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Humorous Names in Contemporary Literature as Evidence of Cultural Assimilation: 

Humorous Names in Contemporary Literature as Evidence of Cultural Assimilation by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen


FOUR STAGES OF ETHNIC HUMOR Critical Humor Targeting the Ethnic Group Self-Deprecatory Humor about the Ethnic Group Realistic Humor Accepting Integration Critical Humor Targeting Mainstream Culture (Boskin and Dorinson 167) (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 116)


SHERMAN ALEXIE Sherman Alexie’s Junior Polatkin can be used to represent three of the four stages of cultural assimilation. In a story called 'Indian Education' Junior Polotkin has such a miserable time in school that he recalls the following:


'I was always falling down; my Indian name was Junior Falls Down. Sometimes it was Bloody Nose or Steal-His-Lunch. Once, it was Cries-like-a-White-Boy, even though none of us had seen a white boy cry' (172).


By second grade, Junior is more assertive. When his teacher sends a letter home saying that his braids should be cut as a matter of respect, or he should withdraw from school, his parents come to school the next day and drag their braids across the teacher’s desk. '‘Indian, indian, indian.’ She said it without capitalization. She called me ‘indian, indian, indian.’' 'And I said, ‘Yes, I am. I am Indian. Indian. I am’' (173).


Near the end of the book, Junior dreams that he is a gunfighter with braids and a ribbon shirt. He doesn’t speak English, but just whispers Spokane as he guns down Wild Bill Hickock, Bat Masterson, and even Billy the Kid. His name is Sonny Six-Gun and both 'white and Indian people would sing ballads about him' (232).


Sherman Alexie also tells about Rosemary Morning Dove, who gives birth to a boy who she names _____ (blank). 'which is unpronounceable in Indian and English, but means 'He Who Crawls Silently Through the Grass with a Small Bow and One Bad Arrow Hunting for Enough Deer to Feed the Whole Tribe.' 'We just called him James' (110-111).


Stage 1: Critical Humor Targeting the Ethnic Group


GARY D. SCHMIDT Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy has an interesting title. Schmidt’s book is a story of two preachers’ kids—black, rag-tag Lizzie Bright Griffin and white, thoroughly starched Turner Buckminster.


At the turn of the 20th century, a common name for African-American housemaids was 'Lizzie.' Later, Henry Ford’s Model-T Fords were called 'Tin Lizzies.' This is because they were always black. They worked hard during the week. And on Sundays they got polished and dressed up to go out.


LAURA ESQUIVEL Like Water for Chocolate gets its title from a Spanish colloquialism alluding to water that is agitated or ready to boil. Tita is the youngest of three daughters in a Mexican ranching family. She was born in a kitchen and therefore has a special affinity for food. So many tears were shed at Tita’s birth that when the tears dried there was enough salt to last the family for many years. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 145)


When Tita is forced to bake the wedding cake to celebrate her sister’s marriage to the man that Tita loves, Tita cries so many tears that her sorrow is baked into the wedding cake and all of the guests become ill. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 145)


MAYA ANGELOU In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou tells why it is such a hellish horror to be 'called out of your name.' This was considered an insult because of the centuries that Negroes had 'been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks' (109).


When Maya Angelou was working as a maid, Mrs. Cullinan tells Glory (the other maid), 'I want Mary to go down to Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling well for a few days' (108). 'Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. ‘You mean Margaret, Ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.' 'That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on. Heat that soup from last night and put it in the china tureen and, Mary, I want you to carry it carefully' (109).


Miss Glory walks the newly named 'Mary' to the back door and confides, 'Twenty years I wasn’t much older than you. My name used to be Hallelujah. That’s what Ma named me, but my mistress give me ‘Glory,’ and it stuck. I likes it better too' (109).


SANDRA CISNEROS Twenty-one out of the forty-six chapter titles of The House on Mango Street are based on the names of people or places. The Latino surnames include Cordero, Guerrero, Ortiz and Vargas. The Latino first names include Alma, Armando, Blanca, Elenita, Geraldo, Izaura, Marin, Noreida, Raul, Refugia, Tito, Yolanda, Uncle Nacho, and both Angel and Angelo.


The kids living on Mango Street enjoyed naming things, including their 'First Annual Tarzan Jumping Contest.' Meme won the contest, 'and broke both arms' (23).


One of the neighborhood sayings is that 'A woman’s place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star' (31). What the neighborhood calls 'the Tortilla Star' other people call 'the Morning Star.' This is the star that mothers need to rise with in order to roll out the day’s tortillas.


The saddest Cisneros story is entitled 'Geraldo No Last Name.' It is a story about Marin, who loves to dance and goes to lots of dance halls including the Uptown, the Logan, the Embassy, the Palmer, the Aragon, the Fontana and the Manor. Marin 'knows how to do combias and salsas and rancheras even' (66).


