Tree Of Names: The Zappas

December 15, 2011 § 5 Comments

I had so much fun with my last Tree of Names post, that I really wanted to do another one. I had a post almost ready to go on those trendy Z Names, but Abby at Appellation Mountain posted her own first! And the Z trend continues. Singer Fantasia Barrino yesterday welcomed a son named Dallas Xavier in Charlotte, NC, but early reports she’d given birth mistakenly named her son as Dallas Zavier, which is a fantastic selection despite it never actually happening. Barrino already has a 10-year-old daughter named Zion.

In honour of the trendy Zs, this week’s Tree of Names will focus on the Zappas – in many circles at the very centre of weird and wacky celebrity baby names. Dweezil and Moon Unit are often cited among the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ celeb baby names, depending what the angle of the story is. And his children have welcomed some equally astonishingly named daughters, if all generally a lot more wearable – Mathilda Plum and Zola Frank among them. Still, only the boldest namers like to take on the Zappas for ambiguity.

“Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is the best.”
– Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage (Act III), 1979

The most progressive of rockers, Frank Vincent Zappa was born in 1940 to an American-born Italian-French mother named Rose Marie Colimore, and Sicilian father Francesco Vicente Zappa. Frank’s father graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1930, and found work with the US military as a chemist and mathematical engineer. Before marrying Rose, he had a daughter named Ann with his first wife, Frank’s half-sister who resides in North Carolina.

Born in Baltimore and later raised in San Diego, Frank had three younger siblings – Charles Robert (called Bobby), Carl Lewis, and Patrice JoAnne, called Candy. Carl bestowed his sister’s nickname because he thought she was “sweet,” and it stuck. Bobby is a jazz musician and so is his son, Stanley Jason Zappa. This musical aptitude was instilled by science-minded Francesco, also known as Francis Vincent Zappa or Frank Sr. Of course, nowhere does it say that Frank Sr. intended for his eldest son to become known as the ‘electric Don Quixote’ for his decidedly experimental hard rock and outrageous public persona.

Frank Zappa and his parents, Frank Sr. and Rose Marie, ca. 1970

Zappa joined his first of many bands while still in high school in San Diego, then moved to Los Angeles at 18. He met his first wife, Kathryn J. “Kay” Sherman during the few months he spent at Pomona College before dropping out, and they were married a week after his 20th birthday on December 28, 1960. It was at this time that Zappa worked in advertising – a career choice which would affect how he would market himself and his music for the rest of his life, before he moved into film composing.

The break-up of his first marriage in 1964 drove him to spend long hours at the studio, where he and his friends began experimenting with music for 12 hours a day or more. The Mothers of Invention soon followed, and Zappa became a star. During a short promotional tour for his debut album, Freak Out!, he met while she was working at the Whiskey a Go-Go, LA’s premier rock club, Adelaide Gail Sloatman, commonly known by her middle name, Gail. Zappa always claimed that he fell in love with Gail “within a matter of seconds” on the day they met. She was the daughter of John Sloatman, Jr., a rocket scientist, and had at least one brother – Vietnam War vet John Sloatman III. John III had a daughter named Lala Cassandra, who went on to become an actress in Hollywood and sometimes goes by the name Lala Zappa – and she was rocker Chris Robinson’s first wife. He, of course, went on to have son Ryder Russell in 2004 with second wife Kate Hudson, and daughter Cheyenne Genevieve in 2009 with third wife Allison Briggs. Lala was named for her grandmother, Laura. (Lala is the Hawaiian name for Laura, where her grandmother still lives.) Lala’s own daughter, Lula Henrietta, called Lu-Henri, was named as a play on Lala’s own name, and given the same middle name as her mother. And yes, Lala does have a brother named John Sloatman IV.

Frank and Gail in the 1960s.

Frank and Gail’s first child, daughter Moon Unit, was born September 28, 1967, one week after their wedding. Unit is Moon’s middle name, and these days she’s commonly known (as commonly as she can manage) as Moon Zappa. Frank invented her name in honour of orbital satellites, to mean “one who orbits the Moon.” She now shares her name with a photo lighting accessory that creates a moon-like effect, named not so indirectly because of her.

Moon famously appeared on her father’s cult hit song, “Valley Girl,” when she was 14 (further immortalized in the 1995 film Clueless). Throughout the ’80s, Moon often appeared as a guest VJ on MTV, has released an album called My Mother Is a Space Cadet, and appeared on countless TV shows in guest acting roles. Her combined Sicilian, Greek-Arab, French, Danish, Irish and Portuguese heritage has allowed her to play anything from Italians to Muslims. In 2002 she married Paul Doucette, drummer and guitarist with ’90s rock band Matchbox Twenty, and they welcomed a daughter, Mathilda Plum, in December 2004. (Born the same year as Apple Martin, Mathilda Plum Doucette was often cited as a member of a ‘food as names’ trend that never really took off. It’s just too polarizing.)

