The Jerz Family Name: A Prickly Question

he round-faced lady who sold sausages outside of the library was Polish; I knew that much.  The only reason I always asked for a Polish sausage was because it wasn't spicy and came in a huge, stomach-filling bun. I usually don't like to chit-chat when I'm hungry, but she was so pleasant that I would play along as she tried to teach me Polish for "good morning" or "good evening". One day I said something that caught her fancy and delayed my lunch. I told her my name.

I once asked my grandfather whether our family name used to be something like Jerzelsky or Jerzuluski, because it's awfully short for a Polish name.  But he told me that our real name used to be "Jez".  Someone changed it to "Jerz" when my ancestors emigrated around 1905.

I told the sausage lady that my father had once told me that his name meant "farmer".  In Latin class, I had read selections from Virgil's Georgics -- poems that celebrate the farming life.  Aha, I had thought to myself, I wonder if my father knows that both his names mean "farmer"...  "Jez" must be a Polish form of "George."  This seemed odd to me... I never did feel particularly agricultural.  I mostly feel that eating is a simple business transaction: "For one lunchtime sausage," says my body to me, "I'll let you work the rest of the afternoon without bothering you. Deal?"  I have no choice but to give in.

I still had a few minutes while the sausage cooked, so I asked, "What does my name mean?"

The sausage lady averted her eyes and found something to do underneath the counter.  When she emerged again, her shoulders were shaking, and she was trying to keep a straight face.

I rolled my eyes.  Oh no, not again...

Every word processor I've ever used cheerfully flags my name, insulting me in the process. Sometimes I even see papers written by students who trust their spell-checkers so much they end up putting "Professor Jerk" or "Professor Jeers" on the title page.

By the second or third grade, those jokes were old. The last time I heard that one I fell off my dinosaur. Lots of other kids seemed virtually insult-proof.  Who could make fun of a no-frills name like Steven Bell? Or the alluringly alliterative Amy Alexander?  Even Jeff Schnackenberg could tell everyone his name was German for "snake mountain."  Some kids didn't seem to be so fortunate. I remember playing too rough with a younger kid who fell and chipped his tooth on the monkey bars.  For some reason my friends tried to show their support for me by making fun of his name, calling him "The Domino" or something like that.  It didn't matter that, as an older kid, I should have known better; or that his family went to my church; I joined in anyway. One night twenty years later, I suddenly shot up in bed, drenched with cold sweat.  I had suddenly, inexplicably realized that the kid I had injured and insulted was named Christian Domin -- "dominus" being Latin for "lord".  Damn... now that was a name!

Surely, the laughter of the round-faced vending cart lady was part of a divine plan of retribution. There I was, hungry and tired, standing on a sidewalk in downtown Toronto, and that name from the past still had the power to make me feel guilty. I wished she would stop snickering and just give me my sausage -- even though I figured it would have a big rock in it that would chip my tooth.

After what seemed like forever, the lady finally told me Jez is Polish for "porcupine."

"I see," I said, perhaps a little too curtly -- by now I was getting impatient with her, and really just wanted my food.

As she slipped the sausage into the bun, she laughed some more and said the word also has another meaning: a grouchy, surly person.

I noticed that the underside of the sausage was a little charred.  I considered asking for another one, or at least demanding a discount. But instead I muttered something intended to be pleasant, and took a bite.  To my surprise, the sausage tasted pretty good.


More about My Namesake, the Porcupine

  • "When approached, the North American porcupine presents its rear to the enemy; if attacked, it drives its powerful tail against the assailant. The quills are easily detached from its skin and remain embedded in the attacker." -- Encyclopaedia Britannica 
  • In an article on Polish education, Marta Zahorska-Bugaj gives a much more passive, less flattering depiction of porcupine behavior: "When a porcupine encounters something unusual, it rolls into a ball, extends its spikes, stops moving, and tries to wait out the unknown."  She contrasts the behavior of the porcupine with that of the fox, which "tries to slide through, avoiding threats, but also trying as much as possible to take advantage of the new situation."
  • Porcupine photos & information from "Planet Pets"
  • Porcupine Quill (magnified)

Wisdom from a Grumpy Cartoon Porcupine

"Don't take life so serious, son, it ain't nohow permanent."
-- Porky Pine, Pogo, Walt Kelly

The Pogo Comic Strip
  • Pogo, a popular comic strip from the 50s and 60s, was the Doonesbury of its time (see one fan's Pogo Page).
  • Porky Pine was a grumpy, pessimistic porcupine; a pointed (ouch!) contrast to the childlike, trusting possum Pogo.
  • The 80s comic strip Bloom County regularly paid tribute to Pogo.
  • Walt Kelly is today probably best known for his 1971 Earth Day cartoon, "We have met the enemy and he is us."  In that cartoon, Pogo delivers the line to Porky.

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