Archive for August, 2008

Shia LaBeouf, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux

August 17, 2008

When I first noticed the name of the actor Shia LaBeouf in the media, a year or two ago, I assumed that it was a stage name, and I thought that it was a pointedly funny one: combining the name of a branch of Islam with a caricature of French!

I have since found out several things. One is that Shia LaBeouf is the actor’s real name; another that the first name is pronounced to rhyme with Mariah, not Maria, and that it was given to him by his Jewish mother, supposedly (according to Wikipedia) meaning “gift from God”.

I believe there is some confusion there with the name Shai (שי), which does mean “gift.” Shia’s mother’s name is Shayna, indicating a Yiddish-speaking background. And a name with the same pronunciation as the actor’s (Shaye in the YIVO transcription) was quite common during my Jewish childhood in Poland. In Polish it was written Szaja, but in Yiddish is most typically written in the Hebrew form  ישעיה (Yeshaya), a variant of  ישעיהו (Yeshayahu), the Hebrew name (meaning something like “salvation by God”) of the prophet Isaiah.

As regards LaBeouf, it turns out that Shia’s father is Cajun, evidently descended from a Frenchman with the not uncommon surname of Lebœuf. For a long time Cajuns were a largely illiterate society, and when schooling came to them it was in English, not French, so that when they needed to spell their French surnames they had to do so without knowing how to read or write French.

French surnames, among Cajuns and elsewhere, often end with the phoneme /o/. There are a great many ways in which this ending can be spelled: -o, -od, -os, -ot, -au, -aud, -aut, -ault, -aux, -eau, -eaux, -eaulx. I have not made a survey, but it’s my guess that the most common ones are -eau and -ot, because these ending represent diminutives that were productive in Middle French (analogous to the English -kin or -kins) and are still occasionally productive: Charlie Chaplin is known in French as Charlot (and my wife likes to call me Cobykins).

For some reason Cajuns seem to favor -eaux, perhaps because of the frequent presence of Bordeaux in written media. There are countless Cajun jokes about two characters named Boudreaux and Thibodeaux. The latter would, in France or Canada, be known as Thibaudot or Thibaudeau, a diminutive of Thibaud. The former name I have seem mainly as Boudrot. But jokes about Boudrot and Thibaudot wouldn’t be as funny as ones about Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, would they?


August 13, 2008

About a week ago I happened to be in San José, California (the acute accent in the city’s name is official), and while there I picked up a copy of the local free weekly paper. I noticed an article about something happening in the neighboring city of Los Gatos, whose inhabitants were referred to as Los Gatans.

Los Gatans! What a clumsy formation! But then I realized that, since moving from Berkeley three months ago to the nearby city of El Cerrito, I have probably become, at least officially, an El Cerritan. I checked local publications and found out that that, indeed, is the standard designation.

In the 1950s I lived in Los Angeles. At the time the most common term for the city’s inhabitants was “Los Angelean,” until the city council officially adopted “Angeleno”, based in the Spanish angeleño, at a time when tildes (and acute accents) were not readily available to American typesetters or typists. (A vestige of this lack is still found in crossword puzzles, where a clue like “Spanish year” is meant to refer to ano, the Spanish word for ‘anus’.)

Spanish has many possible endings for what in that language are called gentilicios (the corresponding English word “gentilic” is not widely used, nor is the alternative “demonym”). Besides -eño there are –ino, -ano, -ense, -esano (these last two often appended to a Latinized version of the place-name), -és, -ero (especially common in the Caribbean region), and possibly others. Thus, the people of the Andalusian cities of Sevilla, Granada, Córdoba and Málaga are known respectively as sevillanos, granadinos, cordobeses and malagueños. An inhabitant of Havana (La Habana) is habanero, which is also the name of a variety of chili pepper (the strange American habit of calling it “habañero” — tilde overkill! —  notwithstanding).

But the ending most likely to be used when the base is a common noun is -eño. So, while the people of Buenos Aires are formally known as bonaerenses (Latin!), the more usual term is porteños, based on the fact that the city is a port (puerto).  In the Spanish town of El Palmar (palmar = palm grove), the inhabitants are palmareños. And those of the Colombian city of El Cerrito (cerrito = little hill) are, naturally enough, cerriteños. There must be some cerriteños somewhere in Spain as well, since Cerriteño exists as a surname.

The reason that angeleño was available as the basis for Angeleno was that Los Angeles was the seat of a Franciscan mission, and it was common practice in the 19th century to name Indian tribes for the nearest mission – thus Diegueños (San Diego), Luiseños (San Luis Rey), Juaneños (San Juan Capistrano), Gabrielinos (San Gabriel) and so on. But, to my knowledge, only Los Angeles took advantage of this practice to name its inhabitants.

If the people of Los Gatos choose to call themselves Los Gatans, rather than Gateños (as the people of Gata in Spain’s Cáceres province are called), that isn’t my business. But for myself, I would rather be a Cerriteño than an El Cerritan.