What’s in a name, Part X

I am Everard Dominic Benedict Ashford Alexander Artichoke FitzGrennan, Duke of Hawkraven, known and feared as Satan’s Elbow, but you may address me as…Cuddles. Top Ten Things, Rules of Gentility

Part X, because this is something we write about again and again–how to find names for characters that don’t sound hideously 21st century, that somehow represent a quality of the character, and lend themselves to different forms of address. How would your hero’s mother, sister, mistress, best friend, etc. address him? (Other than as “sir,” of course.)

This is something on my mind at the moment because I’m considering changing the hero’s name in a book that’s pretty much written. For one thing, his nickname, a shortened version of his title, is a sort of fish. And yes, he’s a retired naval officer, but even so… His first name is pretty much nonedescript because no one ever uses it. Everyone close to him uses his nickname, even the heroine. As far as fish names go, I can think of better ones–Hal, short for Viscount Halibut–but there are also minor characters called Henry and Harry. Not that he has to have a fish name–I’m trying to get away from the fish motif, you understand. And it bothers me that somehow, in not having the right name, I don’t have the proper handle on the character. Eeek.

So I did a bit of research on favorite names and it’s a small but level playing field in the 18th-19th century: lots of Johns and Williams. There’s a list at thinkbabynames.com but I’m not sure how accurate it is in relation to usage then or or now, and some are specific to the US. For a list of popular English girls’ names in the eighteenth century, there’s some good information in Female Names over the Centuries.

I like old-fashioned interchangeable male/female names like Evelyn and Joslyn. (Did you know that John Wayne’s real name was Marion Michael Morrison and he adopted the nickname Duke in his youth?)

The book Bad Baby Names by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback,was reviewed in the NY Times by John Tierney:

By scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).

The authors also interviewed adults today who had survived names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry. All of them, even Happy Day, seemed untraumatized.

A contest that followed the review for the worst modern name came up with this winner:

Iona Knipl. The judges chose it because, in addition to being an embarrassing pun, it also set up an inevitable reply from people imagining they were being wittily original. I called up Miss Knipl and asked her how many times she had heard someone meet her and reply, “I own two.”

As for names that seem to have implicit meaning, if you read Chuck Shepherds’s News of the Weird, you’ll know that the name Wayne has unfortunate connotations and the column has regular Wayne updates.

So I won’t be renaming my hero Wayne.

Here’s a short story I wrote in 2001 at the writing site Toasted Cheese, all about the different forms of names and what they can say about characters.

The hero in A Most Lamentable Comedy is called Nicholas Congrevance, because I like the first name and his surname is a French Arthurian name I came across that seems suitably foreign and exotic. The heroine was originally named Mary, which I found a very stultifying good girl name (although her first appearance in The Rules was as a very bad girl indeed) so I changed it to Caroline, and she took off. The book is released July 23 and you can order it with free shipping from bookdepository.co.uk. And don’t forget the contest at my website!

Compulsory promotion over, what are your favorite names in fiction and in real life? Is there an interesting story behind a character’s name in one of your books?

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