November 2, 2009

The picture here is ironic, don't you think?

At last week's quiz, I asked this question:

Last summer, researchers at Carleton University in Canada conducted a mathematical exercise concluding that yes, civilization would very possibly come to an end if what actually existed?

I thought it was only mildly challenging, but EDP commented from the stage that he found it nearly impossible. If you were in attendance, you know that we made a little friendly wager then and there: I predicted that a minimum of ten teams (out of the 20 present) would write down the correct answer, EDP guessed fewer. Seven squads were correct; I owe the man $5. (Many of you guessed "God" or "world peace" or "global warming." But I do think that if I had emphasized "mathematical exercise," a few more might have put the pieces together, since the exponential growth seems to be the crux of the crisis in most z-lit.)

But that is neither here nor there (always wanted to use that phrase). I had written the question after stumbling upon this article, and I was particularly intrigued by this sentence:

"Professor Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his surname and not a typographical mistake) and colleagues wrote…"

Well, then. Notwithstanding Prince and the leader of ? and the Mysterians—a true eccentric who claims to be a martian and a close friend to dinosaurs—I never knew this was officially possible. But I dug a tiny bit further and found Professor Smith?'s own website here, on which he immediately declares, "Yes, the question mark is actually part of my name." The photo that greets you certainly suggests that this is a gentleman not averse to being thought of as rather unorthodox:

Then he writes:

"People sometimes ask me why I have a question mark in my name. In fact, somebody does this approximately fifteen times a day. (One day, I'm sure he'll get bored and go away.) If you haven't lived with an incredibly common name, then you have no idea what it's like to be entirely invisible on Google. Not that the question mark actually solves that, but at least it differentiates me from that guy from The Cure."

The hokey humor only confirms that this fellow is not the average bear.

I am sympathetic to how unpleasant it must be to have a name as common as "Robert Smith." The guy in the Cure is just the tip of the iceberg; look at this list from Wikipedia, and our punctuation-happy professor isn't even there. I don't have this problem—I'm fairly certain I'm the only Noah Tarnow out there, but that could change as my first name grows in popularity among new births (the Social Security database has it at No. 15 for U.S. males born in 2008). So I respect his decision to change his name.

But adding the question mark seems intensely bizarre, and counterproductive. First of all, as Prof. Smith? himself points out, it's no help re: googleability. Furthermore, as that BBC article demonstrates, every time he's referred to in the press, or even a university course catalog, the publishers have to add an awkward eye-roller of a note about "this is not a typo," or risk looking incompetent. Finally, and this is something any good copy editor will tell you, there are many attendant problems to having punctuation as part of a proper name. Are we to mentally read any reference to this man's name as a question? "I'm having lunch with Robert Smith?" Well, are you declaring that, or are you asking me if you are? Does one have to up-talk every time they mention his name? Is his name pronounced "Robert Smith?"

Yes, I understand that this guy (I'm done typing the name) wanted to be distinctive, but there are many, many much better solutions. He could have changed it to "Robert Smmith." Unique, googleable. Sure, perhaps "Robert Smmith" looks like a typo at first, but after the second instance in an article, the reader will figure out it's unusual and not merely a mistake; no need for the awkward parenthetical note.

But then, would I be blogging about him? Unlikely. Very crafty, Prof. Smith? (Or is it?)


Hotspur said...

From this week's Time Out: "Liz Duffy Adams’s frothy, sex-positive farce Or, (the comma is part of the title)."

Are those your fingerprints, sir?

The Big Quiz Thing said...

Ha! Not my fingerprints directly, but certainly my influence on the rest of the staff.

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