What's in a name?
What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet
- William Shakespeare -
In line with my “ten things” project, where I focus on a list of ten things from my books, this one is a personal favorite. Whenever I am naming an important character in a novel, it is never enough for me that the name sounds good lyrically. I need to know what the word means.
As such, I take issue with the Great Bard. Does a rose really smell as sweet by any other name? Naming something assigns an association to that object. If, for example, a rose were called “stinkwort” instead, would we not be discouraged from drinking in its olfactory sweetness at all?
Perhaps, if the flower’s name lowers our expectations for its scent, then its sweetness would be an unexpected delight, making it more pronounced when we finally experience it. Or, maybe the opposite occurs: our minds expect an awful scent, and so we adjust our reality, so that we re-interpret the rose’s scent, reducing its sweetness to match what our brain tells us it is expected to be. Even if, as Shakespeare says, the rose remains unchanged in and of itself, our experience of it can be affected by its name.
Imagine, if you will, a Rottweiler dog called Fluffy. The dog is clearly a Rottweiler. The name does not change that. But the name is unexpected. We have two choices: assume the owner was being ironic, or deduce that the dog is surprisingly friendly and cuddly. Names affect expectations. Expectations adjust experiences. Names are powerful things.
Of course, readers seldom know the meaning of a character’s name. As readers, we are influenced more by the sound of the name. And, equally much, by our association of that name with other people. For example, “Agatha” is considered a rather dated name. We would imagine, perhaps, a great aunt in a period piece. There is also, possibly, the association with Agatha Christie, the famous mystery writer, or Agatha Trunchbull, the sadistic antagonist in Roald Dahl’s book Matilda. Whichever of these is uppermost in your mind will affect how you mentally approach that character of the same name. It may create an entirely different expectation. It could make it harder for you to connect to that character.
As an author who is choosing names for my characters, I must consider all likely associations which a name may evoke: age, likability, culture, romance, familiarity. In addition, there is my own private need to have their names mean something relevant to their character or role in the narrative.
So, then, on to the ten names from my manuscripts. We will begin with First Impressions, a traditional Regency romance.
1) Our heroine is named Ellena. Not Helena. Not Ellen. I wanted something a little different, because Regency names can tend to be predictable. And the book is not predictable. It is full of twists and surprises. The name still had to have the Regency ring to it, without being generic. Ellena means “torch” or “light.” She needs to shine out from a somber childhood, a close call with danger, a challenging betrothal, and a plot to ruin her.
2) James Trenton is Ellena’s cousin. He will inherit her father’s wealthy estate one day instead of her, because her father wants to keep it in the Trenton family. (Being a woman, when she marries, her property would become her husband’s.) James is a modern variant of Jacob, and means “supplanter.”
3) Although also in the traditional Regency romance genre, A New Day has a very different heroine. Anna Rose has a quiet, submissive personality. However, she is not weak, and this is reflected in the way she handles the many challenges that are thrown at her. Despite her troubles, she is gracious towards others. The name Anna comes from Hannah, meaning "favor" or "grace."
4) Colin Whitfield, who tortures Anna with his sharp wit for which she has no natural defense, is the second son of an extremely wealthy family. In the shadow of the beloved firstborn, he acts with recklessness towards others. This matches well with the Scottish/Irish origin of his name, meaning “child” or “pup”. Interestingly, the French origin of the same name means “people’s victory.” This applies to our Colin in no small way at a later point in the story, but explaining how it applies would give away an important plot twist (wink wink).
5) Finally, we come to Armor of God, the young adult adventure series. The setting is first-century Armenia, which was a Roman vassal state at the time. As a result, the majority of the characters' names are Armenian, or Greek/Roman.
The reluctant hero, Evander, is purposefully named thus by his father because the word means “good man”. He wants his son to have a worthwhile name to live up to. Also, there is the matter of a prophecy, which will determine exactly how Evander will earn this nomenclature.
6) Evander’s father, now a cripple, was once a great warrior. “Warrior” is the meaning of the Armenian name, Razmik.
7) Evander’s mother, Nazeli, is a kind and devoted parent. Her name means “pretty”. While she is not unattractive, her name applies more to the loveliness of her nature.
8) Iskuhi [is-koo-ee] is Evander’s younger sister. At three years old, she is a wriggly, energetic little thing. Her name means “life/vivacity.”
9) The prophet whose vision heralds the start of Evander’s adventures, is named Spatha. The name means “broad blade.” In the biblical armor of God — for which the series is named — the sword represents the word of God. As a prophet and missionary, one who speaks God’s messages, Spatha’s name suits him well.
10) Emasdouhi [e-mas-doo-wee], though a secondary character, is nevertheless pivotal to the plot. The name means “wise.” Perhaps, in her case, some irony is intended.