kaigou: this is what I do, darling (W] know and not-know)
[personal profile] kaigou
I was going through the current draft and realized I had somehow managed to end up with a conversation between two characters, Ranulf and Marna, discussing a third character... Muna. Which sounds a little off but doubly so when you see "That's Muna," Marna said -- and go, DOH.

Back to the drawing board, right around the same time that I decided I couldn't keep dealing with misspelling Dyfri as Dryfi damn it, so let's give him a new name, as well... and the other half of that reason is because dyfri apparently means water, which wouldn't do at all for a character who's supposed to come from a family of dirt-loving miners. He needed something more earth-based, or at least neutral, and preferably something normal (to the eyes of modern US readers, at least) to make up for the fact that the story's overloaded with Scandinavian names like Edvard, Aksel, Maartin, Petra, Sanna, and the like. Needed to throw in the equivalent of a Bob in there, somewhere.

Around that point I realized a tree-character had a name that referred to wind, oh, geez, and a water-character had a name that referred to trees, so I guess back when I was sorting names I had reversed those somehow. Oh, to hell with it, Marna becomes Gracja, and Apple (a placeholder name anyway) becomes Yvette, and I'm still not sure what to do with ChunHei -- a name that generally works except that it scans oddly to my native-English eyes. [This is where we quietly ignore -- so as to avoid sudden and involved ranting -- the fact that my two major name-resource books have "Japanese/Asian" name sections but no section for Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Korean. GRRRRRR.]

That got me to thinking about a discussion I recall having a few years ago about character naming -- I think it was with [livejournal.com profile] slobbit?, who was figuring out the naming pattern for a family of characters and struggling with the fact that historically in Japan, a character from the father's name would be used in the characters for the children's names -- so Yoshihiro might have sons named Takehiro, Akihiro, Tomohiro, etc. Slobbit's comment, IIRC, was something to the extent that if the first half were the parent-name (Yoshikuni naming his children Yoshitune, Yoshihiro, Yoshimaru, etc etc) that could get really boggling for American readers, really fast. It became apparent that the best compromise was probably to slap nicknames on every character right away, even if doing so was very un-par for the course, in terms of historical or cultural accuracy.

China does a similar thing, but it's generational: a boy may have the same name as his father, Li, but the generation's "name" is Chen. If the father's LiWang, the children might be LiChen, LiangChen, XingChen. I don't know if that's as common these days, since the friends who explained it to me seemed to be implying it was kinda "old-fashioned" to do that -- and the friends from more rural areas didn't have that attitude, so maybe city-goers have started leaving that behind. (For the record, the spouses with these generation names were all male, and I don't know if girls get the same, nor did I ever hear anyone address a boy by the entire name -- LiangChen was called Liang, for instance.)

Tracking down suitable names for the WiP means going back into the old Norse naming patterns because the more hidebound families in the story do stick to those older patterns, as a Finno-Scandinavian version of marking themselves as "traditional" families much like Yoshihiro and his passel of sons. In the middle of researching, I came across this comment on an online language site:
Old Norse names do have a meaning, i.e. a meaning that still must have been apparent to those who used them, not a meaning that was totally unknown and irrelevant to them... But still, some names do not make any sense. Many names are put together from two parts, and some of these composite names appear quite sensible, whereas others do not. A name like Ingvarr means "Ingr warrior", i.e. "the warrior of (the god) Ingr", and Geirhildr means "spear battle", but on the other hand there are names like Sigsteinn "victory stone" ... [And] what about Jóbjörn - "The horse bear"? What were on his parents' minds?
On another site, a researcher points out that such wackiness hasn't left us; there are plenty of instances where English-speakers use a common English word but without direct reference to the child: Noel who wasn't born on Christmas, Summer and June and August and April who were all born in mid-winter, or Wednesday who was born on a Sunday.

And then, of course, you have the really wacky horse-bear names, like overhearing a woman call out, "Ampersand! Ampersand!" and little Ampersand comes running.

Me: O.O

(When she hits high school, is she going to declare her nickname is "And"?)

And that in turn reminds me of the famous Oglala Sioux chief, whose given name was Tasunkakokipapi -- most often translated into English as Young Man Afraid of His Horses. As CP once pointed out, it's a mangling of the reflexive pronoun, because the proper translation should be closer to Young Man They Are Afraid Of His Horses, or Young Man of Whose Horses We Are Afraid. Yeah, so it sounds like a mouthful, but the original -- Tasunkakokipapi -- isn't quite that bad, and knowing how every language will slur, it could probably be reeled off pretty fast. Thing is, you'd never forget what you were saying. The guy was so fearsome that just the sight of his horse would have people quaking in their boots.




