What's in a name?

Names identify us, officially and otherwise. They can tell people many things about us: our gender, place of origin, ethnicity. Surnames are especially useful for ethnicity and place of origin. “Spanish-surname” actually used to be a category in the U.S. census. I like to watch the titles scroll by after a TV crime show (one of my favorite genres). BBC dramas are made by people with predominately British surnames like Winterbottom and Branagh. Hollywood is more diverse, drawing surnames from all of Europe like Coppola, Spielberg, and Kubrick, as well from farther afield. (If you’re using titles as a pool for names, you’d better wait for the grips and the production assistants to scroll past.)

Given names go in and out of style over the centuries. How many Aelfwine’s have you met lately, or Agravain’s? You can find lists of names by period compiled by helpful members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, like this list of lists of medieval names. Here’s a list of sixteenth-century Spanish names. And here are lists of the 100 most popular names in the U.S. in each decade of the 20th century, brought to us by our own Social Security Administration. That’s what I call service! Somewhere out there I found a list of names in common use in the Elizabethan period. I copied it into a couple of tables (male and female) and mark the ones I’ve used with italics.

Arden farmNames are important beyond the basic identification features. They have a sound and flavor that can help paint your character. Tom is the name of a regular guy; Ben is a nice solid name too. Archibald is funny, Edward is friendly, Michael is a little posh, and Quentin is unquestionably the name of a villain. Names like Hubert and Oliver sound dubious to me, while names like Richard and Samuel are completely neutral. Women’s names work the same way. Only a peasant could be named Dowsabell — that’s a cow’s name! Isabel is a person of importance. Ruth can be trusted, Sybil can not. We don’t have Mildreds in the sixteenth century and not many in the twenty-first either, apparently.

I’m also very careful to ensure that my people’s names are never too much alike. I’ve read novels with both a Meg and a Peggy in the tale. Too confusing! Since I write series, it’s vital to keep track of the names I’ve used. My villains can’t all be Hubert or Sybil and my victims can’t all be Smith (a name I don’t care about.) There won’t be any Bakers in my Bacon books. I keep a big list of names at the top of the bible for each book, hyperlinked to the paragraphs with descriptions. That way I can see what letters and sounds have already been used when I need to make up a new name. I get the names for earls and barons from the map. I’m not the only one who does this either. While searching the Peak District for a likely suspect, I found a tiny town named Grindleford near another tiny town called Baslow. Put them together and you get the grindylows of the Harry Potter universe. I also like to browse lists of lost settlements for good English names that I can have my way with.

Some parents believe names can influence their child’s future. It’s no accident that there are so many girls named Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or boys named James or Charles in the seventeenth. Most of the men of interest in the twelfth century were called Henry, Richard, or William. Boring!

Puritans brought their own special flair to names, hoping to endow, or perhaps inspire, their children with virtues. It’s hard to imagine a real person going through life with the name Zeal-in-the-land. The great wits of the Elizabethan era, among the greatest wits of all time, found these names as absurd and irritating as everything else about the endlessly irritating Puritans. I have great fun with them myself in Death by Disputation, in which a group of siblings has names like Abstinence, Steadfast, Diligence, and Tribulation. Some of these names caught on and still are used, like Faith, Hope, Joy, and Grace. None of the boy’s names seem to have lasted. Do we not expect virtue from our sons? Maybe we should be looking for updated versions, modern names with that Puritan earnestness. Oh, like Earnest, except we no longer value that old-timey virtue. But what about Recyclable Jones or Plugged-In Jimenez? Buzz Aldrin? Viral McKenzie? You can just call me Be-Here-Now Johnson from this point forward.

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