Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's in a Name?

by Elizabeth

It was probably about twenty years ago that I realized I actively like my name. I'd never had a problem with it (other than fighting off those who try calling me Liz), but I didn't much have an opinion of it, either. Then one day I did and it was positive. I like that it's neither common nor unusual, both elegant and accessible, with gravitas and history and a bit of flirtation on its side. I think it's a good name and I'm glad I got it. It's also one of those that seems to have legs, sprinkled lightly in nearly every generation, never poky and out of favor, but never springing to the top of the list, either.

So it fits in well with the names of my cohorts here at What Women Write. Joan, Pamela, Susan, Kim, Julie. Stick mine in the group, and we pretty much scream "born in the sixties and seventies." We are products of our age, absolutely, or at least our names are. I don't think we could have pinned a more generic-to-our-generation list of names to our blog if we'd tried. The only thing missing is a Kristin. (Maybe Ms. Nelson will guest blog for us sometime and we can lay claim.)

It's no secret that names are both cyclical and subject to fashion. Scrolling through last year's school phone book, the names of the girls born in 2000--Harper, Sophie, Hayden, Sydney--have almost no overlap with the names I remember from school. And yet with all these names I never knew growing up, so many more out there to choose from (hello, Heaven!), there are still lots of repeats. Three Isabellas out of 35 girls, four Erins. As for cyclical, I counted four Abigails, which would have been fodder for a snicker back in my day. Might as well be named Doris. Only one Katie, and not a Kathy in the bunch. And where have all the Lisas gone?

The boys seem more traditional, a couple of Williams, some Nicks, a couple of Ethans. A few years ahead of them and things get spicier: Pierce and Buckley and Baylor and Reilly. But there's still a William or two, couple of Jacobs, even a Brian. Maybe this generation just likes getting jiggy with the girls.

Skip back to kids born in the '80s and you find a plethora of Amandas, Jessicas, Ashleys, Emily creeping up again after years of being an old lady name, and the Debbies slipping away. I remember the story my brother's high school girlfriend told, how when she was born in Germany, an Army brat, her parents gave her a very unusual name. Two years later, now stateside, it's 1968 and she's just another Jennifer like half the girls on the block.

My WIP centers on two sisters who are in their late thirties, so assuming it gets published this decade, they are products of the mid-'70s. Right now they are Lori and Jill, but I'm not sure their names will properly fit their time. Another key character, Amanda, is half a generation ahead of them. I'm not sure I don't have the names reversed, though I've never loved the name Amanda and not sure I can see my main character with that moniker. Funnily enough, it figures in the working title.

As writers, we have the distinct privilege usually limited to new parents of naming human beings. And those names matter. Stick an ungainly appellation on your main character, and it's a turn-off. Make it too common, it's boring. Too outlandish, it's just hard to remember. And heaven forbid it should accidentally recall anyone of negative note. (Remember the show The Greatest American Hero? Shortly after its premiere, John Hinckley shot President Reagan. William Katt's character--a teacher--got called Mr. H for the duration of the series.) You want to choose something real but unique, hopefully a name that suits both the character's age and circumstances. When was the last time you met a young person named Eunice? Sure, you could name your middle-grade girl that, but you'd better have a very good reason.

I just finished reading Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir (Alison! there's another!), the story of Lady Jane Grey's tragic days as Queen of England in the sixteenth century. It's peppered with Janes and Marys and Catherines, most of the characters named for whichever queen was currently on the throne. Doesn't seem like HRH has that kind of following these days, but then again, she doesn't have Henry's habit of lopping off heads either, and the one name has held the title for a long time. This week I'm reading Beth Hoffman's debut Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, and the characters, all steeped in the magnolia-drenched Savannah of the 1960s, have names like Violene and Oletta, Nadine and Dixie Lee and Tallulah called Tootie. The names sing of the South, and while they'd sound ridiculous in some books, here they contribute to both the setting and the story. Hoffman chose wisely. Weir honored history. Both got it right.

If you are struggling with a character's name, a great place to do some research is just a couple clicks away from you right now. Social Security's website has all kinds of tools, including the most popular baby names for the past hundred years. Or you can just poke around for fun. The year my grandmother was born, 1909, her name, Dorothy, ranked fifth, following Mary, Helen, Margaret, and Ruth. Not too many of those running around the schoolyard today. And then in 1935, the name Shirley popped out of nowhere at number two, staying there through '36, then falling to fourth, then fifth for two years before falling off the last year of the thirties. Any guesses? Surely Shirley sang and danced her way onto the list--and onto my neighbor's birth certificate. The name Madison appears at number three in two thousand. My guess is that a generation who loved the movie Splash started having babies sixteen years later.

