As someone known first and foremost for having a kooky name, and that nearly 250 years ago, Tristram Shandy should hold a special place in funny nameology. His is a fictional name, in a fictional autobiography: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
We’re using “autobiography” loosely here. One of the running jokes of Tristram Shandy is that Tristram can’t get his story off the ground. He doesn’t even get to his own birth until volume three. Tristram’s long and winding narrative contains plenty of his opinion, but hardly anything about his life.
This famously idiosyncratic creation was authored by Laurence Sterne. Defying literary convention on so many levels, it was an experimental novel long before experimental novels were cool, anticipating modernist masters like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Another major joke of the novel is that Tristram’s father Walter Shandy loathed the name Tristram above all names. Through a series of mishaps, his chosen name, Trismegistus, gets mispronounced by the chambermaid and Tristram ends up being christened with the most objectionable name imaginable (for Walter, anyway).
Walter subscribes to the theory that an inauspicious name dooms one for life.
Needless to say, Walter has thoroughly warped poor Tristram’s mind. Among Walter’s many other quack theories is the idea that a long nose is essential to success; Tristram’s nose gets crushed at birth by the forceps of Dr. Slop. a male midwife (who calls himself a “scientifick operator”). Thus, Tristram is doubly danged.
Actually triply danged (or so he thinks): he is accidentally circumcised as a child by a falling window sash while peeing out of a window, due to the negligence of the same chambermaid who mangled his name.
In fact, make that quadrupally danged. During Tristram’s conception Elizabeth Shandy asks Walter if he remembered to wind the clock. Tristram believes he didn’t implant correctly in his mom’s womb as a result and that his “humors” are out of whack.
Tristram Shandy has a great menagerie of eccentric characters, many as funnily named as Tristram himself. There is his uncle Captain Toby Shandy and Toby’s manservant Corporal Trim. Uncle Toby has a mania for military history, and he and the Corporal get into madcap adventures doing battle reenactments.
Other memorable characters are Widow Wadman, who tries to rope Uncle Toby into marriage, Lieutenant Le Fever, an unfortunate whom Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim take under their wings, and Billy Le Fever, the Lieutenant’s orphaned son who becomes Uncle Toby’s charge.
There is also Parson Yorick, a close family friend of the Shandys, Eugenius, the parson’s buddy, and a gaggle of bookish guys, Didius, Kysarcius, Phutatorius, Triptolemus, and Gastripheres, who advise Walter, Toby and Pastor Yorick about getting Tristram’s name changed.
Happily, we can assume nothing came of those consultations; the name Tristram Shandy endures. And long may it endure more!