The Zappas welcomed son Dweezil in 1969. They had chosen Dweezil for their son after a nickname Frank had come up with for an oddly-shaped pinky toe of Gail’s. But the nurse refused to register the name, so an annoyed Frank started spouting off the names of his close friends and came up with Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa, for Ian Underwood and Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood of the Mothers of Invention, rock n’ roll violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, and his longtime album cover artist, Cal Schenkel. But Zappa’s son was always known as Dweezil, and when he discovered at age 5 that Dweezil was not his real name, he insisted his parents legally change it – and they did.

(c) LIFE: Ahmet, Moon, Dweezil, and Zappa’s niece Lala at an event together in the ’90s.

Dweezil became a musician and actor, and starred in a reality cooking show for the Food Network with then-girlfriend Lisa Loeb. Though the show lasted just one season and the couple split the following summer, they both found love and started families of their own. Loeb and husband Roey welcomed daughter Lyla Rose in 2009, and Dweezil was married to fashion stylist Lauren Knudsen from 2005-2010. They had two daughters – Zola Frank in 2006, and Ceylon Indira in 2008. (You can’t help but think that Dweezil and Loeb would have been in synch with names if they’d had any children together!)

Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa was born in 1974. He was named for Turkish-American musician and record executive Ahmet Ertegun, who played an important part in Frank’s early career. Led Zepplin’s reunion concert at the O2 Arena in December ’07 was part of a star-studded charity concert in memory of Ertegun, who died a year earlier after a freak fall backstage at the Rolling Stones concert that eventually became the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary Shine A Light. Ahmet is Turkish and means “thanking God,” a variant of the Arabic name Ahmed.

Ahmet, who like Dweezil is primarily a musician, was married to Selma Blair from 2004 to 2006. She went on to have son Arthur Saint with boyfriend Jason Bleick this year, while Ahmet married  Shana Muldoon in 2009, and welcomed daughter Halo Violetta last December. Muldoon is the sister of actor Patrick, who recently returned to Days Of Our Lives as Austin Reed, a role he originated in the 1990s.

Daughter Diva was given my personal least favourite in this Tree of Names. Her full name is Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa. Her first name makes me think of a strong woman, but a woman too strong for her own good, in a lot of ways. The Zappas picked Diva because she was the loudest baby in the hospital (she was born in 1979). Her second name makes me think that she has now been given quite a lot to live up to, or paired with the third name makes me think again of the food-as-names trend that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But what’s a thin muffin? Are we back to body image again? And who knows where to begin with Pigeen??

Diva, an artist, is so far the only Zappa not to marry or have children – if she does, I’m hoping for a boy; I’d be more than interested to see where the siblings’ perfectly stylish yet totally offbeat selections for their kids would take them with a boy! Mathilda Plum, Zola Frank, Indira Ceylon, and Halo Violetta (I missed this birth announcement, and love this name!) are inspired, ‘out there,’ yet completely wearable.

Frank justified all his kids’ names in an interview with Playboy in 1993 – the year he succumbed to prostate cancer. Asked if his kids, everywhere in Hollywood at the time and possessing fairly wild, but not over the top or destructive, reputations, would have been different if named Sally or John, Zappa replied. “It’s the last name that gets them in trouble. I’m viewed as being weird. When somebody calls you weird, then everything you touch becomes weird. On the other hand, they like being weird.”

A Zappa family portrait ca. 1988, Los Angeles. Frank, surrounded by his wife, Gail, and their four children – Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva.

Nine names from this tree:

Frank – This name just drips with tough guy cool a la Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, or Zappa himself, but ‘Frank’ just as easily comes across as the bad guy. Personally, I don’t like the look and sound of it as a name, and especially at this time of year I think of Home Alone‘s nasty Uncle Frank. To have my kid be taunted on the playground with the almost truly offensive put down “Look what you did, you little jerk,” makes it feel, perhaps, a bit too soon to really start using again. In December 2006, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall welcomed twin boys, both with names that share a tough-guy cool edge, Frank Harlan James and Dexter Henry Lorcan. The word Frank could mean “honest” in English, but also derived from either the German franca, meaning “javelin/spear,” or Latin francus, meaning “free.” And Frank is a lot trendier these days that the dated long form names it could stand as a nickname for, like Francis or Franklin, but not as trendy as Frankie – which has been picking up steam as a name for baby girls.

Adelaide – Adelaide is really hot, along with Ad- names like Adeline, Adele, and Addison. It’s proved itself quite popular among Australians in honour of the South Australian capital (like actress Rachel Griffiths), reaching as high as the Top 200 within the state of S.A. in 2008. (Interestingly, the popularity is all over the place – in 2008 it was at number 180, in 2009 it was down to 794. A similar jump occurred between 2005 and 2006, when the name jumped from 271 to 729 – and back to 417 in 2007. It’s a Top 500 name in parts of Canada and the United States, as well. The port city of Adelaide was named for Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, queen consort of King William IV, when it was settled in 1836. The German princess accepted the king’s proposal after he had been turned down by seven other potential brides – ironically, Adelaide means “of the noble kind,” derived from the German adalheidis. Today’s parents love the nickname possibilities available with the long, classic name – everything from Addie to Ada to Del or Della.

