What’s In A Name?

A love-struck 13 year old girl in a Shakespearean play thought it was nothing.  I disagree.  A rose by any other name would certainly smell as sweet, but I’d never bring home a flower called a “poopoo” for my wife.

We tend to give more credence to names than we realize.  Common names are more “hirable” than uncommon names.  You can flip through a highlight of some published studies in this BusinessInsider article.  Some of this is just cultural bias, but there is also a concept called nominative determinism.  Nominative determinism is why all Randys have worked as mechanics and why there is an unusual number of Meryls working in flooring install.  It’s also what we call incidents like that time a woman named Amelia Rose Earhart recreated Amelia Earhart’s famous final flight.  With the same name, how could she not?

I’ve been asked by a couple of different people now how I pick names.  A lot of writers struggle with names, and as a young writer I abandoned stories because I couldn’t find the right name.  I imagine I’m not the only one to have done that.

In one of my stories, which was published 7 years ago, I used names that had a meaning that described the character.  I looked up the meanings on BehindTheName.com and applied them as they fit.  The problem is, no reader is going to know Cadwalader means “leader in battle.”  They might know it’s the name of a Welsh saint, but more than anything most readers are just going to think it sounds “English-y.”  (Most American readers probably don’t know what “Welsh” sounds like.)  Although this approach has some merit — one of my favorite writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, likes to hide meanings in his chosen names — I don’t think it is the best approach.

Names are high on connotations and low on denotations which is to say they have lots of feelings associated with them, but little meaning.  The perfect name, therefore, is the one that feels right, not the one with the right meaning.  I’m working on a YA fantasy novel right now where my main character is a girl finding her way between the mundane and magical.  Her name was the best stroke of genius I’ve ever borrowed from another person — Seraphine.  It’s a name perfectly split between the mundane, Sera, and the magical suffix, phine.  A seraph is an angelic being.  A Sera is a girl you went to school with — albeit probably spelled differently.  It has the right feeling, and I can use different forms of the name as symbolic reference points.  I’m intentional about when I call her Sera and when I call her Seraphine.

(The name was lent to me by the husband of a good friend of mine.  I am eternally grateful for his generosity.  Story tellers guard their names with frightening vigor…)

Perhaps this isn’t going to be helpful for picking your own names, but I need an opportunity to talk about some things I really like.  So let me tell you about some of my favorite introductions in literature.

Call me Ishmael. — The opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Of course my favorite novel would also contain my favorite character introduction, but it stands on its own.  Ishmael is the narrator of the book, but he doesn’t tell us he is named Ishmael.  He just tells us to call him that.  Melville is telling us that this name and the feelings associated with it are more important than the character’s actual name.  You can, of course, consider Ishmael to be his real name and follow the book just fine.  There is no great reveal where Melville goes, “Ha! I fooled you. The narrator’s real name is David.”  Instead the use of an alias tells us something about the character — he is transitory.  He isn’t there to say.  He doesn’t intend to settle.  The alias chosen affirms this.  Ishmael is a wonderfully loaded name with thousands of years of history behind it.  The biblical Ishmael, from which our narrator borrows his alias, was a wild man — the result of a sinful union between Abraham and Hagar (not his wife) that ended in Hagar being driven into the wilderness to wander.  Ishmael grew up in the desert as an outcast.  An angel describes him as “a wild donkey of a man” who will “live in hostility with his brothers”  (Both from Genesis 16).  Our narrator, likewise, is an outcast.  He wanders a different kind of desert — one made of undrinkable water.  He is cutoff from other characters (with the obvious exception of Queequeg.)  As you read the book you have to feel the distance Ishmael experiences from people and the overwhelming call of wandering.

Perhaps that’s a bit heavy.  We can’t all be Herman Melville, after all.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. — The opening line of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  This is a brilliant introduction for all the opposite reasons as Ishmael’s introduction.  This is as brilliantly simple as the first introduction was complex.  There is no knowledge necessary here.  You know Eustace Scrubb would be a terrible name to have and if you don’t know that, Lewis informs you in the next line.

I might revisit this with some other names. If you have some great names in fiction post them in the comments.

Posted in Philosophy, Writing.

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