Aina and I were just at a performance of Love Lies Bleeding, the Alberta Ballet’s homage to Elton John. The music was all Elton John, of course; the dance had a sort of through-line, but it was not narrative. (How lovely. We get so tired of story ballets.) The performance used a large company of excellent dancers, with one very good, very busy dancer playing an Elton-type persona, although at times it seemed there were multiple Elta… what?
Elton isn’t a Greek word and so doesn’t pluralize to Elta? Well, yes, I knew that. But if people are going to pluralize Elvis to Elvi (it’s not Elvus!) and even Elvii (it certainly isn’t Elvius!), well, why can’t I have some fun with Elton? (Or with Elvis – plural Los vises, perhaps? Or, on the Greek model, Elveis or Elvines?)
Really, you’d think that Elton would have the kind of currency Elvis has. After all, Elton John has as much of a flair for showmanship as Elvis, if not more – think about the costume potential. And Elton (with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin) surpassed Elvis’s record for most consecutive years of Billboard Top 40 hits. They have the top-selling single of all time (“Candle in the Wind”). More recently, he’s written musicals and film scores. In his career he’s performed more than 3000 live concerts. On top of which, Elton has El like Elvis, though without the swivelling pelvis of the vis – rather the crisper, perhaps lighter ton (aside from the obvious taste of “two thousand pounds”), a common enough ending for a name. So there are all sorts of reasons for there to be Elta all over the place.
Yabbut… he’s not dead, eh? I think that’s what it is. He’s still around, so he can’t be a timeless persona that everyone can take on. I suppose the set who would imitate him would be an at least slightly different set from those who do the Elvis thing, too. But that just means there’s room for both!
I need not discourse at length on the images Elton carries. Reggie Dwight set all that up nicely, with the great big glasses and flashy costumes, and all that music… Oh, yes, if you didn’t know, Reginald Kenneth Dwight was the name Elton John was born under. He took the name Elton John for a stage name (now his legal name – he’s Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE) from two bluesmen he had worked with: Elton Dean and Long John Baldry.
I’m sure many people, on first seeing or hearing his name, have wondered whether it should be John Elton. But John is also a real family name. And anyway, his birth name, Dwight, is also used as a first name. And Elton Dean’s last name is, too.
On the other hand, Elton certainly is a family name – now in use as a first name too, like so many others. But, as many of you will already have surmised, it was first a toponym: there are numerous places in England named Elton, with the ton obviously the same ton as everywhere (originally from Old English tun “enclosure, settlement”) and the El from the Old English masculine personal name Ella.
Yes, that’s right, Ella was once a masculine name in English. The feminine name doesn’t come from that – it started as short for Eleanor, Elvira, Ellen, or such like. But fancy that, eh – a male name that sounds like a female name that became part of a place name that was used as a last name and then converted to a first name and borrowed as a stage name and at last taken as an official name. Quite the journey. The central character in Love Lies Bleeding went through a progress of similar complexity too. And I’m sure Elton John did as well.
But, oh, notice how I didn’t say just Elton? He’s always Elton John. It’s not as though there are other famous Eltons out there to distinguish him from. Elvis Presley probably got trimmed in part because it has four full-value syllables (no reduced vowels), so it’s extra unnecessary effort to say it all. Elton, on the other hand, usually has its second syllable reduced to a glottal stop and a syllabic /n/. It’s more sesquisyllabic than bisyllabic – it calls for another full-value syllable after it to attach itself to.
But there’s another thing: John is so well known as a first name, it carries the most weight and gets treatment more as a head noun, with Elton as a modifier. Just as there’s Tiny Tim and Lil Wayne and Tenacious D and Man Ray, there’s Elton John. It also helps that the rhythm of English gives as much time to John as to Elton. But the Elton is what makes it special.