The Naming of Names

I love names.  Words of all sorts, but especially names; people’s names, as well as names of places and things.  Even with ordinary first names, one may always ask “Why did the parents pick that name for that child?”—whether one asks with a note of puzzlement, admiration, or horror.  But fantasy and science fiction provide wider scope for inquiry, because so many of the names in those stories are made up by the authors, rather than picked from the usual stash of baby names.

First, though, let’s look at the mundane questions faced by parents.

Name That Baby

Ariella baby name decorative blockA year ago, when my daughter was expecting her first child, she canvassed family members for name suggestions.  I was happy to comply.  Ecstatic, in fact.  I pored through a number of baby name booklets and sources, which I keep for reference in inventing fictional characters, and (naturally) made a list.

As I was putting the list together, I realized I was subliminally applying a whole set of criteria for evaluating possible candidates.  When I tried to tease out what kinds of considerations I had in mind, I came up with this set.

(1)  First and last names.  First of all, the first and last name have to go together.  Bob Levey, a Washington Post columnist, used to collect “Perfect Fit Last Names” (PFLN).  Sometimes these were simply last names that turned out to be appropriate for someone’s occupation; I once had a swimming teacher named Mr. Drown.  A Levey collection from 2000 mentions a funeral home director named Graves, a midwife named Borner, and horseback riding instructors named Sadler, Mount, and Paddock.  But sometimes it’s the coordination of first and last names that’s especially apt.  The same article, for example, cites an Ivy Plant.  The first question for parents is, do you want to saddle your child with a name that will always invite snickers?

A subtler point is whether first and last names sound good together.  For example, when my children were born, I decided that names ending in an “-el” sound would elide too smoothly into the first syllable of “Ellrod.”  That knocked out a lot of girls’ names with forms like Michelle or Annabelle.  On the plus side, it also removed the temptation to indulge in a Tolkien name like “Galadriel Ellrod.”  (More on that below.)

(2)  Too common.  You may not want a name that’s too common.  Both my children shared first names with other kids in their grade-school classes—in one case, a first and middle name.  If you’re curious what names have been most used in recent years, you can consult a Web site like Behind the Name, which also provides great etymologies.

Beren, by Elena Kukanova

Beren (sketch by Elena Kukanova)

(3)  Too weird.  At the same time, you don’t necessarily want a name that’s too exotic.  No matter how geeky you (or your kids) may be, it’s going to be tough going through life named “Aragorn Ellrod” or “Frodo Ellrod.”  (Not to mention “Kal-El Ellrod,” which fails on multiple counts.)  I almost succumbed to the Tolkien temptation when I considered the name “Beren,” a hero from the Silmarillion.  It sounds almost normal; and maybe I could bury it as a middle name.  I started trying out the name “Christopher Beren” on people, but I stopped when someone asked:  “You mean, like the Baron of so-and-so?”  Uh-oh.  The poor kid would never get his middle name spelled right, ever.

Fashion matters, too.  Names go in and out of style.  It sometimes seems that about twenty percent of the heroines in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novels were named “Fanny.”  But it’s hard to imagine giving a child that name today.  (Behind the Names confirms my gut reaction, showing the statistical incidence of “Fanny” dropping off the chart after about 1940 in the U.S.)

(4)  Misspelled or mispronounced.  A name that will always be misspelled or mispronounced is going to be a burden for the child.  In this category we have the innovative spellings one sometimes see for commonplace names.  “Megan,” for example, is pretty common nowadays (though there were no Megans around when I was growing up).  But a girl named “Megyn” is going to be wearily correcting the spelling all her life.  And people will dither over whether “Megyn” should get some equally novel pronunciation, or just sound like “Megan.”

Colbie Caillat at the Malibu Inn

Colbie Caillat at the Malibu Inn

Names from other languages (which may be perfectly well-known in their own tongues) can fall into this category.  I’m reminded of singer Colbie Caillat, though I’m thinking more of the last name than the first.  “Caillat” looks French to me, and in French it would come out something like “kye-aw” (as she says in this interview).  But the name as it’s actually used is said “cal-lay” (there’s an audio link on the Wikipedia page), which sounds as if someone threw up their hands and said “I can’t figure it out, but it’s French, so it must end in ‘ay.’”

(5)  Commemoration.  Names that duplicate those of other family members are appealing.  We may like the idea of commemorating a parent, sibling, or more distant relative in a child’s name.  On the other hand, having the same names constantly recur breeds confusion.  I’ve torn my hair out at times trying to make sense of old family Bible genealogy pages in which every third individual is named Robert or William, and nobody at the time bothered to specify which William or Robert they were referring to.  I feel it’s more interesting to give family members distinctive names—which is one reason there’s no Frederick E. Ellrod IV.

