It annoys the everloving bejeezus out of me when people make remarks that my husband’s first name, which is Waldemar (pronounced VAL-de-mar), sounds quite a bit like You-Know-Who.
Lately I’ve taken to geeking out about it, and explaining that actually, the name Waldemar – which is still quite common in Europe, though usually among dachshunds – comes from an old gothic verb that’s a precursor to the modern German verb walten (VAL-ten) which (as anyone who has read Walter Benjamin knows) simultaneously means “to be powerful” and “to depose power” (you know, the paradox of sovereignty, etc).
Walten is also the root verb of the word for “violence,” Gewalt (guh-VALT). Loosely, the name means something like “the conquering hero” or “the powerful one,” and since J.K. Rowling is an unrepentant lit-geek and a trained philologist, I am willing to bet that she knows all of this, and that the name “Voldemort” is actually, in addition to ending in the French word for “death,” a stylized version of Waldemar or at very least the words walten or Gewalt, because as everybody knows, to the Dark Lord, “there is no good and evil. There is only power.”
My husband found that particular pronouncement “quite Nietzchean, for a kids’ book,” when at long last I cajoled him into watching the first seven Harry Potter films on our recent vacation to streaming-video-bereft upstate New York, where our nightly entertainment consisted mostly of playing DVDs we rented from the tiny rural library (my mother-in-law abstained from all Harry Potter viewings, decreeing them “too scary” and “too violent” and “is this for children?!?”) before retiring to the kitchen to listen to her Denis Leary audiobooks.
Anyway, it all started when, stressed out about the impending results of the Mat21 test I had done on my blood (the results are none of your business, but I will say they revealed two X chromosomes), I spied a VHS copy of the Sorcerer’s Stone and said: “Can we watch this? It will help me feel better.” Being the nice guy he is, Waldemar said Sure.
He wasn’t planning on watching along with full attention, but somehow he got hooked, and several weeks later, we eagerly await the Netflix arrival of Deathly Hallows Part II, and he’s finally realized why so many total strangers say the goddamnedest things about his first name. “Basically nowadays, it’s like being named Adolf,” he laughs. I “encouraged” him to engage in the following conversation about his name, and thus voluntarily appear on this blog for the first (and possibly last) time ever.
How did you get your name?
It was my father’s name, and he seemed to think that I should have the same name as him, for some reason. They had a different name planned, but when I was born he had a sentimental moment. And so I was supposed to be named Mark, but I am named Waldemar.
What were the reactions to your name growing up in New York City in the 1980s?
I don’t really remember it actually being an issue when I was a really little kid. I don’t think really little kids know enough to find any name strange, but I think maybe around the fourth or fifth grade, it started to make me feel weird, so I started to go by ‘Wally,’ a more Americanized name.
Sort of like Barack Obama! He went by “Barry” all through childhood. When did you decide to go by your full name?
When I went to college. I just felt like it was my name, and so I wanted to go with it.
That’s what he [Obama] did. You’re just like him.
That’s what I always say.
Do you remember when the “Voldemort” jokes started? How did you originally feel?
Given that I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, I was initially confused, because I didn’t know what people were talking about. I think they must have started—I’m thinking 2003, 2004, I started hearing it more often. Like I said, I was confused at first, and then mildly annoyed.
I know for a fact (because I’m usually there when it happens) that approximately 1.5 out of every two new people you meet asks some form of “Voldemort? Your name is Voldemort? I thought you said Voldemort. Like in Harry Potter. You know, Voldemort?” As if nobody has ever thought to make that comparison before. I think it makes me angrier than it makes you. How does it make you feel?
Just mildly annoyed. I give a mild groan inside.
I always want to make really smartass comebacks to those people, but since you’re such a nice guy, I usually refrain from responding, say, “Yes, my husband’s parents had a time machine, and they travelled to the early aughts and were like, What name can we give our son that will cause the most annoyance possible among strangers?” But I don’t do that, because I always hear your voice in my head, going Is that nice? So, what do you think is an appropriate comeback that both honors your good nature but also gently hints that your name is not a joke?
Oh, I don’t know.
So, then, I’ll just be a smartass, all right? I consider this permission to say whatever I want. OK?
Why don’t you just go by a nickname now?
People who are personally close to me do have nicknames for me, and that’s fine, but I don’t introduce myself via a nickname, because again, I feel like it’s my name, and that’s what I’m going to use.
Kind of like in Office Space, when they ask Michael Bolton why he doesn’t just go by Mike, and he’s like, “Why should I have to change my name? He’s the one who sucks.” OK, now that you have seen all but the last Harry Potter film, I want you to do some introspection and think: What are some qualities that you and Lord Voldemort share?
I guess we’re both on a relentless quest for power. We’re both just really misunderstood.
And you’re both really good at school.
Also, sometimes I think my wife may have put me under a spell. Did that happen to him, too?
No, but it did happen to his dad. Now, on to the important stuff. Who is your favorite Harry Potter character and why?
I think I like Hermione. She’s funny. She’s such a know-it-all.
If you were going to be sorted into a house at Hogwarts, where would you go?
I don’t even know how many houses there are.
Try to name as many as you can.
I know Gryffindor. Slytherin. Uhhhhhhhh [thinks]. What’s the one with the, uh…I know those two. The one with the hobbits! Isn’t there one with hobbits?
How old does our daughter have to before she’s allowed to read all the books and see all the movies?
Will you come with us on our trip to the Harry Potter theme parks at Universal Studios in Florida that I am taking her on when she’s old enough to ride the good rides?
What are some ways in which we can use your name to mess with our child and her friends?
Just use it?
Like, without explanation.
I always thought we could tell a bedtime story about how Lord Voldemort didn’t actually die, but he just retired to America, where he settled down to a quiet life and had a family, and didn’t do any megalomaniacal spells anymore – except when his kids wouldn’t brush their teeth and go to sleep. What do you think of that? Like, not outright say that our kid’s dad is the Dark Lord, but you know, not deny it either.
[Looks at me perturbedly.]