Regency Naming Hell

I probably have more trouble deciding what to name my characters than most Georgians did naming their babies. Just yesterday I was working on the second draft of my work-in-progress and wasted a good ten minutes figuring out a name for a maid-of-all-work. Becky. Earth-shattering or what?????

Although I use lots of placeholders like (valet) or (aunt) in my first drafts, my heroes and heroines won’t cooperate until I’ve named them correctly. I used to be thoroughly enamored of lovely and unusual heroines’ names such as Georgette Heyer used (Venetia, Ancilla, Anthea) and wanted to do the same for the heroine of my first Regency, LORD LANGDON’S KISS. I decided her scholarly father would choose an obscure Greek name for her and came up with Melinna. Then a critique partner said it sounded African American. Ack! That spoiled it but it was a good thing as the name really didn’t suit her. I renamed her Nell and the story just opened up after that.

Many of the Georgians also limited themselves to a small group of fairly traditional names. I’ve searched in vain for the original article but I know I’ve read that some very high percentage of men during the Regency had one of 5-6 royal names including George and Charles. Jane Austen had 5 guys named Charles in PERSUASION alone. Jo Beverley has an article on Regency names on her website. I totally agree when she says that to use an unusual name, one must consider why the parents would have chosen it.

I try to find something that evokes the character, something that is historically plausible and not too much of cliche. I avoid names for heroes that evoke “devil” and “demon”: Damon, Devlin, that sort of thing, also names including elements of “hawk” and “wolf”. I wouldn’t fling a book with such names but they don’t feel right in my own books. I no longer strive for very original names either. I’d rather use a common name and strive for originality in the characterization.

It does bother me when I see historical romance heroines with names that are gender neutral or historically masculine. While the heroine’s name in WHITNEY, MY LOVE by Judith McNaught, isn’t what has prevented me from reading it, it niggles. It seems like Courtney and Chelsea are not far behind.

Going sort of off-Regency, I’ve heard one parent say she named her daughter Courtney because she didn’t want to limit her chances with an obviously feminine name. I have my doubts about that strategy, since once girls are given a certain name, people start avoiding using it for boys and it assumes a feminine connotation.

I suspect many readers of historical romance would be confused to read about a hero named Courtenay (the older spelling) or Evelyn. Georgette Heyer used both of these for male characters in her books but I doubt editors would permit such a thing now. I’m also not sure I’d ever name a character Fanny. It’s historically accurate and quite pretty but I just don’t know if readers can get over its various slang usages.

For surnames, I often go to a map of England and look for minor place-names that sound good. Sometimes I’ll mash the beginning of one with the end of another (things like -wood, -hurst, -ton, etc…) until it feels right.

So for my fellow writers, how do you come up with names?

As readers, what are some of your favorite character names? What sorts would you like to see more of? Are there any you find off-putting?

And what do you think of modern day naming trends?

Elena
www.elenagreene.com

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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23 Responses to Regency Naming Hell

  1. Anonymous says:

    I decided her scholarly father would choose an obscure Greek name for her and came up with Melinna. Then a critique partner said it sounded African American.

    I’ve always wanted to use some of the fun, obscure 19th century names that I could never use for my own children. But when I tried to name a heroine, a vicar’s daughter, Jemima, a critique partner slapped me down in a hurry. (“PANCAKE SYRUP!”) The same CP is trying to talk me out of a hero named Arthur. (“It sounds like a dweeby accountant with pasty skin and thick glasses!”) But I’m holding my ground on that one–it’s his name, dang it!

    I try to find something that evokes the character, something that is historically plausible and not too much of cliche. I avoid names for heroes that evoke “devil” and “demon”: Damon, Devlin, that sort of thing, also names including elements of “hawk” and “wolf”. I wouldn’t fling a book with such names but they don’t feel right in my own books. I no longer strive for very original names either. I’d rather use a common name and strive for originality in the characterization.

    I totally agree, and I tend to roll my eyes over the “Devlin Hawke, Duke of Ravenwolf” school of hero names. (I might, however, use a name like Jack Hawkins for a character with hawklike qualities.) IMO it’s possible to come up with evocative names without sounding cliche or unrealistic. To wander over into my beloved military historicals for a moment, “Jack Aubrey” and “Richard Sharpe” are both WONDERFUL names, masculine and right for the characters–and yet are perfectly believable names no real Georgian would’ve batted an eyelash at.

    Going sort of off-Regency, I’ve heard one parent say she named her daughter Courtney because she didn’t want to limit her chances with an obviously feminine name.

