Saturday, January 27, 2018

What's in a Name? by L. A. Kelley

One of the pleasures of writing is the ability to draft a new world from scratch. You not only have god-like power to create characters, but baptize them as well. However, as every potential parent will tell you, choosing a name for their little darling isn’t as easy as it seems. Often names have cultural, religious, or ethnic significance. Many ancient societies had religious or magical naming rites. Modern Catholicism has Confirmation. A child selects a saint’s name in the belief the saint will guide moral choices. Names can also have a particular order depending on cultural conventions. In China, the surname or xing is first and usually, but not always, monosyllabic. The personal name or ming follows and is nearly always one syllable. Spanish naming custom draw from both sides of a child’s family. The given name is followed by two surnames; the first is from the father and the last from the mother.

In Native American cultures a name is often tied to nature and the actual naming ceremony may be guided by an elder or tribal shaman. Names may not be static, but change through a lifetime. In the Mohegan tribe in upper Connecticut, the first name a child receives is descriptive, but during adolescence, a new name may be given that better reflects life experiences.  It may change again in adulthood.

To some extent, the custom continues with nicknames. Spouses may call each other Honey or Sweetheart. A nickname dubbed in childhood can be shed as an adult or a new one adopted. Nicknames can be benign and used to describe physical characteristics, such as Lefty or Slim or have a darker purpose. Mobsters get nicknames, sometimes by law enforcement, but also from each other. A mob nickname sets an individual apart and often describes an anti-social attribute. Joe Bonnano was referred to as Joe Bananas, not because he liked the fruit, but because he was crazy.  Benjamin Siegel hated the nickname, Bugsy, which referred to his less than placid nature and explosive temper. Nobody, but nobody called him Bugsy to his face unless they wanted to be fitted for concrete overshoes.

In modern America anything goes. You can dub a kid Fruit Stand if you want and no one will squawk. (I’ve heard stupider baby names from Hollywood.) If you want to break the rules though, it’s nice to know what they are first. For instance, western society dictates a diminutive boy’s name will end in ‘y’ rather than the feminine ‘i’ or ‘ie’. Nicky is masculine, Nicki or Nickie is feminine and looks weird attached to a boy. Generally, girls’ names end with an ‘a’, but boys don’t. If two characters in a story are named Will and Willa, one is obviously a girl and the other a boy. However, a different ethnic background changes the rules. In Eastern Europe, some male names such as Bela or Luca end in “a”.

A boy’s name can be given to a girl, but not the other way around without sounding wrong. Once a boy’s name is fully adopted by girls, it never goes back to being a boy’s name again. Originally, Stacy, Leslie, and Tracy were boys’ name. They have since faded from little blue baby books. Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind was all man and never swapped girl talk with Scarlet O’Hara. More recently, Morgan and Taylor both started as manly men. The popularity of the names soared for girls, and consequently plummeted for boys. A few years from now, any contemporary story describing studly Morgan and his facial scruff, may bring giggles.

In historic fiction, the name needs to fit the era. Nobody, but nobody, christened their daughter Madison until the popularity of the movie Splash in 1984. Five years later there was an explosion of little Madisons enrolling in kindergarten. Find that name attached to the heroine of a novel set in 1875 Boston and the first thing that pops to mind is the writer ignored simple research. Lists of names for particular time periods are found easily on the Internet. The Social Security Administration has a fun site where you can check past name popularity. ( ).  Despite a novel's setting, a character’s date of birth always needs to be kept in mind. An eighty year old grandmother living in 2018 might be named Betty or Mary, but definitely not Riley, Aubrey, or Addison which are all recent addition to the trendy girls' name list.

If you still want to give your (fictional or real) pride and joy something trendy, remember it doesn’t take long to sound dated, stale, or downright silly. Minnie and Clarence were popular choices in the 1880s, but where are they today? So choose a name you can live with for the next fifty years and best of luck to you with little Fruit Stand.

Good Bones

L. A. Kelley writes fantasy and science fiction with humor, romance, and a little sass. Her mob nickname is Knuckles. Check out her books on her Amazon Author Page.


Maureen said...

I enjoyed the post! I have a terrible time choosing names. My twins were almost stuck with Baby A and Baby B, lol.

Francesca Quarto said...

Loved the post and appreciate the difficulty of naming characters. Having worked with Genes and Jeans...I am often reminded of the classic SNL skit about the family where gender is hysterically elusive to folks desperate to find out the true sex of the characters named Pat, Gene or Jean. Thanks for your great information and fun insights.

Francesca Q.

Lea Kirk said...

As if finding names for our five kids that both my hubby and I agreed on wasn't hard enough, now I'm an author and have to find or create meaningful names for all my characters (main, secondary, minor). That's a lot of names!

Confession time: In my book, Salvation, I dubbed a "compact, hairless" alien with "ping-pong ball-size black eyes" that peered out from "leathery folds of buff-color skin", Arrgu'u. Which is something like the sound I made when realized I had to make up another name.

Diane Burton said...

Great post, L.A. Character names often present a challenge. I found several "baby names" sites valuable. Interestingly, Evelyn and Shirley are/were masculine names in Britain. I'm sure there are more. LOL at Maureen's comment about Baby A and Baby B. As many of you know, my son & his wife had twins 3 months ago. In all the ultrasound pictures, they were labeled A and B. Grandson wanted to name his cousins Fred and George, the Weasley twins, from Harry Potter. DIL said that wasn't going to happen. LOL

Barbara Edwards said...

Liked the information. I find names to be tough.