Daily Archives: February 18, 2011


We saw the musical Billy Elliot tonight. It was quite good. We billy enjoyed it.

OK, ha ha. But of course the name Billy provoked an assortment of associations for me. One song that keeps going through my head is “Don’t Lose My Number,” where Phil Collins (there’s another name full of /l/) sings “Billy, don’t you lose my number.” Another is “Waltzing Matilda”: “And he sang as he watched and waited while his billy boiled…”

That second billy is of course not a person named Billy. Nor, on the other hand, is it a euphemism like Johnson or Peter. It’s a thing also called a billycan, a little cylindrical pot with a wire handle; its name may be related to another word in the song, billabong, by way of Wiradjuri billa, “river”.

There are of course other musical references one may cue to, such as punk group Billy Talent, rocker Billy Idol, singer Billy Joel, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, or actor-who-wants-everyone-to-pretend-his-musical-group’s-success-has-no-relation-to-his-acting-fame Billy Bob Thornton. There are also Billies, such as Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson’s song “Billie Jean.”

There’s also the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and at the opposite end of things the evangelist Billy Graham; there’s presidential brother Billy Carter, famous criminal Billy the Kid, actor Billy Dee Williams, and tennis player Billie Jean King. (Billy and Billie are among those combining names of the American south, just as Marie is a combining name of Québec. I half expect to see some addiction clinic run by someone called Rhea Billie Tate.)

There are literary connections, too: there’s Melville’s Billy Budd (a good small-cast adaptation of which I saw at the Edmonton Fringe Festival years ago), and Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. And you can keep them on your Billy bookcase from IKEA.

You could also go to France for a visit to Billy. There are three places in France called Billy and another nine with Billy combined with other things, such as Billy-Berclau, Billy-lès-Chanceaux, and Billy-sur-Ourcq. (Ourcq – now, there’s a word to put on a cracker.) Perhaps while strolling near one of them you’ll see a billy-goat. It may or may not be gruff; in case it is feeling bilious, carry a billy club.

Of course, there are many more billys and Billys than that. There could be a billion of them. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Oh, well, no, if it’s Will, of course, that’s a different way – Billy is a much more laddish, common presentation of the name. The prince is called Wills; we would never call him Billy. Even president Clinton was not Billy Clinton but Bill Clinton. Billy says you’re a boy or you haven’t entirely given up on boyish things. (Billie, of course, suggests you’re a girl, though you may or may not be a boyish girl.)

And of course the word is much blunter with the /b/ than with a /w/. And, on the other hand, the /i/ on the end, aside from having a diminutive effect, also keeps the /l/ from sinking into the back of the mouth as it tends to with Bill. But I do think it gets much of its flavour from its many associations. Words are, after all, known by the company they keep.

So where does Billy come from? The ones in France, of course, are different, as is the Australian one, but mostly they are that perverse English shortening of William, just as Robert becomes Bob, Richard becomes Dick, and John becomes Jack. Well, not just as – actually, evidence suggests that in the case of Billy, there’s a Gaelic influence. Names starting with /w/ borrowed over to Gaelic have tended to get /b/ instead, since in Gaelic the /w/ sound – if it even exists in that particular dialect (some just have /v/) – is thought of as a weakend /b/ or /m/. William may have been cut down to Liam, but Billy has a pair in Builidh (pronounced pretty much like “Billy” – you could say it’s bill-lingual).

And William? Ah, there’s a name that conquered England. It comes from will “will, desire” and helm “helmet, protection”. So either “my will is my helmet” or “I desire some protection here!” Protection from what? Well, there’s always that goat…