There are weak names and there are strong names. Benedict Arnold is a classic strong name—that is, it has one specific referent; it needs no help from context. Every American knows these syllables to be synonymous with traitor, and nary a namesake is to be found in the country. The name’s contemptible connotations make it a degrading moniker, an obvious insult. Its meaning is manifest, its independence from context unmatched. On the other hand, a name like George Washington is a weak name since it might refer to a bridge, a college, or any number of things as well as the first U.S. president and needs the help of context to clarify its meaning.
So who was this scoundrel, this vile devil who betrayed his country, this Benedict Arnold (Benedict is from the Latin benedicite meaning something like “bless you” and Arnold derives from a village in Nottinghamshire denoting a place ruled by eagles)? Those who knew him called him brave, strong-willed and patriotic. He fought in the French and Indian War, later prospered as a merchant, and had even sailed his own ships to the West Indies and Canada. During the Revolutionary War he was a colonel in the Continental Army and led American troops gallantly in many engagements with the British, suffering several wounds.
Then while commanding in Philadelphia, Benedict began to live a high life, spending money, misusing army property, and entertaining loyalists. He even married one, nineteen year-old Margaret Shippen. Embittered because he felt unappreciated by the Congress, he took a British bribe of 20,000 pounds to accept the West Point Command and convey information about its defenses. His act of collusion was found out, but he managed to escape to England where, too, he got no respect. His treason was not a decisive act, yet in a news-starved country it was big news. So Benedict Arnold got a lot of press.
However, renown does not guarantee a strong name. John Walker is a classic weak name, the union of two even weaker names, both prosaic to the point of boredom. John is not only a common, unimaginative first name in today’s world, it has several low meanings. Walker is among the top 25 most common names in the U.S. It derives from an early English occupation common in the weaving industry where raw cloth from the loom was cleaned and scoured by men trampling on it. There are hundreds of people who have answered to the combination of these two handles (including the inventor of friction matches, and the New Zealander who first ran the mile in less than 3 minutes 50 seconds) and for most of us, its utterance stirs no emotions, evokes no images, and means little without the help of some context.
Yet a man with that very ordinary name committed treasonous acts far beyond Colonel Arnold. Arrested in 1985, this U.S. Navy employee had furnished the Soviets countless secret messages since 1968, and not for glory or out of a sense of betrayal, but merely for money. This man labeled John Walker was incomparably more villainous than that early fallen patriot whose crime was brief and came to nothing.
But even the magnitude of John Walker’s misdeed was not enough to invigorate that anemic name. Where notoriety gave strength to Benedict Arnold’s name, it did nothing for John Walker’s. Not even a second John Walker in the employ of the Taliban in Afghanistan could give iron to this name. This suggests something else besides renown contributes to a name’s strength.
It is rarity. Like common words, a name that labels many things will be less precise in meaning, hence weaker. Think about it. Without a last name you might not know who Eva is, but how about Zsa Zsa? You know where Anaheim is, but Oakland could be anywhere. BurgerKing is a stronger name than McDonald’s despite market share because this Scottish surname, meaning “son of the great chief” labels too many businesses, people and places, ee eye ee eye oh.
Strange as it may seem, our B. Arnold might have escaped eternal damnation had it not been for the tragedy that befell his older brother. It so happened that his wealthy parents, a drunken cooper named Benedict Arnold III and his wife Hannah, gave birth to their first son in 1738. Like his father and grandfather and great grandfather, the newborn was christened with the distinguished Rhode Island family name and became Benedict Arnold IV. Unfortunately, he died less than a year later.
The next son, born on January 14, 1741, thus became the next heir to, and owner of, that noble cognomen to the fourth. And it was he, Benedict Arnold’s younger brother (shall we call him Benedict Arnold IV II?), who lived to see the founding of a new country—because of his heroism and in spite of his own late treachery.
The irony is that had the original Benedict Arnold IV lived, his infamous younger brother might have been given a more common name, and the traitor known perhaps as George or Robert or even John Arnold, like the modern traitor John Walker, may have more easily faded into the trivia of history.