Back when I was studying Mandarin, there was a lot of discussion about Chinese names and the fact that the non-Chinese name-bearers in the class couldn't just go out and "pick" a name. That names have meanings, and sounds, and it's very important to get just the right combination. We do the same in English, too, although on a more rudimentary level, like how many syllables for the first name, versus the middle name, and whether the name sounds good as a whole string -- Gregory Franklin Smith! -- versus the short-form -- Greg Smith! -- or even checking the initials, like the unfortunate classmate who never got anything monogrammed from my mother, not with a name like Anne Sarah Stevens. OW. What were her parents thinking?

In the midst of this, I asked a Japanese classmate about her name, and given her reaction I think I probably phrased it as I would to an American classmate: prefaced by compliment on prettiness or coolness of name, followed by, "do you have any idea what it means?" It was Tomoko; she translated it as clever girl. I replied, "oh, that's cool!" but was thinking, why is she giving me that funny look?! ...Because tomo is used as a common word. The idea that Tomoko wouldn't know the name's meaning, I realized later, was as bizarre to her as it would be to the average American that someone does know their name's meaning.

Or my friend Xing's bemusement when I realized one of our vocabulary words was her name. Hey! That's your name! Well, yeah, she replied, and I realized: she could hear her name used in common speech anytime someone says, "oh, that's lucky!" (How does she know when to answer, then? ...but that's getting into linguistic patterns so we'll skip that.)

This is why I have trouble reading Chinese stories, actually. I can't always parse out which are names, so I'm going along and someone says, "I'm going to the market tall mountain long river because..." or "When I and butterfly speak..." And I'm all, what the hell? What's a butterfly got to do with this? And is that the market's location, or its name... and it takes a good half the story for me to twig on the fact that a character is Tall Mountain Long River and to begin seeing that string of hanzi not as meaning-in-story but as a chunk of hashmarks that indicate person-name.




I've seen plenty of discussions among writers as to whether they pick names based on meanings -- and the invariable comment from a longer (I'd say "older" but I just mean "someone who's been writing longer") writer who points out that no one really pays attention to the meanings of names, so it doesn't really matter what you pick.

The important thing is to not load up your story in such a way that you have Bob and Bill always hanging out while the next scene is loaded with Tim, Tom, and Tammy. Readers scan the first few letters to identify sounds (and often disregard, at least on a conscious level, the rest of the name) -- so you might be able to get away with Julietta and Amaretta, or Thomas and Judas. But you probably won't be able to manage Yoshihiro, Yoshitomo, and Yoshikuni, without readers getting really baffled and having to backup and think hard about which Yoshi is which.

The other detail about naming a Western character (and by that I mean, a character raised/acculturated into predominantly Romance- or Teutonic-speaking cultures like most of Europe, and North America) is that there's also the cultural element of naming patterns within families, just like there is in Asia or elsewhere. It's just a lot more subtle. The father's first name may become the son's middle name; in the Deep South, it used to be a tradition that the firstborn son's name was the mother's maiden name -- which is why I went to school with boys named Douglass, Hayes, and Moore.

Beyond that, there's the pop culture element. Sure, Dylan may be very popular right now, along with Forrestt and Brandon -- there are actors or characters currently with those names. But if the character is in his fifties, he predates Bob Dylan's popularity. Unless the man has Welsh parents, Dylan's probably not a likely name. There are just some names that are so, hrm, faddish, I guess, that they scream faux-name-picked-by-author because it sounds kewl. Like Storme, or Knight, or whatever other totally seme/alpha name you can see in romance novels. (I only knew one Hunter, growing up, and his name really stood out for it.) I suppose having a romance lead who's all mysterious and dramatic and is also named... Bob... just doesn't work.

Or so I'd assume from the fact that there are almost no Bobs in romance but there's a boatload of Storms, Drakes, Rafes, Damons, etc. BLEAH, after awhile.




In my own experience, names have a hell of a lot of impact on us, in terms of the impressions we get of people. There are a bazillion Jennifers out there, even if you take away the ones who normally go by Jenny, Jen, Jenn. Christophers and Jeffreys, too, and it doesn't help that there are plenty of Christinas who go by Chrissie, Christie, Chris... what I have noticed is the difference when children are called by their full name, and not a diminutive.

I mean, there's childhood diminutives -- Robbie for Robert -- and adult diminutives, usually with the -y or -ie missing, like Bob for Robert. (And I don't care, I'll be eighty and my cousin will be eight-two and I will STILL be calling him Cousin Robbie and I don't care how many times he tells me, "It's Bob, now." NO IT AIN'T. ROBBIE.)

