As a life-long afficionado of names, I can tell you off the top of my head that Alinta is an Aboriginal word for flame; that Byron means born by the cowsheds; and that J.M. Barrie invented the name Wendy because he wanted something ‘friendly’ to call his female lead. Even when writing short stories in primary school, I was convinced that my character names were crucial to who they were, and disagreed fiercely (though privately) with my teacher, who said that they could all be called Bob and it still wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Once I got my hands on a book of children’s names I found at home, I spent endless hours reading through and making lists of all my favourites – not for any children I might one day have, but to use as characters. Names I liked wented to heroines (and, occasionally, heroes). Names I didn’t, or which sounded ominous, went to villains. Inspired by Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – in which most of the horses had Aboriginal names – I procured an Aboriginal dictionary from my mother’s study and started my own story along similar lines, looking up words for things like stars, water, speed and various horse-related colours.
Now that I’m older, I still care just as deeply about what to call my characters. Even in RPG games, the thing that takes even longer than rolling stats – either in real life or through a game engine – is choosing a name. It has to match my avatar’s history, what they look like, who they are; and the thought of just calling them Stephanie and getting on with it rankles in a deep and resonant way. Because once you’ve named something, it stays named. And I’m ancient enough at heart to believe that there’s power in names. Roma gypsies have always thought so, and children in that culture are given three names: one private, and never told lightly; one commonly used among the clan; and one for everyone else, which is almost never used except on paper. Fantasy writers as diverse as Kate Elliot, Ursula K. le Guin and David Gemmell have all been fascinated by the concept of true names, and put it to appropriate use in their stories. But although most people might dismiss the idea out of hand, it’s worth having a look at the all-too-common disparity between the names we are given, and the things we are actually called.
For instance: my mother-in-law’s name is Margaret, but only as far as records are concerned. To everyone else, she is Janie. My niece’s name is Heather, but the family calls her Annie. Back in highschool, a friend’s boyfriend was introduced to everyone as Tain, which suited him, and it wasn’t until almost a year later that we realised it was short for Martin, which didn’t. At college, everyone had at least three names by which they were known, not in the least because we were asked to make them up and adopt them in Orientation Week. Those of us who already had familiar nicnames used them, and were consequently never known by our actual given names; everyone else had either a corruption of a first-or-last name, or something entirely random. One girl, called Lauren, asked to be known as Trucka, following the logic that Lauren abbreviated to Laurie, which sounded like lorrie, which is a kind of truck. But it stuck, and nobody ever called her anything else. Then there’s the Great Australian Tradition of oxymoronic names: fat blokes are Slim, short folk are Lofty, redheads are Blue, and so has it ever been, to the extent that an airline recognised globally for its distinctive red planes is called Virgin Blue. It’s multi-generational, even: two of my mother’s friends have been known as Chook and Vobbles since the sixties for reasons that are now completely forgotten, while there are people I know only by their online handles.
And in all this malarkey of names, I start to wonder: which are the ones with power? Which are, to borrow a term, merely safe and innocous use-names; and which are truly us? Juliet (or rather, Shakespeare) posited that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; which is true. But a rose by any other name would not be a rose; because the very nub of language is the point at which the word not only means, but is the thing. Think of Aztec pictograms, where each symbol stands for a whole word rather than a single letter. Then magnify the idea outwards. A word doesn’t just stand in place of an idea; it is the idea. Looked at this way, names don’t just mean us casually, merely as distinct from everyone else: they mean us specifically, behind the eyes and down to the bones, impossible to mistake.
The same idea is exhibited elsewhere in fantasy as the basis for spoken magic: the concept of a universal language, in which the word equals the thing to such an extent that speaking it aloud brings that thing into existence. For a real-world counterpart, one needs only look at the Bible: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God’ is undeniably rooted in the power of names, and it’s worth noting that Hebrew, to the Jews, was (and still is) seen as the language of Creation; God’s lingua franca.
Which brings us back to names, and the choosing of them. What with genetics, friends, cultural influences, free will and individual reactions to upbringing, there’s a good argument to say that apart from life, a name is the only lasting gift a parent can give (unless, of course, the child grows up to change their name by deedpole, a-la commedian Yahoo Serious or that bloke in the Sydney phonebook called Zaphod Beeblebrox). So why not make it a good one? Granted, not everyone agrees on what makes a fantastic name, and given my geekish tendencies, there’s a good chance that what I consider lovely might make the rest of the world flinch, but at the end of the day (to borrow a phrase abused to the point of ritual castigation by one forgettable Deputy Headmaster), it’s putting in thought that counts.
Or, to recall that much-thumbed book of children’s names, one could just read the notice that says, in bold print, not reccomended, placed with sensible good reason next to Jezebel (Hebrew), Lesbia (Greek) and Everhard (Old English).