone book by a pal ten years ago or so shows 58 Tuomalas there. In the old country, my family name was actually “Ylituomala” and in the family bible births were recorded in this country as such as recently as 1904. I’m not sure why the “Yli” was dropped, I’ve been told that in Finnish the prefix means your family lives in the hills. Presumably, living in the plains of North Dakota made the Tuomalas Yli-less.
Growing up, I sometimes envied the others, the ones who weren’t Tuomalas. I imagined having a name that didn’t draw attention. A name that would let me slide through the first day of school. But now? Not now. Not after living a life where I’ve been surrounded by Northern European surnames. Names originated by people so unimaginative, so preoccupied with harsh consonants, that they rarely dared to: 1) put two vowels in a row in a name, or 2) end a name in a vowel. Then there’s all those pedestrian tactics, like ending a name with “son” (or for extra spice, “sen.”) Or putting an “O’” or “Mc” (or for extra spice, “Mac”) at the beginning of the name. Or describing an occupation: “Baker”, “Miller”, “Carpenter.” You’d think at some point these folks might have tried something original or different. And the sad part is they continued over generations to give their children bland first names, giving us thousands upon thousands of Joe Smiths, John Hansons, and Dave Wilsons.
Unlike, say, Bill Tuomala. How unique is my name? The Internet reveals all. A “Bill Tuomala” search at google.com generates 499 results. (Though both my grandfather and an uncle were also named Bill, I’m the only Bill Tuomala on the Web – trust me, I’ve checked.) But imagine googling yourself and you have a name like, say, “Jeff Johnson” … 184,000 results. In fact, Jeff Johnson is such a common name that not only do I know two people named such – one is a good friend and the other is a writer pal in New York; but I have a Jeff Johnson in my music collection (bass player for Jason and the Scorchers) and also saw a Jeff Johnson (some local dude) climb up onstage with Ryan Adams in the Seventh Street Entry to join him for a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” back in 2000.
But ego-surfing glory can fleeting, and where my name totally trumps the consonant-stuffed surnames is in how it sounds. “Tuomala” rolls off the tongue – it dances, it’s poetic, it’s musical. In fact, there are two famous pop tunes I know of in which you can sing along with using my name. These are:
1) “Get A Job” by the Silhouettes. You can start it out: “Tuoma-la-la, Tuoma-la-la-la, Bah-oom! Tuoma-la-la, Tuoma-la-la-la, Bah-oom!”
2) “Oye Como Va” by Santana. Change the title to “Billy Tuomala” and you’re good to go.
There is also a recent college radio hit by indie-pop supergroup the New Pornographers titled “The Laws Have Changed” where I swear Neko Case sings “Tuomala” in the chorus. And come to think of it – what else would she be singing? “Brown?” “Harris?” “McDonald?” Hers is the voice I needed at roll call all those years ago. The rest of you can feel free to sing along also. Better late than never.