What’s in a Name?

Most weeks I don’t have a lot of time to read. At least, that’s been the case recently. Work, life, writing. The writing is a very good thing. Ok, all of it is good. Reading has been ranking way down there, I’m afraid. I’ve fit in a fair amount of research reading, and one pleasure read (I do love our own Alma Boykin’s Familiar tales!). What I have also been doing, to give my brain crunchy little granola nibbles while my hands are busy at work, is listening to podcasts. I know they aren’t for everyone – especially not my peculiar blend, I suspect – but there are times something really catches my mind and gets it going.

Like this episode of Freakonomics on what’s in a name. Being a podcast about economics, it was more interested in the financial and workplace related repercussions of names. Being a rather left-leaning podcast, it was also interested in the racial and political motivations behind names and naming. Ultimately, the scientists who had spent time studying names scientifically decided “the name you are given at birth “does not seem to matter at all to your economic life.” In other words, it’s not the name your parents give you; it’s the kind of parents you have in the first place. And different kinds of parents of course choose different kinds of names.” The conclusion the host reaches is that names are more about the parents than they are the children.

Which is what caught me. Besides the weirdness of the liberal parents who choose names for their children in order to “prove their intellectual superiority” there is the fact that I have four children, all of whom have extraordinary names. I also have a highly unusual first name. I don’t exactly fit the podcast’s conception of a liberal mama who would be the statistically likely person to choose that kind of name, nor was my mother when I was named (and my two sisters who share equally rare monikers alongside my own). I didn’t stop with my children, either. I choose names for characters all the time, as a writer. Sure, I take the easy way out from time to time and pick from my ‘redshirt list’ of people who have volunteered to appear by name in my books. But unlike real parents, I already have a pretty good idea of what my character is like when it comes time to name them.

When my third daughter was born, we had a name picked out for her. We’d already had two girls, and had named them, loosely, for each side of the family. When girl #3 was on the way, we had a boy’s name, and a girl’s name, so we’d be ready for anything. But when she was born, all pink and squishy, and beautiful, I looked at her and said ‘she’s not a Chloe.’ Which was the name we had chosen: Chloe Ella, because Chloe means green bud and Ella was my great-grandmother’s name. That’s not the name she wound up with, at all, and it was because I knew when I met her that wasn’t right. Sometimes characters come with a name. Sometimes you spend hours scrolling through baby name sources saying things out loud while the invisible presence in your head turns up their nose in disgust. It’s a tedious and frustrating chore!

If we take away anything from the podcast, it’s that names don’t make a lot of difference. Except that they do. They imply culture, origin, the relative wealth and education and even political persuasion of the parents. So when we write, these are all things to keep in mind when naming.

Sometimes, names themselves can set the scene. Like in this snippet from a story I wrote just recently.


I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately for me that’s a reality. My parents kept track on the old calendar, and I really was born on the Fourth of July. As befitting a child born on Independence Day, great things were expected of me. 

My name is Johnny, and I’m a girl. Johnny Cash, to give it the whole USAian flair. My parents were odd, even for Usaians, so my brothers are Charlie Daniels and Lee Greenwood. Unfortunately, even with more obscure names than nice girlish ones like, say, Betsy Ross or Abigail Adams, my parents weren’t discreet enough about their persuasion. Which is I why I can’t remember life outside the dimatough tunnel walls of the mine. We were brought here when I was a baby, and from time to time the Good Man sends troops to remind the adults that production quotas are requirements, not suggestions. Other than those disruptions, when you’re a kid, life goes on. When you’re a girl with a boy’s name, you learn to fight dirty. When you’re generally accepted to be some kind of Chosen One due to an accident in your arrival time on this world, you learn to be a disappointment to everyone around you. 

I’m not built for a noble fight against the forces of oppression. Even if we could figure out a way for me to escape this live-in prison in the middle of wherever we are, I’m short, scrawny, and while not exactly malnourished, we never have enough food to get fat, let alone build bulk muscle. I’m not the smartest, either. The only thing I’ve got going for me is a decent memory, which is why I found myself standing, sixteen years old and the sting of my mother’s defeated look still rankling my brain, in front of the teacher’s board. 

There’s not a school in the mine. At least, not officially. Officially there’s a whole lot of nothing down here in the tunnels. They pitch folks in, and let them fend for themselves, mostly. If we didn’t have the hydro gardens, and the ducks, we’d be in trouble. What we do have a lot of, speaking from my minute experience, is real estate. We’re making new tunnels all the time, working the mine chasing the production numbers. Funny how quick a family can homestead when the choice is being all cramped up with three generations of one family in a stub-end of a tunnel. 

The school was founded before my parents came along, but my Da, he really got it into shape from what I understood. He’s the one that knew so much history, science, and physics, and my Ma was the mathematician. Not that my close personal connections were going to make a difference to my boards. The charter that had been drawn up for the school was very specific about how you got to be a teacher, and that was to prove that first, you knew a lot. Second, you had to be able to teach. 



