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.