Naming Things

Naming Things

I was asked earlier this week by a potential employer if I had any experience naming. In business lingo this is exactly what it sounds like: creating a name or slogan for a product. Now this is a very significant act, this business of naming, one that resonates with Old Testament significance, harking all the way back to Genesis Chapter Two when Adam named all the animals.

(Let’s pause and imagine what a blast that must have been for old Adam. He got to coin The Peacock, the Anteater, the Jaguar, the Sperm Whale, the Kookaburra, the Zyzzyva… In the history of days, surely that was a good one.)

Clearly, a good name or slogan can serve a product well for years—who doesn’t know Just Do It, Where’s The Beef?, I’m Loving It, and other famous catchlines? Equally, a poorly crafted name will sink even the best-intentioned item: the classic example is the poor Chevy Nova, a car which to English ears sounds potentially interstellar, while in Spanish it literally means “No go.”

As it turns out I don’t have much experience naming things, and I was honest and told this employer that. After we spoke I realized, Wait a second! I just named something the other day! And even though it didn’t get me a job (I actually emailed an abbreviated version of this to my contact, who laughed but did not hire me), it’s worth sharing my most recent neologism with you, dear readers:

I work in a restaurant next to another restaurant (actually, three other restaurants, but only one is important right now). The recently-departed sous-chef of the restaurant we’re focusing on is named Will. By “recently departed” I mean that only a few weeks ago Will passed on. To another restaurant job. It’s been difficult for us all.

Will, in a nutshell (presumably a stubborn pistachio): imagine a slightly paunchy, thirty-something frazzle-haired boy-in-a-man’s body, the sort who wears a black bandana around his forehead, thick-soled construction boots, and who carries both a Leatherman and a hunting knife on his belt while cooking animals that have already been killed by someone else.

(In his defense—I suppose you just never know if that cured pork loin might reanimate itself; if it were to, presumably it’d be pissed. In this way of thinking, martial defenses seem appropriate.)

Now, imagine this boy-man taking his chef job very, very seriously. Maybe more seriously than he needed to. By “maybe” let the discerning reader understand that I mean Will took his position infinitely more earnestly than was required.

It was not uncommon to look over and find an entire line of cooks standing about chatting while Chef Will whittled and chopped and cut and diced, each and all of his actions seemingly undertaken with the fervent illusion that the future of humanity depended upon his successfully julienning five pounds of carrots immediately. It’s worth noting that the reason the other cooks were relaxing and bantering was because the restaurant was empty of diners and they’d already completed their prep. But such spaces of the lax weighed upon Chef Will heavy as iron clad exigencies.

Frankly, I found Chef Will’s harried and harrowing approach to the world of cooking quite charming. Those of us in my restaurant took to referring to his horridly hurried actions as “Chef-ing Out,” which meant exactly what you think it does—needlessly overkilling an activity. (This phrasal structure can be applied to just about any undertaking: secretary-ing out, mechanic-ing out, taxidermy-ing out, etc. It’s fun and it’s catchy, but wait—there’s more.)

My favorite aspect of Chef Will was his personal life, details of which he liked to share freely and loudly. CW was one of those people—often found drunkenly bellied up to a bar—who share intimate details of their lives at absurdly high volumes in public places. After all, what better way to ensure everyone knows you exist than to bullhorn things that should probably be saved for confession?!

My favorite Chef Will story? It’s difficult to pick, but here goes. He once popped his head into our place before we opened. He bantered his usual nonsense about dry-curing-this or escabeche-ing-that, only to conclude by telling us about his day off. According to Will, he spent his day at the strip club, after which he took a stripper home and “crushed” her.

Yes, “crushed” is the verb Chef Will used. Because that’s what Chef Will does to strippers. He crushes them.

(Insert here the sound of me clearing my throat. Also: in my imagining the interaction likely went as follows: Chef Will hung out at a strip club, boisterously bellowing and blowing more cash than he could afford to blow until he slyly offered a dancer money for sex. Eventually he ended up in some seedy and sad hotel with her. Cut to the hotel: Chef Will is crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed, dressed only in his underwear, which are stained with a dark shadow of his semen. His head is hung and he is crying angrily. The girl sits above him on the bed in her bra and skirt, distractedly painting her nails and smoking. Occasionally she assures him in a patronizing voice that “It happens all the time.” Then she reminds him that he still owes her $400.)

The folks in my restaurant treated Chef Will the only way you can treat someone like Chef Will: with wry, crinkle-lipped mockery.

Is Chef Will Cheffing-Out?, we’d ask as we’d watch him bark at some underling who’d failed to appreciate whatever pearl of wisdom CW had cracked open.

Hey Chef Will—you hit the strip clubs this weekend?, we’d inquire, hopeful of another tall tale of stripper-crushing. And so forth.

The truly remarkable thing about Chef Will is that not never ever once did he understand that we were making fun of him, a behavioral tick that brings us back to the promise of this essay: naming.

It’s likely that most of you know a Chef Will of your own: a curiosity who, all other idiosyncrasies aside, is completely and delightfully oblivious to the mockeries she receives from others. Ask your Chef Will something sarcastically and she’ll reply in earnest. Make a play on one of her behaviors and she’ll nod sincerely and think that you’re truly getting her. And so on.

And so, to the lexical contributions that have already been made on this site (readers are invited to revisit the always lovely, Riding the Rails), I offer the following term to capture just such a character:

Chef Will Syndrome.

An example of usage: “Poor Bobby, he just doesn’t get that we’re making fun of his remote control car collection. He really thinks we find it cool. Poor bastard suffers from a serious case of Chef Will Syndrome.”

Sadly, scientists have yet to develop a cure for this syndrome. To date there are no pills, psychotherapies, genetic modifications or Reiki hands-(almost)-on positions that can ward off this harrowing disease. Until a cure arrives we will pray for all sufferers: may they continue onward as obliviously and sincerely as ever. And thank God for placing such kooks in the world. It’d be a dire, dark place without them.

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