- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a bedbug
Some people make eponyms of themselves, and others have eponyms thrust upon them. Case in point, the tragic case of Mr Norfolk Howard.
A Norfolk Howard is a bedbug. And here’s why. On 26 June 1862, this notice appeared in the Times:
I, Norfolk Howard, heretofore called and known by the name of Joshua Bugg, late of Epsom, in the county of Surrey, now of Wakefield, in the county of York, and landlord of the Swan Tavern, in the same county, do hereby give notice, that on the 20th day of this present month of June, for and on behalf of myself and heirs, lawfully begotten, I did wholly abandon the use of the surname of Bugg, and assumed, took, and used, and am determined at all times hereafter, in all writings, actions, dealings, matters, and things, and upon all other occasions whatsoever, to be distinguished, to subscribe, to be called and known by the name of Norfolk Howard only.
So Mr Joshua Bugg of Epsom was forever now to be known as Norfolk Howard. Why change his name? Apparently, Joshua was annoyed about people making jokes about his last name, Bug. Why choose the name Norfolk Howard? Apparently, he wanted an upgrade: the aristocratic Howard family have held the title of Duke of Norfolk since the fifteenth century, and among the English peerage are considered the holders of the foremost dukedom in England. And if you’re a humble Yorkshire landlord, aligning yourself with the most powerful ancestral seat in the country is one hell of an upgrade.
It’s also a somewhat unsubtle one, and Joshua’s—or rather, Norfolk’s fairly obvious attempt to manufacture a higher standing for himself didn’t go down too well in Victorian society. Just days after his announcement in the Times, this editorial appeared in the Northampton Mercury:
If, for instance, Mr. Bugg had modestly slipped—say into the name of Buggins, or even Big—few censors could have done more than smile at man’s weakness ... Had he for a year or two passed as J. Buggins, and then come forth as John or Joseph Buggins, we should never have denounced the innocent fraud. But he has gone much further than the perpetration of a white lie. The man who calls himself Norfolk Howard must be the snob of snobs. To be ashamed of his own name is bad, but to affect a new high-sounding title, is atrocious vulgarity.
The change hadn’t gone down too well, it seems—and those who were affronted by it were about to exact the most exquisite revenge imaginable. A few weeks later, on 26 July, another article appeared in Charles Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round:
If those nasty little insects [bedbugs] were called Norfolk-Howards, I dare say anybody would take quite a loathing for that name, and be ready to change it to B–g at a moment’s notice.
This throwaway idea was all the inspiration people needed. If Joshua Bug were to try and muscle in on the Dukedom of Norfolk to avoid being made the butt of jokes about bedbugs, then bedbugs were going heretofore going to be called Norfolk Howards.
Quite what Mr Howard himself thought of the entire process is sadly unrecorded, but the joke certainly didn’t die down in his lifetime: the name Norfolk Howard stuck, and remained in use in English long into the twentieth century, before finally drifting into relative obscurity in the 1950s.