Being part of a writing group has increased my interest in the importance of names and how they fit a character–or not. Irma or Jezebel? Caleb or Timothy?
When our son Paul was about six months old, his sister Elizabeth asked me a simple question that I’ve never been able to answer. Watching her baby brother as he gazed at us and attempted his best to communicate with sweet, inarticulate coos, she asked “Mama, why do people have names that look like their faces?”
I can’t remember what I told her. I mean, really, what is the answer? Some parents name their children after movie stars, famous athletes, and characters in books. Others stick with family names while still others resort to biblical names, perhaps hoping the child will have some attributes of Peter, James, or John. My paternal grandfather’s first name was Abram, and I’ve often wondered why his mother chose that name instead of Abraham, the name God later gave him, the name that means “father of many nations.” To my knowledge, no one before or since (in the family) bears the name Abram. So why?
Back to Elizabeth’s question, although I still don’t have a definitive answer, I know that people and their names often fit. Not always, but often. It could be because they grow into their monikers after hearing stories of ancestors from parents or teasing from others about the uniqueness of names like Arcadia and Rowan or the ordinariness of Jane or John. Do people become plain Janes and honest Abes?
In a prior post, I mentioned another story I read in Racing Home, an anthology by award-winning North Carolina writers. After reading “Namesake,” a delightful story by Anne C. Barnhill, I’ve pondered the significance of one’s moniker. Edwina, the protagonist in the story, finds herself considering “the sounds in a name, the power you call up when you declare a thing.” Yes, I thought. That’s it exactly.
Comparing herself to others, “An Edwina couldn’t be as dramatic as that. An Edwina would be a spinster and all that word implies. Nothing could grow on an Edwina, except thoughts, barbed jealousies of all the Clarissas and Juliannas that swirled across the ballroom floor while Edwina stands over the punch bowl and feigns fascination with sherbet.”
Edwina, actually Edwina Jane, likes her name and decides she must refuse a marriage proposal from Jack. How could she marry a man who called her Edie? “Any man who could sway me the way he had, who could think of me as ‘Edie’—such a man was dangerous.”
Poor Jack. For a time, Edwina had found him suitable company. In fact, upon first learning his name, “my heart pumped quickly. It was a fast name, one that promised advent true, maybe even danger. One bet and it was over—a single syllable you could spit out in anger or gasp in passion.” But Jack’s last name was Applewhite, “a name as common as chicken feed.” Edwina’s was Carruthers.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the time and attention and thought that goes into deciding on a character’s name. Merilee or Merdedith? Dorothy or Deidre? Brett or Brian? Does it really matter? Yes. At twelve, I began spelling my name with a “y” to combat the Plain Jane connotation. Jane became Jayne, and surprisingly neither of my parents objected although I had been named after two great grandmothers.
What’s in a name? Do they define us? Do we grow into them?