Geraldo was just someone that Marin danced with. But Geraldo was killed in a hit-and-run accident. 'They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?' (66).


'His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember. Geraldo—he went north… we never heard from him again' (66).


AMY TAN In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, there is a short story entitled, 'Rules of the Game.' Three of the characters are named Waverly, Winston and Vincent.


Waverly was named from the street the family lived on. It was the family’s way of 'becoming American.' Waverly looked very much like her mother, Lindo, who said,


'I wanted you to have the best circumstances, the best character. I didn’t want you to regret anything. And that’s why I named you Waverly. It was the name of the street we lived on. And I wanted you to think, This is were I belong. But I also knew if I named you after this street, soon you would grow up, leave this place, and take a piece of me with you' (303). Near the end of the book we hear about the naming of Winston and Vincent.


Lindo named her first son Winston because she 'liked the meaning of those two words wins ton.' She 'wanted to raise a son who would win many things, praise, money, a good life' (302). Two years later when another boy came along, she named him Vincent 'which soulds like win cent, the sound of making money, because I was beginning to think we did not have enough' (303).


Stage 2: Self-Deprecatory Humor about the Ethnic Group


JEFF VALDEZ 'My brothers’ names are Alfonso, Lorenzo, Ramon…[and me] Jeff. I guess that was right about the time my parents assimilated…right there!' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 147)


CYNTHIA KADAHOTA Cynthia Kadahota’s Weedflower is about a WWII internment camp located on the Mohave Indian Reservation near Parker, Arizona named Poston. This camp is the one where her father was interned.


Many of the adults at this camp who suffered from depression would stay in one place all day long. Those who sat outside in their chairs and moved them from place to place as the sun travelled across the sky were called 'Shadeseekers.' Those who positioned their chairs in breezeways between the barracks were called 'Windchasers.'


Weedflower, the title of Kadahota’s book, is based on the Japanese word, 'Kusabana' which means 'stocks' in English. The 'Kusabana' are the flowers that grow in the fields rather than those in the more protected greenouses. Sumiko loves the smell and the colors of these weedflowers, especially when there is a whole field of them, so Frank chooses to call her 'Weedflower' rather than 'Sumiko' (241) In retaliation, Sumiko calls Frank 'Woodchopper.'


Stage 3: Realistic Humor Accepting Integration


CYNTHIA KADAHOTA Sumiko (Weedflower) meets a boy named Hook at the camp. This boy had a hook sticking out 'from his left arm where a hand should have been,' and Sumiko is surprised at how casually they call him Hook.


In her culture, this would have been like 'calling Mr. Moto [a partially blind neighbor at the camp] One Eye.' 'If a Japanese person had a hook for a hand, you would act like the hook wasn’t even there and get all embarrassed if you got caught staring at it' (123).


SANDRA CISNEROS In 'My Name,' the protagonist says that her name is Esperanza. 'In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday morning when he is shaving, songs like sobbing' (10).


SHERMAN ALEXIE Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven gets its title from the Lone Ranger radio show, which between 1933 and 1954 presented nearly 3,000 shows and was later adapted into a television program, comic books, movie serials, and a video game.


The hero was a masked cowboy (a Superman in cowboy clothes) always accompanied by an Indian named Tonto, who served as his companion and Man-Friday. Tonto, with this spelling but a slightly different pronunciation means 'stupid' or 'foolish' in Spanish. When the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surprised by a band of hostile Indians, the Lone Ranger says, 'Oh, now we’re in trouble!' and Tonto replies, 'What you mean ‘we,’ Paleface?'


An example of Alexie’s dark humor that stretches readers’ emotions from pathos to humor is 'The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor.' James Many Horses has cancer and describes his favorite tumor as being about the size and the shape of a baseball, complete with stitch marks. 'You’re full of shit.'


'No, Really. I told her [the doctor] to call me Babe Ruth. Or Roger Maris. Maybe even Hank Aaron ‘cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me.' 'Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame. Make myself a new exhibit, you KNOW? Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors. What a dedicated baseball fan! What a sacrifice for the national pastime!'


JOHN NICHOLS In John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, Horsethief Shorty gives a forest ranger the following warning: 'These people wouldn’t confide in you, in that uniform, Carl, if you was Cesar Chavez, Pedro Infante, Cantinflas, and Lee Trevino all rolled into one.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 145)


Stage 4 Critical Humor Targeting Mainstream Culture


VINE DELORIA In 1988, Vine Deloria named his book Custer Died for Your Sins after a bumper sticker on the Sioux reservation which was designed to tease missionaries.


THE 'BAMBI SCHOOL' OF ART Sterotypical Indian art for tourist shops is sarcastically referred to as the 'Bambi School,' because it creates a 'proliferation of deer prancing over purple mountains' (Katz 75).