    I’ve heard that argument, and it’s never made sense to me, because it seems like you’re saying that boys are better, and the only way to give your daughter a good start is to sort of disguise her as a boy. Also, it shrinks the pool of boys’ names. Of course, my feelings may in part be influenced by the fact I’m the daughter of a man named Kelly and wife of a Dylan! But I also don’t like it when girls in a family are given fluffy, cutesy names and the boys are given strong, traditional ones. In general I like classic but uncommon names–my daughter is Annabel, but she was almost Eleanor. Which, now that I think about it, would both be perfectly acceptable names for a Regency character!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Elena, I hear you so clearly on the you can’t write your character until you’ve given him/her the right name! I wanted to call one of my heroines Harriet – perfectly good Regency name and a nice no-nonsense air about it. And she was a nice no-nonsense sort of girl. Who wouldn’t wear the name Harriet. She ended up being Hester instead. And then there’s pleasing the rest of the world. The hero of my December release was born in my mind as Titus, is still Titus in my heart, in fact I still nickname the manuscript Titus. But everyone reacted with horror at the thought so he ended up the much more innocuous Matthew which is OK but, grrr, he’s really TITUS!!! And it took me weeks to come up with Matthew which sounds even stranger – my alternatives to Titus were Silas and Magnus and Marcus, just to name a few. None of them were right – Matthew at least meant I could write about him without gritting my teeth.

  3. Cara King says:

    I’ve heard that argument, and it’s never made sense to me, because it seems like you’re saying that boys are better, and the only way to give your daughter a good start is to sort of disguise her as a boy.

    I think, Susan, there might be some practical benefit to it, though. On a resume, or a scientific paper, or an essay, etc, the reader might assume the writer is male — and studies have (sadly) shown that readers unintentionally think identical such things with male names are better written than those with female names.

    (Well, okay, the study I know was done on scientific papers, not anything else, but I assume it will be true for many things.)

    However, I agree with Elena — as soon as a name is used for girls, the boys stop using it. (How many boys do you know now named Evelyn, or Lesley, or Ashley, or Vivian?) So unless the girl can go by one of a few names that still work (many of which are nicknames anyway) such as Lee, Chris, etc, it won’t work anyway!

    But I also don’t like it when girls in a family are given fluffy, cutesy names and the boys are given strong, traditional ones.

    Yes, I think it is kind to give a kid a name that won’t get laughed at in school, and will sound decent on the letterhead of a law office.

    As for modern naming schemes… I am often amazed by the number of little boys I know named traditional English occupational names. I know a Cooper, and a Tanner, and a Hunter. Oh, and I know a Chandler, but she’s a girl. πŸ™‚

    In my Regency mss, I confess I tend to give the men very traditional Regency men’s names (William, Richard, Edward, Edmund, George, Henry, etc), but my heroines have mostly had somewhat more unusual names.

    In GAMESTER, my heroine had a father who was a bit of a classical scholar, so she’s Atalanta. (His second wife, BTW, was less tolerant of his classical naming scheme than his first, so Atalanta’s half-brother and sister are Thomas and Louisa.) πŸ™‚

    And in my first (not yet published) Regency, my heroine is Ruth. Her father is scholarly too (what is it with me and scholarly fathers??) but is more into the Old Testament…. πŸ™‚

    Cara

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I think it is kind to give a kid a name that won’t get laughed at in school, and will sound decent on the letterhead of a law office.

    I tested names when I was pregnant by first imagining them on wedding invitations, then plugging them into the presidential oath of office. I figured that covered both attractiveness and dignity. πŸ™‚

  5. Anonymous says:

    My husband really wanted to name our first daughter Naringul, pronounced NAHR-in-gool.

    Oh yeah. That would’ve been just great on the school yard. Uh Huh. (It was my grandfather’s sister’s name–very Armenian. Name of a flower, I think a rose? Gul says “rose” to me, but I forget the details.) We went through all sorts of family names, Hyacinth (f), Dikran (m), Sargis (m), Azniv (f), Zulum (m), and Tatos (m) before we realized that we really had to step away from the Armenian heritage.

    We still didn’t have a name until after she was born, and then she suddenly became Annahid. A “normal-sounding” Armenian name which could easily be shortened to Anna in a pinch. She gets quite annoyed now at people who shorten it, which is humorous.

    In terms or Regency men’s names, I really like the surnames as first names, and I don’t see that enough. Women’s names are harder for me, but a city name usually works. There seem to be fewer negative connotations with a Florence or Atalanta.

  6. Susan, that wedding invitation/oath of office thing sounds like a good method to me. πŸ™‚

    I just wrote a scene in the “Muses” WIP-that-won’t-die yesterday (that’s now its official title, WIP that won’t die) where the heroine, Calliope, says she never felt like a “Calliope” but more like a “Jane” (at least she’s not her sister Euterpe!). Usually my characters just seem to come along with their names already attached.

