In the recent post on Westminster Abbey I mentioned that all English kings up through William the Conqueror (for instance, Ethelred the Unready and Edward the Confessor) were given descriptive titles rather than numbers after their names.
It's unfortunate that this tradition was not continued, as such names are far more informative than, say, George III or Elizabeth II.
To those of us unacquainted with Russian history, the name Ivan Vasilyevich probably does not ring a bell. But when we hear "Ivan the Terrible," the name he is better known by, we not only recognize him but feel as if we already know a little about him.
As it turns out, Ivan actually gets mixed reviews for his long reign, and many historians claim that his original Russian sobriquet, grozny, is more accurately translated as "fearsome" or "formidable" than as the more pejorative "terrible."
Still, personally, had I been Mr. Vasilyevich, I'd have preferred to be known to history as "the Terrible" than by my surname.
There are other historical figures, however, such as Vlad the Impaler, who were fully deserving of their descriptive names. (Impalement was actually his favorite method of execution, and his victims were said to number in the tens of thousands.)
If only modern politicians had more descriptive names. What are family names, after all? They carry no more meaning than numbers do. And getting rid of them would help eliminate nepotism, and political dynasties.
Take our current President. Were the mainstream media to anoint him, he would probably become known as Barack the Savior. A more clear-eyed view might result in Barack the Con-man, or Barack the Narcissist.
However, as they say, history is written by the victors, so for now we'll have to accept the Savior.
Other recent Presidents could also be given such titles:
George W. Bush could be known as George the Heir (to denote his primary qualification for the office).
Bill Clinton could be known as William the Slick, a variation on a nickname he's already been given. Or, perhaps, Bill of Goods, to signify what he sold us. Or, William the Affect-hungry Sociopath.
George H. W. Bush could be called George the Accidental, an explanation of how he rose to the Presidency.
And so on.
Such names could extend beyond the Presidency. Harry Reid might be called Harry the Obstreperous. Nancy Pelosi, Nancy the Know-Nothing. John Kerry, as John the Conniver. Hillary the Hanger-On (to her husband's coattails). Newt the Unembarrassable.
In the old days, such names consisted of one word. This could be limiting. It's a little hard to capture Ron Paul without calling him something like Ron the Crotchety Old Foreteller of Doom -- which is not exactly a prescription for a successful candidacy nowadays.
Foreigners could be given such titles as well. Silvio (Berlusconi) the Self-Indulgent. Blair the Bland. Merkel the Sober Purse-keeper. And so on.
And we needn't to limit ourselves to politicians. Some showbiz types scream out for such names. Lindsay the Addict. Oprah the Mighty. Arnold the Austrian Accent. Johnny (Depp) the Chameleon.
Athletes could use such names as well. Though, once again, restricting it to one word could be a little limiting. OJ The Formerly Popular Heisman Trophy Winner Who Got Away with Murder is far more informative than OJ the Killer. Though the latter would suffice.
The only problem is, there are too many celebrities and not enough words to go around. (A thousand years ago, there wasn't quite the same media saturation.) Once you'd anointed Barack the Narcissist and Bill the Sociopath, how many other people for whom those names would be apt would be left without an appropriate descriptive title?