Then I visited my sister at college, her freshman year at a prestigious art school in New England. (Insert nonchalant whistling here.) At my own college, there was a rumor the school had hit some kind of rut with the incoming freshmen and just lumped people together by name, like some idea of being cute -- I had floor-mates in triples like Jenny, Jennifer, and Josey, and there was the quad with Karen, Kerry, Katrina, and Kara, and across the hall were Tina and Tina (yes REALLY) who shared a bathroom with Laurie and Laurell. Me? Yeah, I was the diminutive and my roommate went by the full-name version. I didn't escape either. OMG Kill the idiots who set that up.

Going to my sister's dorm was like a one-stop lesson in Very Cool Names That Take Real Guts or Talent To Pull Off.

Veronica, Anastasia, Katrinka, Amelie -- and my sister's unusual name fit right in. Across the hall (the dorm was co-ed apartments) were eight boys, and among them I recall seeing names on the outside door like Barnabas, Christopher, Franklin, Aleksander, Rafael, Jaspar, Augustus. My sister had a classmate named Aloysius. I adore that name. I had never actually met anyone who had the name, though... and these kids weren't going by Barney, Chris, Frank, and Alex. Oh, no, they preferred the full version, that's what they'd always been called. Somewhere along the line, their parents' insistence on an unusual name marked these kids for artistic and flamboyant careers in sculpture, animation, architecture, portraiture, whatever.

The normal and mundane world of Jen, Bob, and Tom? Not for these kids. Would the kids have picked different names, if they'd had a say in it? I don't know.

My sister sometimes fusses about being one of only two Anglos with her name that she's ever met -- it's apparently a very popular name among Black communities in the North. When she got to HS and nicknames became socially important, it was hard to truncate her name into something nickname-like, because the first syllable ends with a half-spoken 'd'. The result was my father (whose first syllable is identical to my sister's) would often mistake friends yelling for my sister to be yelling for him. Naturally my sister found that irksome.

I did eventually come up with a nickname for her using our initials, instead, but until then? An annoyance... but never enough to change her name.




Thing is, when writers talk about the peculiarities of name-picking -- and the unexpected backlash you can get from connotations to names -- we often think about what the character would want, and end up playing to those stereotypes or connotations. That's cart before the horse, because I think (as evidenced by the kids at the art school), the horse pulling this isn't the kid, but the parents' choices and views of the world.

The vast majority of the babyboomer generation probably has Veronica filed away under red-headed long-legged hot stuff who always has a guy and is the girl who makes you miserable in high school and doesn't care -- so either they name their child Veronica in hopes she grows up to be devastatingly sexy, or they avoid the name completely because they don't like the idea of their own daughter acting, or being treated, like that.

There's where, even without knowing name-meanings, readers can get insight into a character's backstory. Like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the second slayer is named Faith, and yet is among the most faithless of the characters, switching sides, loyal to none but herself, with no faith in herself, either.

There's little backstory provided except in quick glimpses, but it's a name that's really very traditional and almost puritanical, which matches with her New England origins. And it's totally in opposition to her character: what you've been called all your life does shape who you are, either for, or against. If that slayer had been named, oh, Annie, it just wouldn't have pushed the same buttons in terms of connotations.




When we talk about meanings, I think it's important to remember that the English-speaking world is more of a rarity, it seems, in naming children with no real sense (or weight upon) the meaning of the name. I mean, CP's granddaughter has the middle name of Thyme -- a pretty enough name when written, if one that will always be misinterpreted when spoken. But what does it mean, I wanted to say when I first heard. It doesn't make any sense to me, because I do know name-meanings and the combination of that plus first name... means nothing, really.

The same thing happens to me when a kid goes by a surname as first (or middle) name, like my sister: the family name has no meaning in and of itself, so the combination of her first & middle name is somewhat nonsensical, to my ears.

Or maybe my sensitivity is because I've spent my entire life having to explain to people -- patiently, and not so patiently -- that my name is not a nickname. My parents really did give me the shortest diminutive of a common longer name, and to call me by that common longer name is not calling me by my "real" name. My "real" name is the shortest, one-syllable version. Yeah, it was nearly as unusual growing up to be the "short form" as my sister's name was all on its own, but at least my sister's name wasn't a recognizable section of a longer name. Mine clearly is, and I got tired of correcting people.

(That previous post about going to the principal's office? I kid you not, I think the teachers put "problem child!!!" on their notes, and every time we had a substitute teacher who'd address me by long-form, I'd correct with short-form and WHAMMO, it's principal's office! talk about injustice!... ahem. So, yeah, just a SMALL chip on the shoulder about names.)

