Word Games: Newt

I'm not sure enough is made of Newt Gingrich's first name. Newt. If he hadn't just won the South Carolina primary and dislodged Mitt Romney (I'll save Mitt for another day, but really: Mitt v Newt? And you expect us to take these guys seriously?) from poll position, it might be easier to dismiss his lizardy name as just another eccentricity in the race. But Newt might swing the nomination, Newt might take on Obama, Newt might just be the next president of the US of A. Newt.

Perhaps we've become immune to the strange beauty of the American name. Monikers such as Rip Torn, Chad Harbach and Vin Diesel leave us unruffled. There is no other country in the world where you see such bold innovation in the christening process. There are the obvious absurdities - Jermaine Jackson's son Jermajesty - but also the deft translations of words you never knew could be names into names (Track, Willow, Bristol, Piper and Trig, Sarah Palin's children) and the odd noun (Satchel, Woody Allen's daughter).

Newt, though sounding like an extreme form of noun-to-name alchemy, is in fact old-school conventional. The wannabe Republican presidential candidate was born Newton Leroy McPherson in June 1943 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was named after his father, Newton Searles McPherson, in that time-honoured American tradition of failing to come up with a new name for your kid and so giving him your own. Newton is an old English name, an abbreviation of "new town", made world-famous by Sir Isaac Newton. (In another tradition, the Americans took a perfectly good surname, used it as a first name and then abbreviated it, resulting in a self-respecting potential president sharing a name with small amphibian).

Not that I've got anything against newts. They're sweet little things with an impressive roster of skills, including the ability to regenerate limbs, eyes, spinal cord, heart, intestines and upper and lower jaws. Not bad. The word's a goody, too. The original Old English word for the creature was eft, which changed over time to euft and then to ewt. If you say "an ewt" quickly you see how the word we have now was born. So there it is - newt. Or as the Americans would have it, noot.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt