Prone to Exaggeration – Gregg Murray
Exaggeration is a funny word. It’s got five syllables and all sorts of letters. Its spelling is flat-out excessive. Perhaps that’s the point of the extra g, to indicate excess. In that sense you could say it’s performative; it exaggerates itself. It takes water that’s merely room temperature and either scalds it or freezes it.
Since I literally have an unnecessary g in my own name, I feel connected to the art of exaggeration. In first grade I changed my name Gregory—and therefore its diminutive Greg—to Gregg. It was more helpful than excessive, I thought, since I had two classmates named Gregory. Gregory was a popular name in the United States during the 1950s and 60s. 1962 was its year of peak popularity. So, while some interpreted it as desperate, attention-seeking, I thought the extra g made sense.
I don’t think my father Russel ever understood why I did it. Why would someone identify with this type of exaggeration? he wondered. It appears to have no function! For this reason it took him quite some time to adapt to my new spelling. Indeed, he protested it, even going so far as to intentionally spell it incorrectly. It felt like I was breaking a law about Gregory.
My name has a playful letter. Perhaps it should be in parenthesis, hidin(g) out. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Jacques Derrida on you and say that the extra ‘g’ is like the ‘a’ in his famous essay about différance, but, like, it totally is. You can’t hear the difference out loud, but in print it signifies something different, namely that my name ain’t Greg with one ‘g’. It’s Gregg.
If you were being alert and watchful, you probably caught that my father Russel spells his own name incorrectly. Call it underexaggerated, but doesn’t Russell typically have two l’s? I once pointed this out, and he gently scolded me, saying, “Maybe… but that’s my name.” Meaning, of course, “Unlike you, who up and changed it.” I can see why he might be attached to the original spelling, since it was my folks’ idea to give me such a boring name in the first place.
Being dull is of the utmost concern for people who engage in exaggeration. This is one reason I think it’s a performative word. You know, the main rule of acting is never bore an audience. You can’t simply say it was hot outside when it was 87 degrees and you can’t truly say it was 87 degrees if it felt like 93. You have to say, “it’s 93 out but the news said it feels like 98, which is nonsense because I know for a fact it feels like 113.” If you’re onto a boring subject, you must improvise to keep it lively. Hence, the present essay which, let’s be honest, is literally about how I spell my name.
Sometimes I’m asked to explain my own etymology, as we all are, especially during a lull in conversation with a distant relative. Mine comes from the Latin “gregorius” by way of a Greek word whose spelling would require me to [insert characters]. Like many others, I’m sure, the true origin of my name is the popular American actor Gregory Peck. I’ll bet you can guess when this movie came out. That’s correct, 1962.
The name means “alert and watchful,” which is the perfect name for someone with ADHD. It doesn’t say alert and watchful about what. I mean, I always notice the distant sound of a dog barking while I’m trying to slice carrots. And I always notice my finger hurts when I cut it off at the knuckle. I’m super alert. I watched that stub all the way to the hospital. It was like a geyser.
But seriously, there isn’t a correct spelling of anything anyway, not when it comes to language. Spelling and meaning are constantly in flux. Ferdinand de Saussure taught us the letters of a word—the signifier—have a merely arbitrary connection to the thing they represent—the signified. Hard as it is to admit, Russel isn’t a better spelling than Russell, and Gregg isn’t a better spelling of Greg. Really it just comes down to what you can get away with.
That’s why a lifetime of exaggeration made me feel vindicated when, a few years ago, my father was needed to fly to Peru on business, right away. Only he couldn’t find his passport. He tore the house apart. He was going to need a new one, and fast. It could be done, they said, but they needed him to present his actual birth certificate. It was the only way, they said. So he paid the money and they tracked it down and guess what? His given name is Russell.
Gregg Murray is associate professor of English at Georgia State University, editor-in-chief of Muse/A Journal, and executive editor of Real Pants. He has recent work in Pank, DIAGRAM, New South, Birmingham Poetry Review, Carolina Quarterly Review, and