Just your average Tom, Dick or Gary: the curious phenomenon of the namesake

Gary Nunn
Photograph: Plume Creative/Getty Images

Of the two most popular Gary Nunns according to Google, the other is an ageing Texan country singer.

His name is Gary P Nunn; I’m Gary R Nunn. There’s just a diagonal stalk between us. That, 40 years, thousands of miles and some forlorn heartbreak ditties.

Here’s the spooky thing: when I first moved to Australia from the UK, I wasn’t doing so well. I missed London more than expected: the buzz, the theatre, my friends and family.

With time on my hands because nobody would employ me in the long-term job I craved on my pesky working holiday visa, I explored the singer’s back catalogue.

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One of the first songs I found in Gary Nunn’s oeuvre was called London Homesick Blues. You couldn’t make it up.

My namesake seemed somehow emotionally synchronised with me at the one and only time in my life this song title would specifically have resonance (the Australian sun soon dried my homesick tears).

It got me thinking: is our namesake just a coincidental and ultimately banal happenstance of nomenclature? Or is there something deeper to all this?

I started with howmanyofme.com to discover just how many Gary Nunns there actually are.

Transpires there are 59 Gary Nunns in the US alone (the website is American-centric), a fact that’s probably only interesting to the 60 of us. Anyone can enter their name into the free and borderline futile website.

Why does this even matter? Other than the gentle quirkiness, there’s the effect your name potentially has on your personality: do these Garys get affectionately called Gazz(a), as I do? Do they welcome it, like me, or baulk at it? Do they get called “Nunn’s on the Run’ for winning the 100m sprint on school sports day as I did?”

Kids are so inventive with nicknames, someone’s full name often lends itself to a nickname, sometimes using the abbreviated portmanteau device (JLo; ScoMo; BoJo. There are 68 Boris Johnsons in the US alone, FYI).

There are two different types of namesake: the first is the interesting one – when you share your name with a politician or somebody famous. The second is the pedestrian nomenclature of the masses, along with the, perhaps, mundane inevitability of replicas.

The first type has led to some notable and sometimes funny misunderstandings. In a recent RN Breakfast news bulletin, the ABC’s Matt Bevan reported a story about US Republican Matt Bevin (pronounced identically) losing his governor’s role to a Democrat – people had spotted the connection with amusement.

Coalition minister Peter Dutton apologised on Twitter to his namesake for the trolling he receives.

Coalition minister Peter Dutton apologised on Twitter to his namesake for the trolling he receives. The most commonly trolled Dutton, however, says it’s in the top three coolest events to ever happen to him. It has even spurred him to bring his family to Australia from America in 2020. He describes himself in his profile as “The People’s PM of Australia”.

The American Grayson Perry has become Twitter famous by default because people mistakenly believe he’s the Turner-prize winning British potter.

We’re at such a level of celebrity now, that even celebrities have their own namesakes; Michelle Williams is both a Golden Globe winning actress (she’s the first you’ll see on a Google search) and, fittingly to her subordinate Google placement, the member of Destiny’s Child everyone felt sorry for.

Seeking your namesake stories, some crackers emerged.

A Megan Elizabeth Winzer got in touch, in the most prescient week possible. “I’m OBSESSED with the Royal Family!” she wrote; caps hers. “My surname’s spelling is German, so although different to the royal ‘Windsor’, I still think it’s a pretty cool connection!”

Next was Dan Murphy, who has, somewhat brazenly, stuck to the abbreviated Dan, and has his chat-up line nailed. “We’re both cheap and full of booze,” he purred.

There were even some pedestrian proletariat nomenclature namesake stories with some merit.

One was Sue White, a travel writer. “Sue White in Hawaii and I have a chequered past,” the Australian journalist told me. “She used to forward all my emails to me as she took all the good gmail addresses. So whenever people got [my email] wrong they came to her.” This included story commissions – gold-dust to a freelance writer like Sue.

There’s a curious fixation with some people meeting their namesakes. And we could lay the blame at the door of British documentary comedian Dave Gorman.

A drunken bet with his sceptical flatmate, that he shared his name with the assistant manager of East Fife FC and “surely hundreds of others” led to a book, comedy show and TV series, all called Are You Dave Gorman? where he sought out his namesakes and used his growing platform to urge other Dave Gormans to reveal themselves. It’s funnier than expected. He stopped at 52, one for each card in a deck. Remarkably, at least 108 Dave Gormans came forward, five people changed their names by deed poll to Dave Gorman – two of them women. Two Australian soaps even included characters named Dave Gorman.

A similar story emerged when the Australian Sam Mitchell connected with his British namesake on Facebook. As Junkee reported in 2017: “After chatting for a while and getting along, the pair Photoshopped each other into their profile pics, got their friends involved in the joke, and eventually started talking about an IRL trip to meet up.”

The coincidences racked up: they also shared a middle name and, by chance, the British Sam Mitchell had just moved to Melbourne when his namesake idly reached out. He couldn’t have predicted what’d happen next: Australian Sam, who lived in Tasmania, encouraged his friends to chip in $20 to buy British expat Sam a flight to Launceston for New Year’s Eve. He was on a flight the next day. Once there, they held the ‘Sam Mitchell Olympics’ – which “mainly involved drinking and doing ill-advised things like eating dog food and vomit-flavoured jelly beans.”

But these stories would be very different if Dave Gorman or email-hogger Sue lived in Denmark.

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A 19th-century law change required citizens to have hereditary surnames. It led to the fewest surnames of any European country and many, many replicas. Much of the country shared one of five surnames: Jensen, Nielsen, Hansen, Pedersen, Andersen. Namesake confusion was avoided when everyone was given a personal identification number. The law was reversed in 2005, but its impact lives on: 4.6% of all Danes living in Denmark today are Jensens; approximately one third of the entire Danish population carries one of the top 15 surnames.

On one level, our names are the least interesting things about us. They’re one of the only things about us we didn’t choose.

Being a name, not a number, goes to the heart of those very human obsessions: identity, character, uniqueness – even freedom.

The illusion that we’re in any way unique is a myth that’s busted on a surface level by our namesakes. But then our healthy need for connection is exposed in its earthiest form when we connect with those namesakes: a tenuous coincidence of lettering meets an ancient tendency to find any link or reason to bond.

If you don’t already have Google alerts set up for your own name, now’s a good time. It’s a combination of narcissism, curiosity and sensibleness. And it could lead to your own TV show, a window into someone else’s endlessly fascinating life – or even your very own eponymous Olympics.