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Names in the News
On July 14 this year NASA’s New Horizons space probe made its closest encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto. Australia was the first place on Earth to receive images of Pluto from New Horizons, at the CSIRO’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla. The CDSCC has been tracking New Horizons since it was launched in 2006, and it will take more than a year to receive all the data.
Two days later, the David Bowie Is touring exhibition opened at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and broke all records for ticket sales before anyone stepped inside the doors. First staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it has already been seen by more than 1 million people around the world. The show includes costumes, video, photographs, and items from Bowie’s own collection, including notes and sketches.
David Bowie has a special significance in Melbourne. His first Australian tour was in 1978, and the biggest concert of his career to that point was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. People queued for three weeks to buy tickets, and the fact that it poured with rain did nothing to dampen the spirits of 40 000 fans. His experiences in Australia in the 1970s inspired the music video for Let’s Dance, filmed in Sydney and outback Carinda).
Besides having key Australian events at around the same time, there isn’t an obvious connection between Bowie and Pluto. Except that Bowie has had so many references to space in his music – Space Oddity, Ashes to Ashes, Ziggy Stardust, Moonage Daydream, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Life on Mars?, Star Man – that it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to cover these names together.
Scottish surname derived from the Gaelic nickname Buidhe, meaning “yellow”, to denote someone blond or fair haired. It has also been used to Anglicise the Irish surname Ó Buadhaigh, meaning “son of Buadhach”, with Buadhach meaning “victorious”, although more commonly that’s Anglicised to Boyce. In rare cases it may be a variant of the English surname Bye, from the Old English for “bend”, referring to someone who lived on a river bend.
The Bowie surname originates from Kintyre in western Scotland, and the Bowie family were early colonists to America, with John Bowie Snr one of the founders of Maryland in the early 18th century. He was the grandfather of James “Jim” Bowie, who played a prominent role during the Texas Revolution, and died at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
The thick heavy blade known as a Bowie knife is named after Jim, who carried a hunting knife with him and had a reputation as a skilled knife fighter. His brother Rezin Bowie is supposed to have been the creator of the Bowie knife, although Bowie family history relates that it was Rezin’s blacksmith who created the knife.
David Bowie was born David Jones, and first performed as Davie Jones, which risked being confused with Davy Jones from The Monkees. He chose his stage name after seeing the movie The Alamo in 1963, with Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie; allegedly he wanted a name with a “cutting” feel to it, like Mick Jagger’s, and the Bowie knife gave it some edge. He deliberately chose the name of a famous American, as American music and culture had first inspired him.
Bowie has been used as a personal name since the 18th century, and originated in Scotland. Mostly used as a middle name, it was first given as a family name, but in 19th century America increasingly given to honour Jim Bowie: it was particularly found in the southern states. The name Bowie has been given to both sexes, but mostly to boys.
Jagger, Lennon, and Hendrix are reasonably common names, but even with the fame of David Bowie, the name Bowie is in rare use. It doesn’t chart in Australia, while in the UK there has been a smattering of Bowies on the charts since 2003; in 2013 there were 5 baby boys named Bowie. In the US last year, there were 59 baby boys named Bowie and 30 baby girls (numbers rose considerably for boys, but fell for girls).
It is slightly puzzling why Bowie isn’t used more. It sounds like familiar names like Beau, Bohdi, and Brodie, is a counterpoint to popular Archer, and as a knife it fits the trend for weaponry names like Blade.
One issue is that the pronunciation is slightly confused. In the US, Bowie tends to be said BOO-ee, the usual pronunciation of the surname and the Bowie knife. The British sometimes say the first syllable of David Bowie’s surname like the bough of a tree, whereas Bowie himself says it like bow and arrows.
In Greek mythology, Pluto is the god of the Underworld and the afterlife. His earlier name was Hades, but gradually this was used to mean the Underworld itself. Pluto is the Latinised form of the Greek Plouton, meaning “wealth, riches”, and the name is sometimes glossed as “giver of wealth”.
It makes sense that Pluto should be associated with wealth, because he has dominion over all the precious metals, gems, and resources under the earth, and all crops planted in soil. He was a god of abundance, and from early on was associated with agricultural fertility – which is why he was the natural husband for the agricultural goddess Persephone. Pluto and Persephone were revered as a divine couple with knowledge of the mysteries of birth and rebirth.
In the Christian era, there was often a horror of gods of death and the Underworld, who tended to be associated with Satan or demons. Pluto’s image, never a particularly cheerful one, became positively macabre, with Hades a place of torment. In Dante’s Inferno, Pluto rules the fourth circle of Hell, where those who have squandered their wealth are sent. Medieval English writers sometimes conflated Hades with Fairyland, giving Pluto a magical elf-king quality.
The dwarf planet Pluto was discovered in 1930 by a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh who had just started working at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. It was named by an eleven-year-old Oxford schoolgirl named Venetia Burney. She made the suggestion to her grandfather Falconer Madan, retired from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. He had the connections to ensure that Venetia’s idea got to the right people, they unanimously agreed, and Venetia was paid £5 (around $450 in today’s money). A big help was that the first two letters were PL – the initials of Percival Lowell, who had founded the observatory.
When Walt Disney studios created a pet dog for Mickey Mouse in 1930, he was named Pluto – apparently after the planet, although nobody is able to confirm that. So Pluto went from being a god name to a dog name!
Pluto is a gloomy god, a dwarf planet, a cartoon dog … but the name has also been rarely used for humans. The name is first found in colonial America in the 18th century, as a slave name. Pluto can be found in Australian historical records (Pluto Riches and Pluto Surprise are two interesting finds), and was also given to Aboriginal servants. Overall, Pluto has mostly been used in the United States. Use of the name, always low, fell after 1930 and never recovered, although it isn’t clear whether parents were put off by the astronomical body or the Disney character.
Pluto is probably too much of a space oddity to use as a first name, but would make a memorable middle.
Two rare names from the stars: which one will rate better?
The name Bowie received an approval rating of 50%. 42% of people weren’t keen on it, although 17% loved it.
The name Pluto was much less popular, with an approval rating of 15%. 46% of people weren’t keen on it, and only 7% thought it was a good name.
(Picture of David Bowie in 1973 by Masayoshi Sukita; photo from Urban Walkabout)