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My Proper Name Has a Comic French Twist

Whoever asked the question, "What's in a name?" probably had a good, solid name like William Shakespeare.

Try that question on Candy Barr, a grade-school classmate. Or Charlie Brown, a brilliant high school debater whose name never failed to prompt a giggle. There are probably worse cartoon characters to be named after than Charlie Brown. But there is something in a name; it tends to stick to its owner, even and especially when there is no reason for it.

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Charlie, at least, saw the laughter coming, and often managed to defuse it. ("You're kidding! That's really your name?" he'd be asked for the umpteenth time. "Yes, it is," he'd say simply, with grace.) But a new Puerto Rican student at an American university seemed stunned when classmates at his first graduate seminar laughed when he said his name was Juan Valdez.

For at least a decade before Juan Valdez, promising political scientist, walked into a New Jersey classroom, Juan Valdez, TV icon, had been interrupting everyone's favorite shows to tout the virtues of picking Colombian coffee beans one bean at a time. Most kids could repeat that commercial by heart.

I have forgotten almost everything I learned in that class. But I never forgot the look on Juan's face when people laughed at his name.

My own name seemed laugh-proof. My parents had put some thought into giving their daughters names that could not be turned into diminutives. No Susans that friends could mutate to Suzi, with a pumpkin dot over the "i." What could anyone do to Gail? The pumpkin "i" was occasionally a threat, but the name itself stood its ground against would-be nicknames into adulthood.

Hollywood also had a say in the associations tied up with that name. Some studio executive had decided that Gail Russel was a good name for an actress. She had beautiful brown eyes and was the only woman who ever got John Wayne to lay down his guns in a movie, "Angel and the Badman" (1947). I liked sharing the name.

I liked my husband's name as well, although I didn't appreciate the way he helped other people spell it, "haddock with a C." I'd rather be associated with a Hollywood actress than with a fish. But the new name was no problem, until we moved to France.

It's hard to tell by phone that people are laughing at your name. But in person, you can't miss that crinkling around the eyes and mouth that signals that something is funny and it may be you.

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It turns out that while American children grew up watching Juan Valdez, French kids grew up with the Shadoks, pronounced just about the same way you'd pronounce Chaddock in French. The Shadoks had their own cartoon show at 7:55 p.m., just before the nightly news. They also have a series of books.

Our neighborhood bookstore salesman asked me one day if people ever made fun of my name. I told him I thought so or rather, I hoped so, as the alternative was that they were making fun of me.

"I think it's the name," he said. "There's a book you must read." He handed me "Les Shadoks" by Jacques Rouxel (pronounced about the same way you'd pronounce Russell).

The Shadoks live on a planet where things aren't going well, so they and the rival Gibis decide to head for Earth. The problem is that the Shadoks don't know very much, or anything at all, and reasoning is not their strong point. Example: The Shadoks build a rocket ship that they calculate has 1 chance in one million of working. However, each new failure brings renewed confidence of success, because if the first 999,999 efforts failed, the one-millionth is bound to succeed. Hence the first principle of Shadok logic: "The more something fails, the greater the chance that it will succeed," as in, the rocket is "failing just fine." Corollary Shadok maxim: "Why do it simply when you can complicate it?"

I LIKED the Shadoks, but sharing their name was sometimes no laughing matter. The desk clerk at the Paris police department who renewed my visa recently had a suggestion. "You'll just have to change your name," she said. "If you ever have to give a speech to a large group of people, they will hear 'Shadok' and just lower their heads and laugh."

Go to a judge and explain that the name Chaddock is a burden to you professionally, she said. "It would be easier if you told the judge you just wanted to reverse the letters of your name."

Let's see, that's would be Kcoddahc. No, thank you. I think I'll make it easy for myself and change it to Candy Barr.

Better still, I'll just tell people to spell it "Shadok, with two C's and a D." Why do it simply when you can complicate it?

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