  1. I have a fondness for unusual and particularly amusing names, and keep a file of them when I think of one or borrow one I’ve seen elsewhere. Examples:

    Jeremiah Jot and Telemachus Tittle, CPA’s. (“Jot” and “Tittle” are found in the Bible)

    Timeo Danaos and Dona Ferentes (variant of the famous quote “Timeo danaos et dona ferentes,” or “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” ascribed to Cassandra)

    Juan Tutrifor (1-2-3-4)

    Barabbas J. Bindlestiff, Copernicus Smoot (silly names of the sort that W.C. Fields used to use as movie character names or writing credits names)

    I started a trend in the MMORPG Lord of the Rings Online for naming Tolkien-esque dwarves by taking common emotions, changing the terminal “y” to an “i” and running with it: Angri, Happi, Horni, Stinki, Dorki, Sporki, Snarki, Corki, etc. My best one of these was “Blarni” (I had an Irishman commend for for thinking it up).

    1. Fun! I have also done that, making notes of really interesting names I saw. If I don’t write them down, I promptly forget what they were, only remembering I liked it.

    2. OOoh, love it!

      Video games are fun. I tended to do things like name my two trolls on various servers– priest and mage in WoW, we kept changing servers– after forms of Beryl, since most of the colors available for trolls match up with it.

    1. How many two consonant/two vowel names can there be to choose from? Surely you’re close to exhausting them.

  2. At least naming characters is easier than naming cats… “which isn’t just one of your holiday games.”

    I had a battle with Joschka von Hohen Drachenburg. Joschka is actually a Hungarian diminutive for Joseph. The character was supposed to be named Joachim. Nope nopity nope. Joschka it was.

    1. His nanny called him that and it stuck. You weren’t listening to the backstory…

      A “von Hohen Drachenburg” would probably have one of those goat-gagger names that goes on for a couple of lines. He’d be known by a different part of it depending on who was talking to him. A use-name or two wouldn’t be unlikely, from school or military service… what’s an extra name or two in all that?

      1. Actually, he picked the name Joschka for himself in the late 1940s when he needed to re-invent himself before people started wondering why he wasn’t aging. The family he married into should be “von und zu Hohen Drachenburg” because they still live there, and they originated there. But that convention had faded, so they didn’t bother.

        However, when I first wrote him into the stories, he was Joachim, which is a good older Biblical name and not too uncommon. He didn’t like that. Neither did he like having a walk on, walk off part. That character forced me to re-do the entire series.

      2. <.< I have six given names, thanks to a superstition that the more names you give a baby, the more chance that baby has to live, going by 'a name is a life' …or something like that. My younger brothers got stuck with the tradition.

        Two given names is common, but there was a trend/tradition of doing 3 or more in my parents' era, but generally only displaying two for common use. I only recently found out my passport was originally SUPPOSED to contain ALL my names, but since my Dad was the consul…

  3. The title of the names chapter in the book Freakonomics says it best:” Would A Roquisha By Any Other Name Smell Just As Sweet?” Also, the names of the low income white female children sounded like stripper names.

    1. I remember a discussion about this when that book came out because I was skeptical that “Ricky Bobby” and Roquisha are in two different boats. I suspected they were in the same boat as far as perceptions of their social class and education levels, and in some cases, credibility. Billy Bob Thornton, estate planner? Dweezil Zappa, neurosurgeon? Unlikely they’d get many clients or patients with those names.

      I knew a Buffy and a Sunshine. Buffy was a psychology major, and I asked her if she thought her name would negatively impact patients’ perceptions of her. She wasn’t certain. On the other hand, Buffy the Wedding Planner would probably have no trouble at all.

      I tend to get a little Biblical in naming characters, in that I will pay attention to what their names mean. Otherwise, I pay attention to connotations of the names. Nobody expects a boxer named Percy; he should be a bloke who drinks tea with his pinky raised. A Wayne may be a boxer, and have a rap sheet besides.

  4. My WIP is a horrible mess.

    Part of it is the design of one particular character. The placeholder label had one connotation, and the probable final name has another. They are a secondary character, but one whose behavior is important, and I have only so much information I can provide. And I need to understand them first. There was a long time between deciding some early plot important actions, and picking the name for its connotation. So I have bits and pieces of models, instead of a single one that makes coherent sense.

  5. When you’re a girl with a boy’s name, you learn to fight dirty.

    Is it intentional that she’s named after the guy who sang, “A Boy Named Sue”?

  6. “hours scrolling through baby name sources saying things out loud while the invisible presence in your head turns up their nose in disgust.”


    Also, reminding myself that Dickens and Wodehouse had a genius for comic names which mere mortals probably should not try to copy. We can’t all come up with a Wackford Squeers or a Gussie Fink-Nottle. Trollope has some fun with names too… I’m reading Doctor Thorne and enjoying the legal conniving of Mr. Nearthewind and Mr. Closerstill.

      1. Or you can try Chinese naming: pick whatever you want as a name
        Examples from babies born during the cultural revolution: Red Soldier (hong bin), Every Generation A Farmer

        Other examples: Victory Piano (guess what her mother wanted her to do?),
        Tree, Little Swallow

        And some English names given by Chinese parents: Stanford and Austin (think UT-Austin)

        In the Old Testament, names are often given the same way. One of my favorites: “I have struggled with my sister and won” (IIRC, that was Napthali)

  7. Names need to suggest an awful lot without being so ham-handed about it that the reader notices (barring certain comedies).

  8. I’ve come to the realization that my character names will, at some point, be subtle shout-outs to other novelists.

    My only goal now is that if the characters meet at some point, mild confusion and agreement on the absurdity of the universe will be mutual with each other.

    (Just realized that Adelaide Mundy and Adelaide Taylor would have one of the most interesting conversations I could ever think of. Too much like each other in their own ways.)

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