You’ve probably never given it a second thought. But I have. After all, my name is Tom.
In our politically correct, super-sensitive society, the name Tom finds no protection, for it is maligned with impunity. It’s been that way throughout history. I’m sure my mother didn’t consider it when she named me after Virginia’s colonial governor and revolutionary war hero, Thomas Nelson, who was slighted by history (it was he, not Washington, who cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown). Poor Tom.
So where’s the proof that Toms are assaulted in our daily lexicon? You don’t have to look far:
- Peeping Tom
- Uncle Tom
- Doubting Thomas
- Tom Cat
- Tom Foolery
You get the gist. It’s not just so much Tommy rot. My fellow Toms and I have become little more than a negative figure of speech.
To bolster my assertions, I did a little research on the origins of Thomas. The name, which is biblical, literally means “twin.” I missed a few Sunday school classes, so don’t hold me to the finer points. But as I understand it, Jesus found himself with two disciples named Judas. To avoid confusion, he renamed one of them Thomas. (I guess I should be grateful because obviously I wouldn’t like to carry Judas around with me all day.)
Apparently, not long after he got his new name, Thomas began questioning his benefactor and undoubtedly the first pejorative use of the name Thomas found its way into the history books. I doubt he knew how widespread and long-lasting his skepticism would be remembered. A Book of Thomas was written, but it was labeled by some as distasteful and redundant in the mid-second century and, obviously, never made the final cut. Clearly a pattern began to emerge.
Fast forward in history a thousand or so years and we find Lady Godiva riding bareback through the streets of Coventry dressed only in her long flowing hair. As the legend goes, villagers agreed to close their shutters and look away. But not Thomas. Curiosity got the better of him, and he took a little peek. Whether or not he was struck blind or dead for being caught in the act, this much is sure: Generations of Thomases have paid the price for his indiscretion ever since.
About the same time as Lady Godiva’s ride, it was apparently great sport in England to watch the antics of insane people in asylums. Reality TV had its roots here, I fear. This pastime led to some very unfortunate nicknames — Tom O’Bedlam and Tom Fool — what else? Even the renowned William Shakespeare feared no repercussions for denigrating the name Tom, for by then the name was already synonymous with the worst of society. Indeed, it had become part of the common vernacular. In play after play, Toms are mere simpletons, degenerates, and fools. In King Lear, for instance, “poor Tom’s a’cold” is portrayed as a madman living in a hovel and then later, just to make sure the point is clear, he is labeled a “fool.” Ouch. I’m sure not everyone living in a hovel was a Tom, but even back then it would have been in poor taste to have called them by name, so we’ll never know.
Brace yourself, there’s more. Jumping across the pond to America, we find the pre-Civil War best seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even today, over 150 years after it was written, nobody wants to be called an Uncle Tom. The evil Uncle Tom moniker has stuck. It’s unfortunate for me and perhaps millions like me, for a quick analysis of census data reveals that indeed in America today there are at least 800,000 Uncle Toms, maybe even a million. On those occasions when I’ve ventured into public with my nieces and nephews, I’ve laid down the rule: If we get separated, go back to the designated meeting place and whatever you do, don’t yell, “Uncle Tom, where are you?!”
The pejorative use of the word Tom isn’t limited to males either. Our sisters are almost equally maligned. In 18th century London, for example, a Tom was regarded as a lady of the night, derived no doubt from Tomrig or Tom Tart, defined in the dictionary as “sexually loose” women. Why, even Tomboy was once more than today’s affectionate term for a boyish little girl. Originally, the term was a euphemism for “bold, immodest women” as well as “rude and sexually uncontrolled” girls.
Promiscuity, thy name is Tom.
Admittedly, there are some Toms history holds in high esteem. But they’re few and far between. There’s Thomas Hardy. Thomas Payne. Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Edison. Thomas More, but maybe he shouldn’t count because, after all, he was beheaded.
My wife tells me I’m too sensitive. Be grateful there’s no such thing as a Dear Tom letter or a Port-a-Tom, she tells me.
But truth be known, it does bother me. Sadly, despite my protest, the whole thing draws no sympathy from my two brothers — Dick and Harry.