Wednesday October 17, 2007

A Tale of Two Geddies

Names are tricky.  Many of us are assigned them at birth and accept them without much thought.  Others are bolder, taking control of their arbitrary word-handles, shedding unwanted labels for others somehow more agreeable.  This is a common practice in show business, where stage names serve to distinguish performers from each other and from us ordinary folks.  This is a story of two such performers who, in their quest for uniqueness, landed at nearly the same spot in the vast name-space.

Gary Lee Weinrib is the bass player for one of the biggest rock bands of all time.  Like many performers before him, he wanted a name that was suited to his role.  Weinrib had to go—too ethnic, perhaps, or maybe it just lacked that ineffable rock-god feeling.  But that left him with Gary Lee, as bland a moniker as ever there was.  Weinrib came up with an innovative solution.  Recalling the way his mother pronounced his given name, he came up with a new spelling that would elicit that same pronunciation from fans.  Thus was born Geddy Lee.

Gary Watanabe is an actor, probably best known for his sensitive portrayal of every offensive Asian stereotype wrapped up in a single package, Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong.  (Note: not to be confused with long duck dong.)  Although Watanabe was born in Ogden, UT and is a native speaker of English, he must have known that Hollywood was more interested in stereotypes than real Asian-Americans.  But, like Gary Weinrib before him, he was saddled with a too-plain, too-Anglo first name.  Watanabe hit upon a solution—in fact, he hit upon the same solution: respell Gary to make it seem unfamiliar.  Thus was born Gedde Watanabe.

Both Garys, probably without knowing it, were making use of a dialect feature of North American English, in which the phonemes /d/ and /t/ become a flap [ɾ] when they begin non-initial, unstressed syllables. (That's why matter and madder or rider and writer are homophones for many speakers.)  By respelling Gary with a double D instead of an R, they found a way to elicit an exoticized pronunciation of their name from their audiences. (The English approximant [ɹ], incidentally, is quite rare cross-linguistically, while the flap [ɾ] is much more common.  The UPSID survey of 461 languages found only 10 languages with a phoneme /ɹ/, but 91 with /ɾ/.)

The new spellings were not only more exotic, they were much more distinctive.  Geddy is not a common English given name, although it is a surname.  Gedde isn't a natural-sounding Japanese name, either.  Phonetically, it looks like a loan word, since native Japanese words don't have geminate voiced consonants—the loan word beddo ('bed'), for example, also occurs as nativized betto.

So, two men, both named Gary, inspired by two different foreign languages, each arrived at the same idea for their stage names.  Have the Geddies ever met each other, I wonder?  If so, I hope they were aware of their uncommon bond.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I knew a girl in high school who looked just like Geddy Lee, poor thing. And why isn't Rush in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame??

Posted by: Rob at Oct 17, 2007 5:36:28 PM

Hi Tensor,
I'm an undergrad German major working on my capstone on German directness, heading for an MA in linguistics next fall. I found your blog about in a google search - wondering if (1) i could you in my paper as an anecdotal reference, and (2) if you ever looked deeper into the issue of German directness, or could point me more in the right direction. I'm very familiar with Grice, Searle and Austin, but need something German-culture-specific.
anything leads you could send my would be much appreciated!

Posted by: carrie at Oct 17, 2007 8:07:25 PM

Veddy interesting.

Posted by: Ben Zimmer at Oct 18, 2007 10:27:11 PM