    Once in a while, as a reader, I come across a name that is so distracting I have to change it in my mind as I read (one time I read a medieval whose heroine was named Sutton. Not a bad name at all in itself, but it doesn’t sound like a 14th century lady. And once there was a Regency with a heroine whose name was painfully close to “nymphomaniac”)

  7. Ah, what is in a name…..
    I think I have the best technique of choosing names. I just wait for a blogger reader with a cool name to show up, like, say, Mallory Pickerloy….(who is the heroine of The Vanishing Viscountess, the book-of-my-revisions) Mallory very graciously allowed me the use of her name!

    In my first book the hero was named Devlin–originally he was Devlin St. Clair, but I discovered there were lots of Regency heroes named St. Claire. I have no idea why.
    In The Marriage Bargain the hero’s friend is named Gideon Wolfe. So I’m hitting the stereotypical names that drive you nuts, Elena.

    I should do a blog on how I choose names!

    Cheers,
    Diane
    z

  8. Todd says:

    Jane Austen had 5 guys named Charles in PERSUASION alone.

    What’s in a name? Charles by any other name is…hang on a moment, is there any other name??

    I note that in the film version they changed one of them into a Henry! πŸ™‚ The English were a bit like the ancient Romans that way…they only had about twelve given names for men: Gaius, Marcus, Marius, Quintus, Sextus, Septimus, and I forget the rest. πŸ™‚

    As for real period names, I believe a couple of Jane Austen’s aunts or cousins were named Philadelphia. Not sure that would fly in a Regency. Or on a lawyer’s letterhead, either.

    There’s an amusing/informative discussion of naming trends, and how names affect people’s perceptions, in the book Freakonomics.

    Todd-who-hopes-you-don’t-mind-if-he-calls-you-Bruce-to-keep-it-clear

  9. I have an important secondary character called ‘Fanny’ in one of my stories. When someone pointed out to me (an Australian) the name’s connotation in the United States, I tried to change it, but this character is a stubborn baggage and wouldn’t agree! She was Lady Fanny, and Lady Fanny she has stayed. It remains to be seen whether that’s a turn-off for readers!

  10. Myretta says:

    It’s important to me to name characters something that a reader in 1810 would recognize. I use the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names for my characters and tend to stick with period-recognizable names. I also use English Place Names for last names (and occasionally the Dictionary of English Surnames for place names – because turn about is, after all, fair play).

    However, I did name the heroine of Just Say Yes Caspar. Okay, that probably would not have been approved by the local vicar, but – hey – the local vicar was her father. She was named by her social-climbing mother after her only aristocratic relative: a viscount. And, everyone called her was Cassie, so it probably didn’t make much difference after all.

  11. georg says:

    Suisan- there was a time when the French second and third sons were marrying into Armenia where it was quite common to have a first name like “Melisande.” πŸ™‚ (I’ve studied medieval Armenia for the joy of it).

    Having a very non-traditional name for myself and my sister was Mikey, my neighbor was Carrol (m) and Adrean (m), names didn’t seem to have gender to me- so I’m far less thrown when the hero is Jocelyn and the heroine Sam.

    Characters I create don’t have names until someone talks to them, usually. Once, I wrote a novella with a character that was *never* named. I did it to spite my writing teacher who insisted that names must be central to character development. We also all wrote stories that contained nothing but Bruces (his name) for one class.

  12. Elena Greene says:

    LOL, Diane! But you did not overload those names. In moderation those touches of the evil or animal don’t niggle. OTOH I have noticed that “Devlin Hawke, Duke of Ravenwolf” (to quote Susan) is sure to ride a black stallion and have a home on a windswept craggy cliff, etc… Fun in a way, almost makes me want to go reread Barbara Cartland, but like junk food one can get too much of it. πŸ™‚

    Christine, LOL on Fanny! But perhaps not everyone knows all the slang meanings. As an American I always thought it just mean derriere and for a while everyone called those little pouches worn around the waist “fanny packs”. Then I was part of a group of Americans sent on international assignment to England. We were warned not to use that term, because in England “fanny” can also mean a far more intimate part of a lady’s anatomy.

    But if she must be Fanny I say go ahead–intelligent readers can handle it!

  13. Cara King says:

    But if she must be Fanny I say go ahead–intelligent readers can handle it!

    Indeed! If for no other reason than that they’ve read Jane Austen, and met Fanny Price, and Fanny Dashwood, and every other of the multitudinous Fannys there!

    Cara
    (who had a Great Aunt Fanny who was a dear)

  14. Thanks to the popularity of the ultra-sleazy TV show “Footballers’ Wives” in England, recently the most popular girls’ name was Chardonnay. Those poor children.

    I find the issue of nicknames is overlooked a lot in fictional names, particularly for heroes. After all, that’s what their friends will call them, and the heroine, too. Then it won’t matter if he’s called Evelyn (which I think is a fab name) or Arthur.

