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November 7, 2011

What’s in a Name?

I am what you might call very attuned to names, because my own surname is weird and almost always spelled wrong. (The worst version I got was a result of registering at a Welsh bed-and-breakfast over the phone; when I got there they had me listed as Maggie Hopeless.) I “collect” peculiar names, often from the “society” pages of the New York Times (my longstanding favorite is a couple named Boykin and Celerie; I’m not allowed to make a lot of fun of them because they donate heavily to political causes of which I approve). And many years ago, for reasons I’ve long forgotten, I wrote the beginning of a gothic parody, several paragraphs of deeply purple prose about beautiful Felony Mayhem and her younger sister, Dyptheria. They lived in a crumbling mansion on the moors, attended by a maid named Larceny. Felony was being courted by the cousins Arson and Ague, one of whom was evil but I can’t remember which. And that, aside from much smug snickering on my part, was as far as it went.

Flash forward to 2004, when I was setting up this odd little publishing…well, custom would call it a publishing house, but I tend to think of it more as a publishing shack. I wanted a name for it that would echo some of the great, double-barreled English firms (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, for example) only…bent. I wanted something that would sound a bit flowery, but with (as the great S.J. Perelman would put it) somewhere a roscoe. Felony & Mayhem was born.

And now the blog, the name of which is in fact a function of multiple puns and references. Remember the old adage: Dress British, Think Yiddish? To make sense of “Gunpowder, Treason & Plotz,” you’ll want, instead, to Think British and Think Yiddish – which, as it happens, is a pretty good description of our line overall. First, a brush-up on English history: In 1605, an Englishman named Guy Fawkes embarked – with some henchmen – on a scheme to blow up the House of Lords, assassinate King James I, and put a Catholic on the throne. The “Gunpowder Plot,” as it came to be known, was set to unfold on November 5, when the King was expected to open the new session of Parliament. But the authorities were tipped off by an anonymous letter, the plot was foiled, and Fawkes was sentenced to death. Ever since then, November 5 has been known in England as Guy Fawkes Day, and children have chanted the rhyme

Please to remember
The fifth of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

So, gunpowder, treason and plot. I liked the fact that “plot,” of course, has several meanings: it’s a story, it’s a scheme, it’s a grave (and yes, it’s a piece of land, but that isn’t very interesting). And then I remembered that some time ago, when we were getting ready to launch our bookstore, I proposed calling it “Plots,” for exactly the same punning reasons. The problem was that “plots” is a homonym for “plotz,” which in Yiddish means to collapse, either in exhaustion or surprise or some combination of the two. (“I’m telling you, I had to go to five different stores, I’m ready to plotz” or “She must have lost 40 pounds; I practically plotzed when I saw her.”). And certain concerns were raised about the appeal of picking up the phone and saying to a prospective customer (cue Jackie Mason accent): “Hello, Plotz!”

For a blog, however, I have no such compunctions, nor do I share my bookstore-partners’ aversion to cheap yucks. With that, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Gunpowder, Treason & Plotz: The Blog. The subject is books, reading, and mystery fiction, but, as I say so often at the bookstore, we use very broad definitions. Because, hey, I’m a broad.

PS: The “Please to remember” rhyme in fact has many variations. This would be a great place to talk about them.

PPS: Unintended consequences: When I was first getting business cards printed up for F&M I placed the order with a very nice gentleman of a somewhat…dubious background. “So what’s the name of this company?” he asked. “Felony & Mayhem,” I said sweetly, hoping perhaps for some comment on its cleverness, its witty elegance. “Cool,” he said. “So whadya do, skip-tracing?”



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