At a grizzled, battered, and burdened 41, the Ol’ Gunslinger is reaching the twilight of his days in professional football. But while the man’s quarterback rating may not be quite what it was, his ability to keep his name in the headlines seems to be entirely unimpaired. So as we wait to see what the future holds for one of our Living Legends, this may be an opportune time to ask a question that a whole new generation of readers may yet come to revisit — the very question that flummoxed Ben Stiller circa 1997: What’s with that name, anyway?
First, a little family history. Brett hails from a long and proud line of Gulf Coast folk; his hometown is Kiln, Mississippi, pop. 2,000 (or ‘The Kiln,’ as the locals may correct you, since it began as just that: a giant pit used to burn the tar out of pine trunks). His many-times-great-grandaddy Jean Baptiste Favre, of the beach town of Royan, France, brought the name to the New World when he arrived in Mobile around 1720. J.B.’s son Jean Claude Favre spent his time traveling amongst the Choctaw (and leaving a string of illegitimate children in his wake) as an official interpreter for the French colonial government; he continued to make himself useful after the British took over, and was rewarded in 1767 with a swath of land on the still-wild Pearl River, in what would become Brett’s home county of Hancock. (When the great naturalist William Bartram passed through the area a few years later, the ‘aged Frenchman’ he encountered ‘bound for his Pearl River Plantation’ would likely, by process of elimination, have been Jean Claude.) And J.C.’s son Simon Favre, following in his father’s footsteps, forged a relationship with the larger-than-life Choctaw chief Pushmataha, and eventually bore several children with the chief’s daughter (although this claim is not uncontroversial) — one of whom may, or may not, have been Brett’s direct ancestor. The stuff of legend indeed.
For our purposes, though, it’s enough just to know that Brett’s surname is French (it’s derived from the Latin ferrum, iron, like the names ‘Fauré,’ ‘Lefavor,’ and the Italian ‘Ferrari,’ all of which were originally applied to blacksmiths). Thus a native Frenchman like the patriarch Jean Baptiste would surely have pronounced the word à la ‘Louvre’ — that is, pronounced it ‘Fahv(ruh)’, with that daunting French guttural ‘r.’ The real question, then, is how those two consonants came to swap places.
There are clues. On an online genealogy forum, an older second cousin of Brett’s insists that the correct pronunciation is ‘Fahve,’ but that he is the last purist in this regard: all of his surviving siblings have now come to say ‘Farve.’ Elsewhere, a young woman of mainly Choctaw ancestry recalls her grandmother being chastised at school for ‘misspelling’ her own name, and having that name rewritten before her eyes: ‘Favre’ became ‘Farve,’ in speech and in text.
I see a two-step process at work here. First, ‘Fahv(ruh)’ becomes ‘Fahve’ as the guttural ‘r’ drops off; once the American Favres began speaking English, perhaps, there were few enough opportunities to use that onerous sound that mastering it simply wasn’t worth the effort. But even as the ‘r’ drops out of the spoken name, it still lurks there inconveniently in the written one, silent and glaring. And as the Choctaw woman’s story suggests, a host of pressures arises to somehow get the thing back into speech. How to do it? Why, just slip the ‘r’ in front of the ‘v’; it slides off the tongue so much easier, and places the name comfortably (if falsely) in a family of others: ‘Marvin,’ ‘Arvin,’ ‘Carver,’ ‘Farve.’
In fact, this is a common enough linguistic phenomenon to be given a name of its own. Metathesis refers to the switching of sounds — most often adjacent ones — within a word, and is one of the many invisible hands steering a language in its inexorable drift through time. It’s the same process that strains every day, in the speech of millions of Americans, to warp comfortable into ‘comftarble,’ nuclear into ‘nucular,’ asterisk into ‘asterix,’ and so on. An insidious process, some would say; but consider its benefits: before metathesizing, bird was the Old English bryd and horse was hros. Our tongues are less twisted today, and we can thank folks like the Favres.
All of this helps to explain why I find the slogan to the left — from a popular T-shirt in Brett’s adopted, and then jilted, hometown of Green Bay — so funny (though ‘Bert’ would be apter, wouldn’t it?). Of course, the truth is that the oddness of the name and the stature of its bearer have seared it into our collective memory for good. But then all words start out odd, really; we only learn to take them for granted with time. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves, as conscientious wielders of language, to scrape off the grime of overuse now and again and remind ourselves of their history.