Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Toby?

The Editor of these pages, giving a brief respite to their Author -- who, after 227 years, finds he requires more Rest than he did in his former Life -- would like to take up a question often asked: why is it that the original Sapient Pig, along with nearly every other following act of a similar kind, were all named "Toby"? In The Giant, O'Brien, a brilliant novel based on of the career of Charles Byrne, the novelist Hilary Mantel has the Giant, who has been offered a place on a double bill with a sapient pig, ask "What is the name of it?" -- to which the showman's answer is, "Toby. All sapient pigs are called Toby." "It is one of the few facts I had not taken under my cognizance," the Giant replies.

The resulting pairing led the reviewer for the Independent to give her review of Mantel's novel the headline, "Upstaged by Toby, the sapient pig." The exact identity of this particular "Toby" is unknown, and I know of no direct evidence that a pig appeared with the giant, although both were the subject of comic engravings by Rowlandson early in 1785. Toby himself describes in his Memoir the career of one of his earliest Rivals, and how he helped rescue him from his cruel master; this pig, too was "Toby" -- named to take advantage of our Toby's fame. Nicholas Hoare, who was responsible for the facetious autobiography of Toby, apparently exhibited several pigs with that name; according to G.E. Bentley, there was a "Toby" seen by Harrison Weir (b. 1824) at the Camberwell Fair when he was a lad. There appear to have been dozens of such pigs in Britain and America, exhibited right up through the early twentieth century, and in almost every case, they too are named "Toby." The most recent example I know, a "flying pig" named Toby whose act is to dive from a platform into a tub, appears in Kim Deitsch's marvellous graphic novel Shadowland (2006).

But why "Toby" in the first place? It's a familiar form of "Tobias," which itself is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Toviyah," which means roughly "God is Good." In Nicholas Hoare's specious autobiography, it's punningly derived from the pig's master's quoting from Hamlet the line "To be or not to be." The name occurs in the Bible and in Shakespeare (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night); in the antebellum South it seems to have been associated with servants and slaves -- perhaps, most famously, when in Alex Haley's Roots, his ancestor Kunta Kinte is given the name "Toby" by his new master, a humiliating substitution. In Tolkien's Middle Earth, Toby is said to be derived from "Tobold," and "Old Toby" is a popular type of pipe-weed. Unbeknownst to Tolkien, this was also one of the names of a Shoshone Indian chief who died in 1858.

So how fare "Tobias" and "Toby" today? According to the Baby Center, "Tobias" ranks #477 in popularity today, with "Toby" at 359; the name also appears to be on the rise in Google's nGram corpus of English words.

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