Today is the anniversary of the death of rock and roll icon Elvis Presley, who died at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977. Only 42 years old, Elvis died of a heart attack brought on by his addiction to prescription drugs.
Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. His family was poor, and at 19 he paid four dollars to record some songs for his mother at a Memphis recording studio. The owner of the studio, Sam Phillips, was impressed by Elvis’ singing, and in 1954, he released Elvis’ first single “That’s All Right” on his Sun Records label.
From that point on Elvis’ popularity exploded to the point that the single name Elvis became synonymous with rock and roll. Whether you love or hate his music, there is no denying his impact on the music and culture of the 1950s. He brought rock into the mainstream, made it an art form, and showed that it could produce millions of dollars in revenue (1).
In 1958, the same year that Elvis entered the U.S. Army for a two-years stint, a child by the name of Madonna Louise Ciccone was born to a Catholic family in Bay City, Michigan. When Madonna was five years old, her mother died of breast cancer, and her father was left with six children to raise. Encouraged by her father to take piano lessons, Madonna tried music for a few months but eventually persuaded her father to pay for ballet lessons instead.
Her pursuit of a dance career took her to New York in 1977, the same year Elvis died. With only $35 dollars in her pocket, she struggled to earn a living and to perfect her dancing craft. She returned to music in 1979, forming a rock band and performing disco and dance songs in New York dance clubs. It’s at this point that she gained the attention of Sire Records, signing a deal paying her $5,000 per song. With the release of her first album Madonna in 1983, “The Material Girl” achieved the kind of international fame and success that would make her a pop icon and the most successful female artist in history. Some might even argue that what Elvis did for rock and roll in the 1950s, Madonna did for pop music in the 1980s (2).
What’s in a Mononym?
Besides the fact that both Elvis and Madonna dominated the music scene in their respective eras, they also share the rare distinction of being instantly and unambiguously recognized based on the invocation of just their first names. In other words, they have become mononymous, that is becoming so well known that they are known by a single name or mononym.
The word is from the Greek: mono = one + nym = word or name.
To achieve such a high degree of first name recognition is rare even among some of history’s most revered icons. Of course, it does help to have a distinctive first name. If you refer to William Shakespeare, for example, as just William, your audience might not know if you are referring to The Bard of Avon — William Shakespeare — or William Shatner.
Certainly there is a difference between using a one-name moniker and truly achieving the kind of across-the-board name recognition of an Elvis or a Madonna. The names on the following list, for example, are recognizable today by the vast majority of the population. But will they be 10, 50, or 100 years from now?
Say My Name
Examples of men and women whose notoriety has withstood the test of time can be found in the book 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium.
This book features 1,000 mini-biographies that are models of concise and clear prose. Using set criteria to score each personality, the authors rate Johannes Gutenberg number one and Andy Warhol number 1,000. However, between #1 and #1,000 there are only a few examples of individuals who have achieved the kind of notoriety to be called “First Name Icons.” Given each person’s ranking from 1,000 Years, 1,000 People and a few biographical details, see if you can come up with the first name, or, in some cases, the only known single name.
- #4 He built the first telescope and challenged the idea that the earth was not the center of the universe.
- #9 He painted the Mona Lisa.
- #13 He sculpted the Pieta and David.
- #16 He proclaimed himself emperor of France.
- #30 He was the author of The Divine Comedy.
- #36 He was the author of Candide.
- #46 He was the Dutch master who painted “The Nightwatch.”
- #50 He ruled Communist China for 37 years.
- #91 Her name is synonymous with 19th century Britain.
- #112 He was Italian and a master of lyric poetry and the sonnet (3).
Today’s Challenge: Mononym-mania
What are some examples of people who are known by a single name, a mononym? Who is your Mount Rushmore or Final Four of mononyms, and which single person would take the championship? Generate a list of mononyms. To help, you might use a dictionary; to make it into the dictionary a person must be virtually universally known, and these are they types of people who tend to have mononyms. Decide on your Mount Rushmore/Final Four mononyms. Then, write an explanation of who would win each of the three “face-offs” in your four-names bracket. (Common Core Writing 1)
Quotation of the Day: The parade of mononyms on the pop chart is getting monotonous: Beyoncé, Pink, Adele, Rihanna, Duffy, Akon, Usher, Mims, Eminem, Seal, Brandy, Joe et al. –Jon Bream
Answers:1. Galileo 2. Leonardo 3. Michelangelo 4. Napoleon 5. Dante 6. Voltaire 7. Rembrandt 8. Mao 9. Victoria 10. Petrarch
2 – Madonna (entertainer)Wikipedia
3 – Gottlieb, Agnes Hooper, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, and Brent Bowers. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. New York: Kodansha International, 1998.