Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

There are two kinds of people in the world: those satisfied with naming their own children and a few pets throughout their lifetimes, and those who obsess about names, collecting them and hoarding them like precious gems and jewels.

Guess which one I am?

My family has collected names since I was a little girl. There were Ben Zen, Terry Berry and Pam Schram. Back in the day when, as children, we still called all the grownups "Mr." and "Mrs.", I knew a woman named Mrs. Carden. Her husband's name was Bob. I remember snorting with laughter when I found out that her first name was Arden. Arden Carden. If my name was Arden, you couldn't pay me to marry a guy named Bob Carden.

Then there are the lyrical names, like Marissa Madrigal and Asha Bhataley and Tenley Overseth. And the funny ones, like Hortense Wigdorf and Prudence Dalrymple (don't you think it's perfect that she is a librarian?). Perhaps my favorite is a parent of a child from my kids' high school whose name is Evanella Fullalove. These are all real names of real people.

You would think that having the privilege of naming four children would have been enough to satisfy my fascination with nomenclature. I took the whole thing very seriously, gathering baby name books around me and reading them cover to cover (I was on bed rest, so I had a lot of time on my hands). When we chose Isaac for our first son, people looked at us like we were from Mars. That was back in 1991. By 2008, Isaac had risen to the 37th most popular name for boys in the country (according the Social Security Administration Website on baby names — Internet heaven for name geeks like me).

I have to admit, I'm not fond of my own name (sorry, Mom), but I would be terribly sad if my children hated their names. My husband, a thrower-outer, nearly lost his arms one day when he tried to chuck my baby name books. "Put those back," I yelled. "But, why? We're not having any more babies," he said. That's logic trying to squash creativity.

I think I first became interested in writing fiction when I realized that every time I create a new character, I get to make up a new name — and I'm not limited by pesky legal last names or honoring dead relatives, either. I can choose any name I want.

Still, all that freedom doesn't necessarily make choosing a name any easier. I've enjoyed several recent blog discussions on the topic, including this one on Christi Craig's blog, Writing Under Pressure. Some of the same constraints to naming a baby apply.

For example, my good friends recently had a baby girl and their family's tradition is to give every first born girl the middle name Marie. They loved the first name of Piper, but the sweet girl would have ended up with the initials PMS, which simply would not do, so they called her Zoey (a lovely name). Just like my friends, writers want to make sure their character's name or initials don't have unintended connotations (although intended ones could add nuance; for example, if you're main character is a real bitch, perhaps you would want her to have the initials PMS).

If you need the name of a good villain or troublemaker, ask a teacher. Every teacher I know can reel off a list of names of the most rotten kids in school. Seems they go in cycles, but certain names are sure to mean trouble every time.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that Smith is the most common surname in the US, but did you know that Jones ranks only fourth, with Johnston and Williams both being more prevalent? The most common surname in the world, Chang, ranks 687th in the US, just behind Leach and just ahead of House.

I think of the writers who have gotten names right — names that have crept into the lexicon and paint a complete picture in just a word or two, like Scrooge or Romeo or Lolita. Finding just the right name for a character seems to require a combination of art, craft and inspiration.

Proper names are poetry in the raw.
Like all poetry, they are untranslatable.
W.H. Auden, poet, 1907-1973
(whose given name was Wystan Hugh Auden)

My kids hate that I sit through movie credits to the bitter end, scanning the names of key grips and best boys for inspiration. I ask them: "If you were a key grip or a best boy, wouldn't you want me to look for your name in the credits?" They always counter with the logic that they are not key grips or best boys or even gaffers, and those people all have their own moms to sit through the credits. Once again I have to explain that sources of inspiration trump logic every time.

If you really want to have some fun wasting time, go to this great site where you can generate all kinds of character names: Medieval names, trendy names, villain/villainess names, even gnome names. Fair warning — it's addictive.

What's your favorite moniker? Is it a real person or a character you've come to love? Do certain names carry positive or negative subtexts that you can't shake? Do you like your own name, or hate it? Tell us here, because we are all onomasticians at heart.

Ed. Note: Want more? There's a great discussion going on at SheWrites on the Mother Writers group.


DarryleP said...

Enjoyed reading this and it brought up lots feelings. IF it wasn't so LATE (even in CA) I would write a post myself on this topic right now.
Names--mine and my children's--have been an ongoing frustration thru my entire life. Naming our son almost tipped my first husband and me over the edge to divorce (which happened anyway....) So since I'm not writing a post tonite, I'll just leave it with a comment and a link:

Lauren Carr said...

I also hate my name and everyone know it. My husband rarely calls me by my proper name. When I became a writer, I lovingly picked out my pen name: Lauren Carr. When I was pregnant, I went to great pains to pick out the right name for our son. Like the family you referred to, my husband's family had a tradition: The first son's first name was after the father's father, and the middle name was after the mother's father. Well, my father's name was Hayward, which I hated as much as I hated my own name. Everyone called him Mac. When my husband's family heard that name, they immediately left it up to me to pick another name. I chose Tristan, after a dragon slayer in English mythology. Even though it is his middle name, we all call him that. Back then, in 1998, most of our friends have never heard of the name Tristan. But now, there are two other children we know who are named Tristan.