You may also want to honor famous historical or fictional characters.  Even if their names are not weird, though, we want to be careful about how they come across.  Different people may have different associations with the same name; we can’t control that, but sometimes we can anticipate it, especially if the name is distinctive.  I might want to name a boy after Albert Einstein, but a listener might think of Fat Albert or Uncle Albert.

Emergence cover, first edition(6)  Age-appropriateness.  There are names that can become incongruous depending on the age or character of the child.  For example, “Edith” might be attractive for Tolkien fans (it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s wife’s name); but it seems so staid that I can’t picture a small child named Edith.  Conversely, it might be cute to name a girl Candace and call her “Candy.”  But that inherently trivial-sounding monicker might seem embarrassing to a teenager, and positively annoying to a grown woman who wanted to be taken seriously.  David R. Palmer’s engaging post-apocalyptic novel Emergence (1984) plays off that factor by giving us an eleven-year-old first-person heroine named Candy (Candidia)—who also happens to be a genius, an advanced karate master, and generally as formidable as any Heinlein female lead.  In this case, the very incongruity is part of the fun.

(7)  Ambiguity.  Names that are ambiguous as to gender, like “Morgan,” “Lindsay,” or “Leslie,” may appeal to some parents for exactly that reason, but they’ll also make it harder for strangers to know how to address the person later on.  When you’re writing a formal letter, it doesn’t help if you can’t tell whether the salutation should be “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.”

Anne of Green Gables book cover(8)  Nicknames.  What are you actually going to call the kid?  Some names support multiple nicknames, some only one, and some are unnicknameable.  And to me at least, “Anne” has quite a different sound and resonance than “Annie.”  (Anne Shirley famously insisted on “Anne” even as opposed to “Ann.”)  You can name someone “Elizabeth” and make available a plethora of diminutives and variants, from Lizzie to Beth to Lisa.  But give a baby the name “Faith” and that’s pretty much the only possibility.  Unless, of course, the nickname comes completely out of left field.  I once was introduced to the wife of a partner at a law firm whose name tag read “Winkie.”  There was no predicting that one.

(9)  Initials.  We should at least try out the full name’s initials before we decide.  A friend of my sister’s grew up with the initials “B.O.,” and naturally at a certain age she was razzed about that.  I once put my full name’s initials—FEE—on something in an office refrigerator, and puzzled some people who thought there was a charge for that item.  If nothing else, I’ve always favored giving the members of a family different first-name initials, so it’s easy to list them on a miniature golf scorecard just by their letters.

Of course, if a person ends up changing their last name later in life, all bets are off—as if it wasn’t complicated enough already.

 

So even in the sphere of ordinary Tom-Dick-and-Harry contemporary names, there are a lot of angles to think about.  Next time, we’ll venture into naming conventions in fantastic worlds, where things only get more complicated.

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5 thoughts on “The Naming of Names

  1. This puts me in mind of a Britain’s Got Talent contestant (and if I recall, winner) by the name of Paul Potts.

    I’m sure his parents loved him 😉

    There are some other names I can think of, but these wouldn’t translate to English. Essentially, back in the old country there was a guy whose name was (the in our language equivalent for) Saint Nicholas. Which, ok, no biggie. Nicholas is a name, and in this particular name/role combo Saint Nicholas is referred to as something else than a saint, also happens to be a family name.

    Anyway, the guy names his child the in our language equivalent of Santa Claus. Hilarity is had by all.

    And then you get into problems, as an author, if somehow you get successful enough to get published beyond your native space. An alleged real world example of a naughty name (well, naughty in another language than the original) is Bob Dole (Dole, allegedly, sounds too close to the Farsi word for penis). One can imagine a Fantasy author inventing this melodious name for a character only to find out it means something silly like first baby snot in Polish or whatever.

    Oh, to veer also to fiction a bit, I had a naming problem because I wanted a character’s name to be based on the Latin name for the deathshead hawkmoth, Acherontia Atropos. I couldn’t just use that though (it’s an other Earth, why would they have this particular Latin name? Also, Acherontia sounds drenched in starch). A wee bit of phonetic clipping later and I got an imo decent name– and even checked it in google to see if it occurs in the world 😉 (Apparently it does; used in some parts of Asia; and I’m happy with the significances attached to it).

    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes — I’ve taken to using a Google search to see if a name I’m inventing (for a company, say, or a product) is already “taken.”

      I recall reading that oil company Esso changed its name to Exxon because “Esso” turned out to mean something unfortunate in some other language. Presumably there isn’t a word like “Exxon” anywhere else on earth . . .

      Like

  2. Ha! This is some good stuff!

    I’ve use the website Behind the Names for my character names as I came across characters with cool ones like Connor Grey and code names like Sister Grimm.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really entertaining and thoughtful post, Rick. Enjoyed it! When it comes to naming fictional characters, I find myself really caring, deliberating and looking up what a particular name may mean, but this post is great for anyone having to think up a name for any reason so I’m sharing it on twitter.

    Like

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