    I have one character in an unpublished ms. set in the 1880s who’s a younger son whose mother was keen on Arthurian legend: Percival Lancelot Sagramour (last name, which he prefers for obvious reasons, Blaithrigg). His sisters call him Val. Everyone else calls him Blaithrigg. My paternal grandfather was called Percival, but that was a family that went in for excessive first names–I believe there was a brother called Montmorency. Possibly the late 19th-century male equivalent of Chardonnay.
    Janet

  15. georg says:

    Chardonnay is a much better name than say Chlamydia. Or Shanda Leer (whose wedding announcement I typed). Or Harry Ball (ditto). Or Cherry Heiny (with whom I went to school). There are a LOT of terrible names out there. I’m not sure what gender Merlot or Pinot ought to be however. Maybe I’ll name a cat Merlot.

    Names you dont see enough of: Burt, Walter, and Herman.

  16. Anonymous says:

    You know, I don’t think I really thought of the names like that. I have thought of something along the lines of wonder how you guys come up with them and is there a Regency Baby Name book out there or something. LOL πŸ™‚ I think I like the usual, regular old boring names myself. LOL πŸ™‚

    The unusual ones sometimes are too unusual, but then if there is a story behind the name, I like it. I guess that doesn’t make all that much sense. LOL

    And I definitely hate modern unusual names. . . what they do to the poor kids. . . Apple, Ka-el. Ugh.

    Lois

  17. Cara King says:

    One way I find Regency names is to take period biographies, and look at all the names in the index. That’s a way both to find what names were very common — e.g. George– but also to find unusual names that were, nonetheless, used (at least once) — e.g. Sydney (for a woman), Philadelphia, and Phoebe.

    Cara
    (who has a name that, when she was a kid, no one knew how to spell or pronounce — but that has become much more common since then)

  18. Anonymous says:

    I have one character in an unpublished ms. set in the 1880s who’s a younger son whose mother was keen on Arthurian legend: Percival Lancelot Sagramour (last name, which he prefers for obvious reasons, Blaithrigg). His sisters call him Val. Everyone else calls him Blaithrigg.

    OMG, Janet, I judged this in a writing contest sometime in the last year or two! And liked it a lot, IIRC.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Ooh thanks for the Sydney, Cara. I’ve got a bespectacled little girl character in my current pipedream who seems to want to be named that, but I wasn’t sure I was going to let her.

  20. Cara King says:

    Ooh thanks for the Sydney, Cara.

    My pleasure, Pam!

    FWIW, Sydney Owenson, later Lady Morgan, was born 1776, and named after her grandmother, also Sydney. (The name seems to have originated as the last name of a prominent local family to whom this grandmother was related in some way).

    According to the back cover of a bio I have, “She was the daughter of an itinerant actor, Robert Owenson, a native Irishman…and the strictly Methodist, very English Jane Hill of Shrewsbury…[she] was believed by some, including Thackeray’s own daughter, to be the model for Becky Sharp.”

    She’s also the Lady Morgan who wrote “The Wild Irish Girl.”

    Cara

  21. Judy T says:

    I like Devlin and Wolf and Jack and Flynn and and and… Anna, I think Titus would have been a delight to find in a story because it isn’t often seen. It’s unusual nature could easily be explained in the first chapter or two. Cara’s Atalanta was difficult for me at first because I kept reading “Atlanta,” but once I learned the meaning behind the name, I loved it. Seeing Fanny in a story gives me the opportunity to step a little more into that other world, reminding myself that it didn’t always hold the meaning I’m accustomed to now. I miss having happy and gay being interchangable. Arthur is a wonderful name, if you give me the right picture to go with it. I wasn’t particularly enamored with Jack until I read “The Chivalrous Rake” by Elizabeth Rolls. Now I’d like a Jack. It was so interesting to have it pointed out in “The Dutiful Rake” by ER that the first name was only used by family and the very closest of friends. I hope to someday read about Diane Perkin’s Wolf, from “The Marriage Bargain.” I can’t bring myself to be turned off of a book just by the names of the characters. Instead, if the name is unexpected, I find myself wondering why the name was chosen. In my own little writings, I’ve been known to spend hours trying to find the right name for even small characters. Names take a person from being a faceless gap filler to making them an individual because someone cared enough to name them.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Yes, right, Cara. Sydney Morgan. I knew I didn’t just make that up. Thanks again.

    I go for simple first names whenever possible. Boring George-Charles-Edward-Henry quite often. Old testament names like Joshua for less aristocratic characters. It always surprises me that Anthony/Tony is British; I find it very sexy, unlike romance hero monikers taken from the animal kingdom or the underworld.

    I like that British weirdness of sticking extraneous consonants and syllables into names, a la Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley). And riding roughshod over English phonics (the poet George Herbert is pronounced Harbert and my hero David Hervey is pronounced Harvey).

  23. Anonymous, as we used to say at the height of 2nd wave feminism, was often a woman. In this case it was me, Pam, hitting the wrong button, I guess.

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