What’s in a Name?

Image by 460273 from Pixabay

My brother named his two boys after our childhood dogs. In fairness, the first boy’s name was probably a coincidence. But the choice for the second was not. When Boy Number Two was imminent, my brother realised the potential for his sons to have the same names as his childhood pets. So he went for it.

If this seems a strange way to choose a child’s name, you may find yourself in the minority. From my quick sample of friends, I have discovered quite a few who can make a connection between a child’s name and a former pet. So far, the link seems to be only with the dads’ pets’ names, but that might just be my sample.

It used to be common, in parts of Shropshire, for the father to choose the name of the child. Many would often just open the Bible and pick the first name that they saw. It was also considered unlucky to mention the child’s name before the christening. This meant that the father wouldn’t reveal the name until during the christening. The upshot was that it led to some interesting and unusual names!

Image by Vugar Ahmadov from Pixabay

There are references to the consequences of names in folklore. One of my favourites is the belief that if a woman marries someone with the same surname as them, then the bread baked by this person is certain to cure whooping-cough. 

I am writing my next novel and choosing names for characters has been a fun task. With Unexpected Companions, I had to go with the names my ancestors had been given or known by. This, in itself, presented challenges. The Burne side loved calling their children after themselves while in the Mello family if a child died, their name was given to future siblings. Needless to say, this made research a confusing and challenging exercise at times. 

Now that I am free of the confines of other people’s choices, I am inspired by JK Rowling’s approach. Perhaps this is because Harry Potter is big in my house right now. Or perhaps it’s because I have always had a fascination with the concept of nominus determinism.

I am no Harry Potter expert but being Book 4 in, I can tell you that a lot of names follow this notion. Take the surname Malfoy, for those who aren’t into the magical spheres of Hogwarts, this is the name of a baddy family. Malfoy is two French words combined, ‘evil’ and ‘faith’. Then there’s a teacher, who is a werewolf (sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t read it). His surname is Lupin, a play on Lupine meaning wolfish. He was bitten as a child so I suppose, for a time, was not a werewolf but the signs were clearly there…

Jane Austen was another one who liked to have fun naming characters. Jane Fairfax’s surname apparently means in anglo-saxon ‘fair-head’ while the character is noted for her dark hair.  Austen clearly enjoys this use of irony: Edward Ferrars, the nervous and, eventually, disinherited hero of Sense and Sensibility, has a Saxon name which can be broken down as ‘riches’ and ‘guardian’.  I could go on but if you are interested, The Guardian has an article that explores Jane Austen’s naming style. 

Names are important and can provide a sense of self or give an immediate impression (rightly or wrongly) to others. That’s why it’s as important in novels as it is in life. After all, if you’re not called Ernest you’re not worth knowing.