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Choosing a name is an important business. For example, I was at a horticultural society meeting in London last week when a punch-up started. You’d have thought we were at a hockey game, but no, it was all Shakespeare’s fault. Really, it was – do you think I make this stuff up?

Things were going swimmingly until it came to the roses, where the judges were taking Shakespeare to heart.

“Beautiful floompins.”

“You mean the yambles?”

“No you idiot, the red things with the spiky bits.”

“Them? Everybody knows they’re netkins.”

“Not those things, stupid; the ones with the red petals and thorns.”

“Who are you calling stupid…”

So much for sweet smelling roses, and all that.

Once the impromptu boxing contestants had been separated, I began to realize this was a classic example of what can happen when people get names wrong.

Unlike these British horticulturalists, the French are very careful with their names, choosing and altering them as needs be.

You see the bard’s name ambivalence was largely ignored in France for a good couple of hundred years. They clung to the intellectual high ground in their names and theatrical performances. Yep, no muddying the purity of their language for them.

Unless you were Napoleon.

Napoleon was happy to play it fast a loose with the whole naming deal. He’d probably become used to the idea of the flexibility of names when he started to claim he was French after being born Corsican. C’est la vie, and all that.

Famously, Napoleon also claimed the hand, and (on some nights) most of the rest of Josephine. Only Josephine wasn’t Josephine, at least not all her life. Napoleon took a petal out of Shakespeare’s book when he met a lady called Rose, and quickly chose the name by which she became famous, Josephine. Ok, ok, technically she was called Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, so she did have a touch of Josephine going for her, but try dropping that into casual conversation. Napoleon might also have wanted to make a break from Rose’s past life as a “mistress” (another carefully chosen name).

The odd thing about Napoleon’s choice of name for his wife is that Josephine loved roses. After their divorce, her home, Chateau de Malmaison, became noted for its beautiful, rose filled gardens. Maybe she was trying to tell him something.

A rose filled garden ... maybe she was trying to tell him something

So there you have it – choosing names is a dodgy business. The Brits ignored their roses and fighting broke out, while the French chose theirs with care and it led to love (at least for a while). What names have you chosen? And how did they work out? Love, war, or something else?


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