What’s In a Name?


I’ve owned my motorcycle now for over 16 months and it still does not have a name. I don’t mean the name the manufacturer has given it—manufacturers like to come up with macho, threatening names, like Intruder, Rebel, Bandit, and Savage—but a personal name like how one names a pet, a horse, or a guitar. B. B. King named his guitar Lucille, and Stevie Ray Vaughan named his Lenny. Sylvia Plath named her childhood horse Ariel, which is a great name because it means Lion of God in Hebrew and is also the name of the spirit character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Wordsworth named the home that he and his sister Dorothy shared Dove Cottage, or perhaps it was already named that when they acquired it. At any rate, I’ve been thinking about the act of naming, and specifically about possible good names for my BMW f650GS. Don’t think I’m weird—not at least for desiring to name my bike—for it’s a common practice, and I’m remiss in not providing one these past 16 months.

Is naming the ultimate act of possession in imposing an identity upon an object, or a gesture of respect in attempting to recognize something’s essential character? We name our children, or most of us do. (Former U.S. alpine skier Picabo Street was reportedly allowed as a child to name herself. We can only guess what her favourite childhood game was.) The baby arrives, we take a look, we say, “It looks like a John” or “a Jane,” or we go searching through baby name books for something that “sounds right.” God forbid we name our child after a T.V. character, although I heard that Judy Collins’ character name Alexis spiked in popularity during Dynasty’s run as a hit series through the 1980’s. Shame on those parents! I feel sorry for all Alexis’s of the world.

But back to motorcycles. The worst name for a motorcycle I’ve ever heard was Matilda. Ugh! I’m not sure if the owner thought she was dancing while riding or there was some other significance. The best name I’ve heard is Bonnie. The bike is a Triumph Bonneville, which is already a pretty cool name, so called after the Bonneville salt flats, of course, but more, the owner is a bagpiper, and in Scots Bonnie means “beautiful.” It is a pretty good-looking bike too, with a burgundy racing stipe down the middle of a matte black gas tank. But despite all this ruminating, I’m still at a loss for a name for my bike.

You can’t name your bike some literary or mythical name like Rocinante or Pegasus without eliciting some eye-rolling. A good name for a bike is both brilliant and understated at the same time. Not understated enough and it’s pretentious; too understated and it’s mundane, not in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way like my pet turtle Doug but just boring! With this many qualifications to fill for a good name, is it any wonder I’m having a hard time?

Once I thought I had it. Late one night in an intoxicated state it came to me in a blinding epiphany: I could name the bike after the high-school girlfriend who was supposed to ride with me across the country 30-odd years ago. I thought it was perfect; it would be like travelling back in time to complete an unfulfilled dream. And what isn’t a motorcycle but some sort of time-travel machine? I wouldn’t use her first name because that would be too weird, too literal, and besides, Carol just isn’t a very good name for a bike. But her middle name, Shelby, might just work. (Her father was a huge car fanatic and you can probably guess who won the Indy 500 the year she was born.) Then I discovered that Shelby means “sweet and loyal,” and that was that—Shelby it would be. I even came across a reference to a derivative of it in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The universe seemed to be sending me a clear sign.

I know what you’re thinking: What did my wife think of this idea, and why didn’t I see the pitfall of this name at outset? Intoxicated, I said. As in “not thinking clearly.” No, this name clearly would not work, and besides, and more importantly, the few times I’d actually tried it on it just didn’t feel right. Naming is like writing poetry. You work by intuition and sense, not logic, and no matter how right a name might seem to the rational or intoxicated mind, if it doesn’t feel right in the clear sobriety of day, it’s not the right name. So I was back to square one.

Another thought I had was that the bike doesn’t have to be female. Why does it have to have a woman’s name? I’ve never referred to my bike or any other piece of machinery using the feminine pronoun. Giving the bike a gender does indicate something about the nature of my relationship with it, and the truth is, the relationship I have with my bike is not romantic. It’s not like I’m making love to my motorcycle, despite my wife’s suggestion from time to time to “Fuck the bike!” No, that relationship could equally be one of companionship, the perfect travel partner or riding buddy. But in the end, I decided that despite that logic, the intimacy and trust between a hot-blooded hetero man and his bike needs a female name, just not one of a former girlfriend if that man is married.

Sometimes a biker names a bike by playing on the manufacturer’s name, like the Bonnie example above. Ted Bishop has named his Italian-made Ducati Monster “Il Monstro.” Thinking along these lines, I thought of the GS of my bike and Giselle immediately came to mind—a good sign. It derives from the Germanic word “gisil,” meaning “pledge,” so a name my wife could get behind. It has French connotations—a nod to my home province—and best of all, is soft, suiting the 650 single, which is such a forgiving bike. If you can think of a better name, please send your suggestions or leave a comment, but for now, Giselle is the working name and starting to stick.

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