"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.