Monday, June 14, 2010

Names have meaning

How many of you have ever been in the position of picking up a Baby Names book, or looking at one of the many Baby Names services online? I know I have. When I go to a place like that, the primary thing I'm looking for when I go there is the meaning of names.

I did a post on naming very early on in the history of this blog; it's here. The gist of the essay is that names have meaning, so it's a good idea to think through the language background of the names you use, whether they are created names or not. The sounds in a name will be associated with very specific emotional reactions for readers, so it's important not to choose them without thinking that through. It's also a good idea to think through whether there are language groups in your world, and whether the names you've created fit with those (as part of a consistent phonological system).

But there's even more to it than that. Names don't just have the meaning we find for them in a book; I suspect that search for the meaning of names in books is actually something very American (British or Australian readers might be able to comment about whether it's also something English). Names speak to our membership in a particular cultural group.

Names tell us far more than just what a person is like. They tell us who that person is affiliated with.

I remember considering what kind of names to pick for my kids. I wanted names that were unique, but not names that were made up. I considered French names quite seriously, because I've always loved their sound. I also considered Japanese names, because my husband and I have close sentimental ties with Japan - but there I ran into a problem. I realized if I gave my child a Japanese name, that could lead to very specific assumptions about their background, i.e. people would guess that they were either Japanese or Japanese American. More so than with European names, which are in some sense part of the American heritage, Japanese names stick out to the common listener as something that must have a literal connection to ethnicity or nationality. In the end, we went the cultural heritage route and chose names with Celtic origins.

This phenomenon goes far beyond just nationality questions. Names like John, Simon, Luke, Peter, etc. aren't just "classic," they're names of Christian disciples. Names like Elizabeth, Catherine, William, George, and Henry are English royalty. Names like Lakeesha and Latasha might make you think instantly of African-American culture - but interestingly enough, they can also be found among Mormons.

Another twist to this is the question of whether names have literal meanings. Some social groups use names that have literal meanings in the language spoken. Native American names spring to mind as an example of this - as in "Dances with Wolves." I think also of "Onyesonwu" from Nnedi Okorafor's new book, "Who Fears Death" (that's literally what the character's name means - cool stuff!). So having a character with a name that has literal meaning may be another way to express that character's affiliation with a particular language group or cultural group.

Strangely enough, I hardly ever see names take on this type of social significance in fictional worlds. I consider this a lost opportunity.

Try asking yourself: Is my fictional society divided into social groups? What kind of names might each group use, and would those names be uniquely recognizable as belonging to one group or the other? Say you have a person who is a member of one group, but has to pass for a member of another - do they also have to change their name? What happens if they don't think to do that? Do the people they meet say, "That's strange; she has a XXX name"?

I've found a place where I want to try this in my Varin world. An undercaste member has to try to disguise herself as a member of another caste, but forgets that she should probably change her name. When she gives her name to a man she meets, he's going to pick up on the fact that her name isn't typical for his social group. However - and this is my own twist on it - he's not going to pick it for an undercaste name. Because of historical circumstances, some of the undercaste names are also common to the ruling caste - so he's going to pick the name as one with associations to the nobility. Which then gives me an opportunity to have her stammer about how her parents weren't meaning to be so pretentious, etc.

In any case, this is something you might like to think about - a great opportunity to deepen your world in an uncommon way. I encourage you to consider it.


  1. It's true that a name can have many shades of meaning, I think you outlined that very well here. I've always found name significance a fascinating way to affect a character, even if it's a seemingly easy distinction like whether they're usually addressed by their given name or surname.

  2. Heidi, thanks for your comment. You make a good point about the choice between given name and surname; very small details of names can make a big difference in their perception by readers.

  3. Great post! I've always been careful with names, but I hadn't thought of using them to generate conflict. Thanks for the new ideas!

  4. Names also change in value and perception over time. The name Leslie in the early 20th century was a respected male name. In recent years, it's become almost exclusively a female name, and any man named Leslie would be considered a wimp of some sort. Bruce is also a name that has come, gone, and is coming back again as a manly man name.

  5. Marilynn, thanks for your comment! I agree with you; names change in popularity and connotation as time passes. Along with the effect of names changing gender affiliation, you can also get that cross-generational effect where a name will suddenly begin to sound like someone's grandmother rather than a young person - as Ida for example might today.

  6. good subject,
    i think every country (and even smaller regions) has its own fashion in naming children. In my own ive seen movies characters, music stars, kings, and even book characters. so be careful how you name your protagonists:). an interesting case are some gypsy communities with names like "Prefectura, Procuratura, Politia" (Prefecture,District Attorney Office, Police , ), "Uniunea" (The Union-meaning EU), "Germania, Suedia,Italia..." (the country)...they also seem to be Elvis fans


  7. Great post. There is a scene in The Odessa Files that I remember years later when a Jewish doctor uses a German name to fool the bad guy Nazis. It shows us how important names are and the immediate ideas they conjure.