A Rosa xanthina by Any Other Name Might be a Kerria japonica

Photo licensed under Creative Commons

Reasonable people can differ on both “empire” and “yellow,” but the bright colored bloom most agree to be in the folk song is a kerria, named after the Kew Garden “plant collector” who identified it in China, William Kerr.

While the plant was claimed to be native to Japan, Kerr collected it in China. The taxonomists had opined that the “yellow rose” was Japanese by the time it was recorded with “japonica” in the scientific name. Of course, Texans know that the geographical origin of the plant was a minor controversy about genus that leaves the yellow rose of Texas in the wrong kingdom.

The legend to which the plant connects related to how an outnumbered force of Texian volunteers prevailed over the same Mexican regular army (plus reinforcements) that had destroyed the small band of rebels holding Misión San Antonio de Valero, known in our times as the Alamo.

The Mexican commander, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (“Santa Anna” to us), made a number of errors that allowed his defeat by an inferior force. Some “explanations” of his behavior were offered by his many political enemies to do him harm. Finding the truth to a certainty was difficult then and impossible now.

Santa Anna lost Texas when he lost the Battle of San Jacinto. One story claims he was slow to muster his troops at San Jacinto because he was engaged in a sexual dalliance with a biracial slave who was either sent to his quarters by Texians for the purpose of distracting him or was not. Her skin color was “high yellow” and she was working for the enemy — hence, “the yellow rose of Texas.”

Her name was Emily West or Emily Morgan. She was a slave or a free woman or under indenture and she may have been kidnapped by Santa Anna in an earlier military engagement. The “yellow rose” legend appears many years after San Jacinto, and none of Santa Anna’s Mexican critics at that battle wrote a word about the general being slowed down by a woman.

Names can be slippery and rendered more so by passage of time or geographical distance. My own name was on my birth certificate as Stephen Teehee. If birth certificates had been rendered in Cherokee, my name might have been recorded as Ginatiyun Tihi. Russell was the name of my maternal grandparents, who became my surrogate parents, and whose name I chose.

It’s not commonly known that everybody has the option to choose their own name, should they not agree with the one selected by their parents. Some creative people choose a stage name or a name under which to publish and, at some point, decide to make their legal name match their Actors Guild card or the registration of their copyrights.

In Texas, where I practiced law, a name change required a court order, but the only ground on which a judge could refuse a name change was if it appeared there was a purpose to defraud.

I once talked a client out of becoming “Yoda” by suggesting that the name might become too common.

Another client converted to Islam and asked me to file a name change petition to make him “Muhammad.” At the time, I knew nothing of Islam and had never seen a mosque. Just making conversation, I asked my client whether there was anything sacrilegious about naming oneself after The Prophet. It was, at the time, a serious question to which I did not know the answer. Neither did my client, and he called off the project pending further investigation.

On the criminal side of my practice, I represented a number of individuals who were in the…ah…recreational pharmacology business. There came a time when crack cocaine got to be common and cheap, creating a class distinction between users of powder cocaine and users of crack. A person who might have been in the trade asked me to get his name changed to “Powder,” so as to attract a better class of customers. I did not think that was a good idea and I made my opinion known, but he knew I did not use any kind of cocaine at the time and therefore was something of a wimp.

Name changes were done at a civil uncontested docket that the civil district judges rotated. I was a baby lawyer then, and it appeared to me that there were only two district judges hearing criminal cases.

Austin was not the metropolis it is today, and not only were two courts adequate for the felony caseload, the judges who presided in those courts knew all the lawyers who practiced criminal law. Of course, I had no plans to ask Powder why he wanted the name; it was sufficient to ask him whether he was using the name change to defraud anybody.

On the day I chose to visit the civil uncontested docket (because I had other business), I walked into the courtroom and the judge presiding was one of the criminal judges. I did a quick about face and pulled my client out the door. Outside the courtroom, I told him that — while I had no reason to think he would get busted selling cocaine — in that unlikely event, there was a fifty percent chance that the judge he would have to face was the one we were about to ask to sign off on his name change.

Wouldn’t he like to come back another day?


We got the signature and I’ve never seen Powder again.

Texas may be relying on lawyers more reluctant than yours truly when it makes name changes super-easy, but John G. Browning’s humor column in the March Texas Bar Journal points out there is one more procedural notch, one place even Texas has not gone.

In the United Kingdom, Browning writes, the judge is not just restricted in his grounds for denying approval — he is taken out of the loop entirely. Changing one’s name is a matter of filling out a form and filing it with the appropriate bureaucracy.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, people might file a form while in their cups, which was apparently the case with the gentleman who led Browning’s article, now known to all and sundry as “Mr. Celine Dion.”

Yes, I have thought of it so often we could all shout in unison:

Have these people never heard of nicknames?

Odd things still can happen with nicks. The last time Sen. Ted Cruz stood for re-election to represent Texas to Washington and therefore the world, he drew some snickers when he told the truth about why he did not accept his opponent’s challenge to hold one debate in Spanish. Cruz’s Spanish, he admitted, was not fluent enough to go toe-to-toe with Beto O’Rourke.

Perhaps seeking to regain some ground, Cruz dug up O’Rourke’s birth certificate. It says his name is “Robert,” and the Senator representing Donald Trump accused O’Rourke of calling himself Beto so he could pretend to be Hispanic when he ran for the House of Representatives from El Paso.

O’Rourke responded by digging in the family photo collection and producing a snapshot of himself at approximately three years old — wearing a t-shirt that said “Beto.”

That’s cute, but I prefer the response of producing Cruz’s birth certificate saying his name is “Rafael.” Pity the Texas voters, having to choose between an Anglo who uses a Hispanic nick so people will think he’s Hispanic and a Cuban who uses an Anglo nick so Republican primary voters will think he’s Anglo.

(Russell digression™ When President Bush 43 was Governor of Texas, he struck a major blow for Republicans by eating into the Democrats’ historical dominance of the Hispanic vote. One Bush tactic ran into barriers, however, when he appointed Hispanics to high elective offices and had to stand helplessly by and watch his appointees fail to clear the Republican Primary. That was not Bush’s only tactic, and by the time he left Austin, Republican voters were learning to pull the lever for a Spanish surname.

The Bush family has been able to push back against the unfortunate history of discrimination against Hispanics in Texas without being seriously accused of opportunism. George W.’s brother Jeb made himself fluent in Spanish after he fell in love with Columba Garnica Gallo, a Mexican citizen, when she was 16 and he was 17.

In his last Texas statewide election, George W. got 49 percent of the Hispanic vote.)

The Cruz-O’Rourke election added a new insult to Texas political discourse — which, truth be told, has never been short of insulting remarks — when the Cruz campaign called Beto O’Rourke “a triple meat Whataburger liberal.”

O’Rourke had tweeted photos of himself hitting a Whataburger drive-through on his skateboard and he had hustled the national press to Whataburger when he could, but even Texas Monthly was mystified at the import of a Whataburger political attack.

Mr. Browning’s research in the UK uncovered an individual who might be considering a move to Texas and an entry into Texas politics, as his legal name is now “Mr. Bacon Double Cheeseburger.”

At least one Brit managed a political name change without leaving home. An animal rights advocate is now “Ms. StopFornumandMasonFoieGrasCruelty.com.” Fornum and Mason is a London department store that — as of the name change date — was profiteering off the torture of geese by selling foie gras.

This brings up the question of the shelf life that can be expected from political names. After you lose an election, your political name is no longer of much use. Unless, of course, you change your name to Donald Trump.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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