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A Rose by Any Other Name

Posted by admin on July 25, 2013

roses2.jpgWould smell as sweet. So said Juliet. Or Shakespeare, I presume. Shakespeare assumes that the thingness of a thing arises from its material self. I’m not so sure I agree. The key to identity may just be in the name after all.

This week, we learned that the new prince of Cambridge is named George. I would never name a child George, but then I would never name a child Hazel, either, yet people do. Names have meaning and something more than meaning. They have feel. Gut feel and mouth feel.

Consider George and Hazel.

George means farmer or earthworker from the Greek. This is perfectly respectable, although perhaps a young prince could have a more aristocratic name. The feel of the name probably appealed to his parents more than the meaning, and feel differs from culture to culture. George, while #166 in popularity in the U.S., is up at #12 in the U.K. George reminds Brits of Saint George the dragon slayer. It carries, for them, the feel of knights in armor, great warriors, and salvation. For Americans? 

Not so much. We might think of our first President, he of the white wig and wooden teeth, but it more often conjures up pictures of middle class businessmen from the 1950’s. Saying the name doesn’t help us. It comes out abruptly. The mouth must be pursed to say it. Mm. No.

Hazel? At the turn of the twentieth century, many girls were named for trees and flowers. My own grandmother, born in 1900, was named Hazel. But by the last quarter of that century, those kind of names were so unusual they dropped off the popularity lists. Especially Hazel.

It’s making quite a comeback, though.

Hazel is a tree. Some baby name sites will claim that it means commander. It is a tree. So the meaning is -- not there. What about feel? An old cartoon had a sturdy housekeeper named Hazel. Is that what we think of? Sturdiness? Stolid self-possession? Lack of beauty? Perhaps. My guess is that the younger generation has a completely different reaction to the feel of the name, though. Saying “Hazel” requires the lips to part--almost in a smile. The sounds are liquid and long. They lilt trippingly off the tongue. Hazel could be free-spirited.

Which brings me to this: names create identity, partly because a child reacts to the way others both feel the name and say the name. When I was young, we used to laugh about Ima Hogg and Eura Hogg (were they even real?) and today’s babies may grow up to laugh about North West. Fortunately, for all the babies given crazy names or simply names like George and Hazel, feel is fluid. What tears down in one culture will build up in another. What raises pity in one era, will sound beautiful in another.

We have a choice to live up to our names or to overcome them. My middle name, Campbell, means “crooked mouth.” I was a great liar as I grew up, but the day came when I renounced that tag placed on me by the name. I haven’t changed my name. I just gave it a new meaning.

What does this mean for the writer?

Naming our characters becomes extremely important. Your character will probably act out of his or her name. Do you want the reader to take the character seriously? Or do you want us to laugh along with you at your character?

Would you laugh at Anne Billings? Or grieve for Irma Wigglesnout? You see the difference?

What about the naming of the good guy versus the naming of the villain? Think about the sound of the names. J.K. Rowling had a villain named Malfoy. Mal, from the Latin meaning bad. Playing off that, I named an antagonist Balfrey. Carlton Balfrey. Hard consonants help give the feel of opposition, while softer ones might be appropriate for a mentor type: Hannah, for instance. Can you reference a famous bad guy in the name? Draco was a particularly harsh ruler in ancient Greece, so it became a great first name for Malfoy. In like manner, you could name your heroine after Mother Theresa or your hero after King Arthur.

Names do make the character, so choose wisely. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet? I don’t think so.

What do you think?




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