Last Writes

Richard Lederer has a same-name game of fame that will strain your brain

We celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the man who, along with Richard Wagner, is considered the preeminent composer of 19th-century opera. His name is Giuseppe Verdi, and he entered the earthly stage in Le Roncole, Parma, on October 10, 1813. Among the 25 operas Giuseppe Verdi composed ring out the immensely popular and enduring Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and Aida.

Why, you may be asking by now, is a language columnist writing about a great composer? Stay with me, gentle reader, and you’ll soon find out.

Have you ever noticed that certain celebrities, historical personages, and other famous men and women occasionally share identical, or very similar, first and last names? Singer-songwriter Paul Simon and Illinois senator Paul Simon. “Garfield” creator Jim Davis and North Carolina senator Jim Davis. Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and Renaissance woman Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare. Actress Jane Seymour and Jane Seymour, a wife of Henry VIII. Get the idea?

Once you home (not “hone”) in on this concept, same-name twins — and a few triplets — pop up everywhere: Talk-show host Robin Roberts and pitching great Robin Roberts. Explorer Richard Burton and actor Richard Burton. New York mayor Robert Wagner and actor Robert Wagner. Outlaw Jesse James and reality-show star Jesse James. Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones and instrumentalist-songwriter John Paul Jones.

Also stepping forward: English novelist Graham Greene and Native American actor Graham Greene. Comedian Dave Thomas and the founder of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas. Actor Matthew Perry and explorer Matthew Perry. Inventor James Watt and secretary of the interior James Watt. Alabama governor George Wallace and stand-up comedian George Wallace. Golfer John Daly and “What’s My Line” host John Daly.

Next appear names that vary only by spelling, nickname, or an added initial: Novelist Thomas Wolfe and novelist Tom Wolfe. Soul singer James Brown and football great and actor Jim Brown. Actor James Dean and country singer and sausage maker Jimmy Dean. Tycoon J. P. Morgan and singer Jaye P. Morgan. Secretary of state James Baker and evangelist Jim Bakker. Playwright and poet Ben Jonson and sprinter Ben Johnson. New York mayor James J. Walker and basketball star Jimmy Walker. Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis and union leader John L. Lewis. Newscaster Bernard Shaw and playwright George Bernard Shaw. Singer-composer James Taylor and football star Jim Taylor. Explorer Christopher Columbus and film director Chris Columbus. Pop superstar Ricky Martin and Laugh-In comedian Dick Martin. Comedian Jerry Lewis and singer Jerry Lee Lewis.

If you really strain your brain, you’ll uncover a clutch of same-name triplets, especially the Jones boys: Actor James Earl Jones, novelist James Jones, and cult leader Jim Jones. Golfer Bobby Jones, golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, and evangelist Bob Jones. Henry Fielding hero Tom Jones, singer Tom Jones, and actor Tommy Lee Jones. Add to those triads soul singer James Brown, sports commentator James Brown, and football great/actor Jim Brown. Actor Robert Shaw, chorale leader Robert Shaw, and abolitionist/Civil War colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Now the language limelight falls upon a category that will appeal especially to wordplay lovers. These groupings embrace fictional characters, pseudonyms, homophonic names, and foreign-language equivalents.

Here we are entertained by heroic Dickensian orphan David Copperfield and magician David Copperfield. Dickensian urchin Tiny Tim and weird singer Tiny Tim. Art Carney character Ed Norton and actor Ed Norton. Gunsmoke marshal Matt Dillon and actor Matt Dillon. German composer Englebert Humperdinck and crooner Englebert Humperdinck. Comedian Billy Crystal and conservative publisher William Kristol. Hollywood composer Alfred Newman and Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman. Edward Jones, investment company owner, and NFL lineman Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Laugh-In comedian Henry Gibson and Danish playwright Henrik Ibsen.

But the most pyrotechnic same-name pairing of all — and the reason why I opened this column as I did — is opera giant Giuseppe Verdi and the translation of his name from Italian into English: Pittsburgh Steelers lineman (Mean) Joe Green.

Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, PhD linguistics, is the author of more than 40 books on language, history, and humor. This excerpt is from his latest book, Amazing Words, a career-capping anthology of bedazzling, beguiling, and bewitching words, available now at his website —