A novel I'm querying has George Washington's step-daughter as a key character. In critique, one woman--obviously not an historian--questioned my use of the name "Patsy" as too modern. Except, Miss Custis really was called Patsy, then a common nickname for Martha, her given name. Obviously, I left it. But in another book, I had a Corrie who got changed to Reggie, and a Len became Jay. (Unfortunately that was before I'd mastered find and replace, so it took some tidying as I ended up with some jayses in place of glasses. Took me a while to figure that out in editing.) The characters changed enough that their names did too, and since I didn't have to consult Social Security to make the change, I went for it.

That's actually not the only time I changed someone's name. My daughter was three days old when I quit agonizing over my mistake and called the hospital to halt the paperwork. Luckily, the fax machine was broken and they hadn't sent in her birth certificate yet. It was a good call; according to the Social Security website, Sarah was the 12th most popular the year she was born. Daphne? In 574th place. I think I'll keep it.


  1. It's so weird to realize that someday Britney, Madison, and Taylor will be "old lady names." And why is Grandpa Jayden playing that boring old music from the teens and '20s again?

  2. It is funny how names cycle! I recently read a book set in the 1800s in which an old lady said something like, "Jennifer, why would she choose that name for her baby? So old-fashioned." And there were a million Jennifers in my elementary school in the 1980s, and I didn't even know it was an "old" name.

    I'm currently writing a book set ca. 1000 AD, so naming is quite a challenge. I have to look up lists of high medieval names and then look up famous people of the time period by that name to see if it fits with the character. Oh, and most of them are ugly, heinous names. But of course, tastes have changed!

  3. My theory is that names recycle about every 90-100 years, with our naming our children after grandparents or great-grandparents. My Jacob is named for my great-grandfather; my Benjamin has my grandparents' last name (Wilson) as his middle name. My daughter recently asked me what Grandma's name is. I told her Marianne. She said, "That's such a pretty name. I think I'll name my daughter that someday." And maybe she will!

  4. When I was born my parents had no baby naming books and so they picked one they simply liked - Kimberly. They had no idea that it was pretty much the most popular girls name in 1973. There were always other Kims in my classes at school. I wanted something different for my kids. When my first daughter was born we thought we would give her an unusual first name (Sasha) and a traditional middle name (Elizabeth) is case she didn't like her first name later on. When I was carrying my second daughter I sensed she was an old soul and so I paid close attention to name meanings. There was a Gaelic name (Aislinn) that meant a "dream or a vision". I loved the meaning, but knew that English speakers would have no idea how to pronounce it. Thankfully, there was an alternate spelling of Ashlyn, so we went with that. Didn't realize at the time that due to the popularity of Ashley people would hear Ashley when we introduced her as Ashlyn. Her middle name is Kylie - she can decide later which she prefers.

  5. Genie, that does sounds like a challenge--hopefully a fun one. I have a long-term plan for a book (not ready to write it yet) set in AD 70--so that's ahead for me as well.

    One name that used to be a girl name and is now only boys (until someone steps up and corrects me about their daughter, no doubt): Douglass. There's a novel with that name, though the herione is modern, but she goes back in time. I think I won't tell my brother-in-law.

  6. I love it! And where *have* all the Lisas gone? (I'm so amused...)

  7. In my WIP, half my betas didn't like the main character's name so out it came. In two minutes, she was a brand new person. Such power. Such absolute power!

  8. I love to read those popular names for years kinda things. There were always multiple Kathys and Debbies in my day. In my niece's time, it seemed everybody was named some form of Bree. I do love it when a throwback name comes back. I was named Katherine but never ever went by it - it's strange to be called that formally. But when I sometimes see a little girl called Katherine, I think that's so cute - such a big name for a little girl.

  9. I'm so glad you wrote this post. I'm expecting and if it's a girl, I will name her Elizabeth. I have always loved that name. When my husband said "What if people call her Betsy or Beth or Betty or Liz or Eliza?" I said, No. She will be called Elizabeth.

  10. Anon, it can be done! Take it from a life-long ELIZABETH--people will call her that if you tell them to. Sure, some will mindlessly shorten, but they'd do that even if her name was Sue. They'd find a way. But most people will call her by her correct name.

    Right, Pamela?


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