A man once said, “You can call me anything you want, just don’t call me late to dinner.” It’s an old joke that’s been around since the 1830s. It’s not a very funny joke, and no one truly knows the origin of it, but I can relate to the statement on several levels.
No one has ever called me “late” for dinner, lunch, or breakfast. Ever. So, in my case, that is a true statement. I consider myself a punctual person. I have a lot of faults, but tardiness is not one of them. If a meal is involved, I am going to be early.
As far as the “you can call me anything you want,” portion of that joke, I can definitely relate. My name— which seems pretty straightforward to me— is apparently a booger to remember, pronounce, or to get right half of the time. You might never call me late to dinner, but one out of every 20 people are going to call me “John.”
I love my family, unquestionably. And I treasure and respect my “family name” in the sense that the men who came before me lived good lives and earned respectable reputations. I appreciate the family legacy and the St. John name my father passed down, his father before him, and his father before him. My grandmother traced it all of the way back to England to a bunch of people I know nothing about. Somewhere along the way— and for a reason no one knows, as I seriously doubt that I am a direct descendant to the famous sainted John in the Bible— one guy chose the surname St. John.
It was probably sometime after the Middle Ages when surnames came back into fashion. There were all sorts of options out there that my great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-grandfather could have chosen for our family— Smith, Jones, Skittlesworth, or Dungbottom— but he chose St. John and cursed his progenies for centuries to come.
I once overheard a friend of my high school girlfriend say, “…and if y’all got married your last name would be ‘St. John.’ That’s a really cool last name.” St. John sounds like a cool last name, and there is probably a time in my life— when I was young, cocky, and stupid— that I thought to myself, “I have a really cool last name.” But that had to have been when I was very, very young. Once I had been “St. John” for more than 15 years I began having trouble with the moniker.
When making an order over the telephone, people have always had trouble understanding my last name. I don’t know whether it’s how I say it, or how they hear it, but it’s trouble. “OK, Mr. Sunshine, thank you for calling. Would you like to purchase the extra bonus package?”
“The name is not ‘Sunshine,’ it’s ‘St. John.’”
“OK, Mr. John, we’ll get that sent to you right away.”
There’s just way too much going on in my last name. There are three major problems: It’s two words, it has an abbreviation in it, and it has a punctuation mark. That’s more than most last names and just a little more than some people can handle.
I’ll tackle those three issues in reverse order. The punctuation mark is an endless hurdle when filling out an online form. Computer systems all over the world don’t know what to do with a period in the middle of a last name. It’s so bad that when Y2K came around, I thought all traces of my name and me would be wiped from the face of the earth for all of eternity. What then, would my great-times-twenty-grandfather think? If I had a dollar for every time my last name was rejected on an online form, I’d have enough money not to have to fill out any more online forms.
Hotels also have a hard time with the period in the middle of my last name. I always have to call the front desk when trying to log on to the hotel room’s Wi-Fi to ask, “Please tell me how my name is listed on your guest directory because I can’t sign onto the internet. “Hold on, Mr. Sunshine, let me check.”
The abbreviation in my last name is also a constant dilemma. It makes alphabetizing a nightmare. Technically, according to the International Rules of Alphabetizing (I just made that up), or whatever governing body decides such things, I am supposed to be alphabetized under the “Sa”s, even though it’s abbreviated to “St.” Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is. I don’t make up the grammar rules, because if I did there would be no such thing as ghost letters and school children all over the country would be fast learners on words such as, “subtle,” “island,” and “knight.”
“Mr. St. John, I can’t find your name in our voter roll.”
“It should be under the ‘Sa’s, but it’s probably under the ‘St’s, can you look there.
It’s not there either. Oh, here you are, under the ‘J’s. Here’s your ballot, Mr. John. Have a nice day.”
People call me John all of the time. Seriously. They don’t call me John trying to shorten my last name. They mistake John as my first name, even though “Robert” doesn’t share a single letter with “John.” It happens all of the time, don’t ask me why. I had teachers in elementary, junior high, and high school who would occasionally call me John, in March or April after having called my name from the roll almost an entire school year. In one of the restaurants or somewhere else out in public they say, “Hey, John.” Sometimes I correct them. More times than not, these days I just let it go.
Our Italian friend, Annagloria called me John for five years, but she also called my buddy, Wyatt “Wayne,” so she gets a pass. I have corrected her twice, and she only does it every once in a while these days. Her daughter called me John the other day. That’s OK because she also called Wyatt “Wyer.” I’d rather be John than Wyer.
A frequent one we get at the restaurant is, “It’s OK if I order this because I am very good friends with Bob St. James.” No one— except salesmen who have never met me— calls me Bob. I also get called “St. Clair, St. Claude, and John St. Johnson.”
The following is a real conversation I had with my wife a few days before our son was born. “Let’s call him John,” I said.
“No. That’s stupid,” said she.
“They are going to call him that anyway,” I said.
“I am not naming our son, ‘John St. John.’”
“You’d be saving him a lot of trouble if you did.”
No need to tell you who won that one, and as of this writing, no one has ever called Thomas Harrison St. John, “John.” He looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him, “Has anyone ever called you John?” I don’t know how he has avoided it, but he’s in for a treat when he finally gets to vote, signs up for something online, or checks into a hotel room.
High school buddies called me “Saint.” Some still do. People called my dad Saint, and they called my grandad Mr. Saint. Dear reader, I was no saint in high school.
My grandad must have also had a lot of trouble with our last name. His name was Drew Thomas St. John, but he dropped his first name, and just went by “Thomas St. John.” When asked, he told my grandmother, it was just too much. I don’t know if people called him “John” all of the time too, but something happened to make him want to drop a short first name that only had four letters in it.
In conclusion, I think I would much rather be called late to dinner than to be called Bob St. James, Rob St. Claire, Robert Sunshine, St. Claude, St. Pete, St. Croix, John St. Johnson, or just plain old John.