The other half of my sensitivity can be traced to one single stupid sunday-school project, which focused on, oh, I dunno, something about someone being named, in the bible, and the importance of that new name. Blah blah blah, here are books with name-meanings, let's all make pictures based on our names! My sister discovered, to her absolute delight, that her name means "knowing woman". What did I get? Something wimpy like "pure love".

Oh, man, do you realize just how uncool a fifth-grader can suddenly feel, next to a gloating sibling? Pure love. What kind of crock is that? Why can't I have a cool meaning, like "woman of war" or "kicks ass of all cootie-bearing boys" or even "incredibly brilliant" -- hell, at that point I would've gladly taken Veronica. At least then I'd have the cultural connotation to counteract whatever the name meant, but I didn't even have that much. Sheesh.




That started me thinking about the power of names, that if you were to go around calling people by what their names mean, whether this would reveal something more at work, every time you call their name. We can see that in nicknames, after all, even the funny-ironic ones like calling a linebacker "Tiny" -- or a female soldier who'd kick your ass without breaking into a sweat, "Muffin".

That's about the limit in English-speaking western cultures, though, but if you dig deeper into indigenous/immigrant cultures where names do have meaning, you're more likely to find nicknames that aren't just unflattering but possibly even insulting if you don't know the context of the name's origins -- like Beats His Wife or Can't Run For Shit or Greasy-Hair. All those anglos going on about their "indian names" being Lone Eagle or Runs With Wolves or whatever? Yeah, right. Fat chance of that happening. Really. That's how titles work, but not nicknames.

Anyway... getting back to naming children with an idea of the meaning -- as I've been writing characters from non-English cultures more and more, I've started picking up where/when/which cultures use names as common words the rest of the time.

Then it's not just enough to pick Niara as a name, but to give thought to the fact that her parents are going to be basically calling her 'One with high purpose'. Or Tomoko, whose parents hoped she'd grown into her name and become a clever girl.

Or that ChunHei's parents chose her name so that when they call her name, they're reinforcing that they want her to be 'graceful justice' (literally "justice-grace"). If you imagine hearing "graceful justice" every time your parents or friends or teachers call your name, you're either going to want to live up to it, or go a million miles in the opposite direction.




For characters like Dyfri, in an urban-fantasy setting and one in which names have values that are understood, I think it's more important to make sure of the name's meaning, because otherwise you're just appropriating a culture's names based on what looks cool or sounds cool and without some underneath-sense of why a name would be chosen. Seems to me that if someone is from a family of mining-spirits (like dwarves, redcaps, and the like), then to name a child water would be... hrm, kind of like a staunch Roman Catholic Irish family naming their son Guido. I just can't see it happening.

With the exception of Ampersand's mother, most parents out there pick names that they hope will last the child an entire lifetime, and will help the child carry some sense of the past into the future: that's the reason for so many juniors, along with the "first name as middle name" or the "generational name" or other such links to the previous generation.

Unless, of course, you're like my cousin Robbie who swore to me back when we were in high school that if he had a son, it would not be #6 in the line. And not just a three-name name, either, but a four-name name. Like Robert Harold Zebediah Smith. The SIXTH. No kid deserves that, my cousin cried! And sure enough, first-born was a son and I was the only one in the entire extended family NOT shocked to the core when he & his wife named the kid something totally non-family. WOAH. Heh.

To me, then, to read a character who mentions his father was #5 and the kid's name is radically different, tells me a lot right there about the kid's extended family and his parents' take on that, and possibly some of the pressures the kid may have grown up with, being such a visible break from tradition.

Which is another reason for sometimes picking names that are almost outrageously archaic, to at least three or four generations back. A woman named Eugenia or Abagail, and the reader's possible first thought is going to be either, "that's a plot point, or she has a backstory of being named after an elderly maiden great-great-aunt." Even lacking the sense of a name's meaning, there's still the possibility of a character revolting for or against the name's connotations. If Abagail absolutely loathed the old bint, she may dislike being called by her full name -- or she may have embraced it with every intention of going counter to all teetotalling narrow-minded ultra-religious nonsense her great-great-aunt always shoved down her throat as a small child.

The latter would be my assumption, at least, if I see a character named Abagail who's shooting up in the bathroom of a club, and is about to go make out with guy number four, and, hrm, never pays her bills and mooches. Gee, her parents must've been pretty hidebound traditional, no wonder she's turned out a complete punkass rebel, with a name like that!




However, now that I've resorted all the names, corrected the ones in which meaning is of value, made sure I didn't end up with sixteen names all starting with T- and another nine starting with Ma- ... guess it's time to get back to writing. But first, I think I need COOKIES. Woo.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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