Kelley said...

I am a shaman and I asked our twins to tell me their names early in my pregnancy. Our son called himself Tristan, Welsh for "outcry" and our daughter called herself Maya, Hindu for the illusion that soul and form are separate. They turned a year old a week and a half ago, and are so aptly named. Tristan is quite willing to speak his truth, and Maya is very intent on the heart of things. We couldn't have chosen names better suited to them.

Thanks for such an interesting post, and hope you are well!

Anonymous said...

I could have written this post, Susan!

For the record, I hate my name. We gave our four sons conservative "traditional" names and as far as I know, none of them hate us for it. Though two use diminutives.

I love choosing characters names (if they let me) and I use several baby names sites. I also use the census site to make sure my names are not anachronistic.

I wrote a blog post about choosing character names.

Anonymous said...

Hey Susan,
I did not save any baby name books, but have a perspective nonetheless. I was troubled as a child that there never was a Marcy on any of the key chains etc. It became a family quest on vacations, and at one point we did find a Marcy, just one, was a blue name tag. When I named my son Hart, I decided that his childhood would be tricky around this name, but he would come to enjoy a different name, just as I did. He is past it now at 13, but admits I dealt him quite the hand, and it rhymed with fart. Oh fookin well!
Besides that I have a fav name from the past as well, my first land lord was Shlomo Pinkus, just sounds silly.
Last but not least, I met Stephen King thru Roy Leonard and the next book Stephen wrote, the first death was a Marcy, with a "Y". HA!!!
Marcy Carlson

Christi Craig said...

Thanks for the mention.
And, I love the name Prudence Dalrymple. That name cries out for a story! Do you think she would mind...? :)

I don't have a favorite character name, though YA authors tend to come up with some great ones. I do agree that naming your characters should be as fun as writing about them.

Good words to keep in mind!

Susan Bearman said...

Darryle — great post. I always thought "Susan" was too boring. When I moved to Chicago, I worked at a place with 13 employees. Three of us were Susans (2 were Susan Elizabeth). We had all been born w/i 18 months of each other.

Lauren — Tristan is a great name, but now you have me so curious about your "real" name. Will you ever tell?

Kelly — I have boy/girl twins, too. I do think it's funny how we agonize over names before our children are born. I remember recognizing them by their "right" name as soon as I saw them, feeling as if they had somehow introduced themselves to me — "Oh, so that's who you are!"

Linda — great post. See my comment there.

Marcy — poor Hart. Well, kids will make evil rhymes out of anything. Seth has the same issues with vacation souvenirs. We did find a "Seth" magnet in Hershey, PA, proudly displayed on the fridge.

Christi — thanks for stopping by. Prudence has an online presence (I think I saw her on LinkedIn); perhaps you should ask her.

SSheilah said...

I'm particularly interested in whether people's names suit them. You say you don't like your own name; is it because you don't like the sound of the word, or because you feel you aren't a Susan, personality-wise? Are you more of a Jennifer, or a Rose Marie, or something more exotic?

Susan Bearman said...

Sheilah — my name is totally prosaic. When I first moved to Chicago, there were two other women my age with the same name, in an office of just 13. I'm also not crazy about people tending to use the diminutive Sue when they address me. Much as i don't love Susan, I am completely not a Sue.

When I think of the perfect name for myself, I'll let you know. Growing up, I thought Tenley Overseth was the most beautiful name I had ever heard. But I'm not a Tenley, either. How about you?

Liz Czukas said...

Ah, wonderful post. I, too, am a name collector. Not only have I satisfied my collecting urges by becoming a writer (characters galore!), but for my day job, I work as a Labor & Delivery nurse. Oh, the names I could share...they'd make your hair stand on end.

Thanks for your comment on my blog, it's always nice to meet a fellow name-obsessor.

- Liz

Susan Bearman said...

Hi, Liz. Thanks for your comment. I loved your post. It's seems to me that labor and delivery is a perfect place for name collecting. How fun! Not really interested in a new career (although I did consider going back to become a nurse after spending five months with my preemie twins on the NICU); but I do know a number of nurses, so perhaps I'll ask them to start collecting names for me.

Susan Bearman said...

For more name fun, be sure to stop by this post of the same name, by Starr C.

Life In A Skillet said...

Hi Susan, what a great post! I mentally make lists of names you could realistically make from flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, and cheese. . . a bit odd, to be sure - what if you had a friend Lety whose name was short for Lettuce?

My husband chose the name Max for our first child after carefully consideration - his criteria was to choose a name that had no evil rhymes to embarrass him growing up.

You share the same name as my sister. Most people know her as Sue now but she will always be Oosie- pop to me.


Susan Bearman said...

Hi, Maggie — You must have loved it when Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. I must admit, I've had a lot of nicknames growing up, but Oosie-pop is a new one. I've been called: Susan, Sue, Suzy, Suzy-Q, Susabelle, Susabella, Sus (pronounced Sooze), and Ushi, which I guess isn't that far from Oosie-pop after all. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

>>"If you were a key grip or a best boy, wouldn't you want me to look for your name in the credits?"

I'll admit that I do this, too! For some reason, I have an urgent need to know the name of the best boy at the end of the film.