SHERMAN ALEXIE David WalksAlong is a character in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. He is the tribal chairman who 'walked along with BIA policy so willingly that he took to calling his wife a savage in polyester pants' (94).


Dirty Joe got his name because he cruised the taverns at closing time and 'drank all the half empties' (54). When Victor and his father can’t find any food in the house, he calls his father 'Hunger' and his father calls him 'Pang' (105).


Tremble Dancer is one of 'the Urbans.' or City Indians who has come back to the reservation after catching one of the white man’s diseases. She has 'burns and scars over her legs. When she dances around the fire at night, she shakes from the pain' (105).


The name of James Many Horses changes, depending on the circumstances. Simon sometimes calls him 'Little Jimmy One-Horse,' or 'Little Jimmy Sixteen-and-One-Half-Horses. But when they are not on good terms Simon calls him 'Little Jimmy Zero-Horses' (157).


James Many Horses likes to call himself 'James Many Horses III.' He is the only 'James Many Horses,' but he has added III to his name because, 'there is a certain dignity to any kind of artificial tradition' (68).


Sherman Alexie explains that his book could easily have been called, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Get Drunk, Fistfight, and Then Fall into Each Other’s Arms and Confess Their Undying Platonic Love for Each Other in Heaven Followed by a Long Evening of Hot Dog Regurgitation and Public Urination (xviii).


SANDRA CISNEROS Esperanza explains to her great-grandmother (who had the same name) that at school they say her name funny. 'as if the syllables were made out of tin.' In Spanish her name is made out of 'a softer something, like silver' (10).


Esperanza is jealous that her sister Magdalena can come home and become Nenny, while she has to stay Esperanza. 'I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza is Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do' (10).


FRANK CHIN VS. MAXINE HONG KINGSTON AND DAVID HENRY HWANG Chinese writer Frank Chin has criticized Maxine Hong Kingston for Woman Warrior, Amy Tan for The Joy Luck Club, and David Henry Hwang for his plays F.O.B., and M. Butterfly. He accuses these writers of 'boldly faking' Chinese fairy tales and childhood literature.


AMY TAN In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club Rich, an American accountant, calls Waverly’s parents Linda and Tom and shakes their hands 'with the same familiarity he used with nervous new clients.' Waverly explains, 'My parents’ names are Lindo and Tin Jong, and nobody, except a few older family friends, ever calls them by their first names' (198).


SHERMAN ALEXIE 'Flight' is a story about John-John and his brother 'ace jet pilot Joseph Victor, code named Geronimo,' who is reported to have been captured and taken prisoner during a routine military action. John-John waits by the window watching for his brother to come home, but the story he tells himself at nights just before he falls asleep is a comic routine that he and Joseph used to have over breakfast during happier times (229).


'Hey, John-John, why do you got two first names?' 'Cuz you have to say anything twice to make it true?' 'No, that ain’t it.' 'Cuz our parents really meant it when they named me?' 'I don’t think so.'


'Maybe it’s just a memory device?' 'Who knows?' … 'Cuz I’m supposed to be twins?' 'No, man, that’s too easy.' 'Cuz Mother always stuttered?' (229-230)


!THE COLOR PURPLE MODEL OF ETHNIC ASSIMILATION G. L. Robinson’s 'Color Purple' model is based on a very powerful metaphor. The model uses color symbolism to state that there are three lenses a language learner can use in viewing a new culture. It can be viewed through the eyes of the native culture (the blue lens), or through the eyes of the target culture (the red lens), or through bilingual eyes that compare, contrast, and blend the two cultures (the purple lens).


!!Only the purple lens (which is based on both the red and the blue lens) provides the complete picture, and only the purple lens is a dynamic and variable model that can accommodate differences of gender, ethnicity, immigration, and multiculturalism. (Robinson 117)


!!!AN APPLICATION OF THE 'COLOR PURPLE' MODEL: Yiddish with Dick and Jane:


References 1: Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005. Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York, NY: Random House, 1969 Boskin, Joseph, and Joseph Dorinson. 'Racial and Ethnic Humor' (Mintz 163-193). Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York, NY: Vintage/Random House, 1984.


References # 2: Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1969. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literature Criticism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988. Kadahota, Cynthia. Weedflower. New York: Athenian, 2006. Katz, Jane B., ed. This Song Remembers: Self-Portraits of Native Americans in the Arts. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior New York, NY: Knopf, 1975.


References # 3: Mintz, Lawrence E. ed. Humor in America: A Research Guide to Genres and Topics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988. Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Robinson, G. L. 'Second Culture Acquisition.' in Linguistics and Language Pedagogy: The State of the Art. Ed. James E. Alatis. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991, 114-122. Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Random House, 1989.

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