They Answer to “Phinnaeus”

Just what was Julia Roberts thinking when she named her kid Phinnaeus? “Phineas [the usual spelling] is a difficult name to have,” admits Phineas Duru of Hempstead, Long Island. “It’s difficult to spell, and it’s harder still to sound out. Telemarketers, for example, pronounce it like the male organ.”

“Sports announcers have trouble with it,” says brewery owner Phineas DeMink, a former high-school athlete.

“I appreciate it now that I’m older, but when you’re a kid, you just wish you had a more popular name.”

After Roberts christened her twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, local Phineases were all feeling appreciative. “I’m an overnight celebrity,” says Phineas Gershkowitz of Westchester. “The phone did not stop ringing”—though some people called to say, “‘How could anyone name their kid Phinnaeus?’”

Julia hasn’t answered that question yet. But as much as this is just the latest example of willful Hollywood naming eccentricity (see Gwyneth Paltrow’s baby Apple), the name does have roots. In Greek mythology, it means “oracle.” In the Bible, Phinehas was a warrior who salvaged the relationship between Jehovah and the Jews by spearing a Midianite and an Israelite who were getting it on in defiance of an anti-miscegenation edict. (“I found this impressive,” says Duru, a Nigerian who changed his name from Chidi to Phineas at 7 when he became a Jehovah’s Witness.) More recently, it’s what the “P” in P. T. Barnum stood for. There’s also Phineas Gage, who lost a chunk of his brain in a railroad accident in 1848, becoming belligerent and an intro-psych case study; Phineas in A Separate Peace, who dies after being tossed from a tree; pot-smoking comic book character Phineas Phreak; and Dr. Phineas J. Whoopie, of the cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo. “Kids always poked fun at that one,” recalls DeMink. “They’d say, ‘Phineas J. Whoopie, you’re the greatest!’ The more it drove me crazy the more they’d say it.”

Phineases usually suffer childhood alone. “I finally met someone named Phineas when I was 45,” says Phineas Fiske, from Northport, Long Island. “He was the first and last. And he was 2.”

Still, at least one parent of a Phineas wishes Roberts hadn’t been so etymologically brazen. “I named my son Phineas because I wanted him to have a name that was different, a name of distinction,” says DeMink’s mother, Jan Silk. “Now we’re going to have a whole generation of toddlers with it.”

They Answer to “Phinnaeus”