Mathilda – Another hot one in Australia (which deserves an obvious but obligatory link to Anna’s names blog with an Aussie twist, Waltzing More Than Matilda – she has been posting this week about gay parents in Australia and the names they choose, a hot topic lately as the country just legalized the right for gay parents to include both surnames on a birth certificate, not just the biological parent’s – I love her site’s admitted “Democratic temper!”) Mathilda’s most well-known connection is the song “Waltzing Matilda,” an Australian ‘bush ballad’ and unofficial national anthem, which was covered to perfection by Tom Waits in 1976. Old German for “mighty in battle,” it was brought to England as the name of the queen consort to William the Conqueror in the 11th Century – back when it was pronounced ‘Maud.’ This name is popular with or without the H, surging after it was selected by Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams for their daughter Matilda Rose in 2005 – then surging higher when Heath Ledger accidentally overdosed in 2009. Today, it’s viewed as one of the ‘ultimate’ names in hipster cool, and nicknames like Tilly, Tilda or Mattie only help it grow.

Halo – Angel feels dated and done for now, but enter Halo, which is becoming so much more than a divine headband in the world of names. Millionaire Matchmaker‘s Destin Pfaff and wife Rachel welcomed a son called Sin Halo in 2009, despite their parents’ objections. But Halo fits a number of current trends – four letters, ends in -o, and it’s a word with a positive meaning. Still, it’s a word, not a name, and a religious one at that, so it’s perfectly polarizing – as Zappa would have liked!

Indira – I immediately think of Indira Gandhi when I hear this name, the world’s second democratically-elected female leader. She was Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 to her assassination on October 31, 1984; the world’s first female leader was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who first took office in 1960. Another name for Sri Lanka is Ceylon, so it’s clear how Dweezil and ex-wife Lauren’s second daughter got her name. They honoured strong, democratic women of the people in naming their little girl. It gives it just as affectionate a twist as how endearing Indira sounds. Sanskrit for “splendid,” in Hindu mythology, Indira was the wife of Supreme god Vishnu. It’s not a common choice in the English-speaking world, but it’s not far from India. It’s just as appealing, but far less overused.

Zola – 19th Century French writer Emile Zola is widely credited with widening the doors to a politically and morally liberal France, when his J’accuse, written in 1898, accused top French army officials of obstruction of justice by way of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. Zola Budd Pieterse was a champion South African distance runner wrongfully maligned for knocking hometown favourite Mary Decker out of a neck-and-neck race at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles – tapes exonerated her, but she never really lived it down. She went on to have three children – Lisa, Mikey, and Azelle. (Decker had one – daughter Ashley Lynn in 1986.) Originally, Zola was Italian for “lump of earth,” but could also be a feminine variation on Zoli, pet form of Hungarian Zoltan, which means “life.” Score another one for the Zs, but Zola Zappa is admittedly tough to take.

Moon – The consensus is that ‘Moon’ names are beautiful. So too should be a name that means “one who orbits the Moon,” though much of the beauty is lost in translation once you add the word ‘unit.’ And the fine art of mooning just might prevent this earth-orbiter from ever becoming a popular name choice, especially with choices like Luna to use in its place.

Rodan – I like this name, personally – and is it really so outrageous in a world where Rowan and Roman, and Daniel, are so popular? Granted, it’s not easy to pronounce for everyone who sees it (is it RO-den, or ro-DAN?) and even I’m not sure which pronunciation I prefer. Another nature name, it’s Irish Gaelic for “fertile earth/fertility,” and feels Celtic but not, masculine but not too strong. A subtle choice, but it could sound like ‘rodent.’

Stanley – A British classic. And it would be sincerely out of place among this list if it wasn’t still so trendy there (it’s a Top 100 name). And I can’t do true justice to the name like Lou did, because I’m not a fan and because it isn’t trendy here. The term ‘stan,’ lifted from the Eminem hit song about an obsessed, psychotic fan, now means just that in North American slang. Saying you “stan” something in pop culture means you like it far too much.


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§ 5 Responses to Tree Of Names: The Zappas

  • The Zappas always provide some amazing name-watching!!!

    I agree with you on Diva’s name – it’s not so great, and the Thin Muffin Pigeen hardly helps matters. It has that “random vocabulary name collection” quality that I don’t really go for.

    Aha! Halo Violetta! Now I’m getting where Halo Schultz got her name from. Although people keep saying this is a religious name, I can’t help seeing it as a video game name.

    I do rather like Mathilda Plum.

    • I think the video game definitely plays in for some who use it, and I wouldn’t put that inspiration past a Zappa!

      If I picked a favourite on this tree it would be Halo Violetta! I think it’s gorgeous!

  • Bilko says:

    Frank wrote a great song called “Muffin Man”…which may explain one of Diva’s names… -)

  • Bobby…not a jazz musician. He also goes by “Bob.”

    Stan / Stanley was named after his maternal grandfather “Stanlislaw” or “Stashu” (sp?)–who was Polish and not (even close to being) English.

    Neat blog!

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