Names are usually almost meaningless, but not quite. Sometimes they imply meanings by echoing other words. Sometimes they conflate meanings by the co-incidental marriage of their different elements. Sometimes they sound like actual words, but ones that we haven’t heard before. Sometimes they seem to be distorted versions of words that we know. Sometimes they are perfectly simple words from languages that we have forgotten, or not yet encountered.
Names are hygrospic of meaning. They draw it to themselves. Even randomly chosen names, plucked blindfolded from a telephone directory or voting register, seem to take on the the qualities of the characters to whom they are attached, or vice-versa. I’m writing about writing of course, and about the fictional characters we create, and how we identify them; but it all seems to be true of real life too!
A wartime friend of my father’s was known to his comrades as Blackie, to his first wife as Vin, and to his second as Mel. His passport would have recorded him as a Melvin. He was the inspiration for Derek Fitton, the protagonist in my novel, A Penny Spitfire. Derek is known variously, as Dec, and Dirk. These changes mark out the trajectories of real, and of fictional lives, as BHD and Me well know.
I was adopted into a Strickland family, on my mother’s side. They could trace their roots from the midlands, where I was born and grew up, back to the north of England, in what is now Cumbria. Stricklands were, and I believe still are, rare in the midlands, but in Cumbria they were a landed family ‘of Sizergh’. A Hornihand-Strickland was one of the seven men of Moidart, who welcomed Charles Stuart in his ill-fated 1745 to seize the crown of the Union. Strickland is a corruption of Stirkelond, a patronym of Dutch origin, brought into Scotland in, I believe, the fifteen hundreds, where it left the word ‘stirk’. Herd (and herded) in the border country, it was not a word in currency in the midlands where I grew up. Stirk isn’t in my edition of the OED, but went on to be steer, I shouldn’t wonder, when the Scots took cattle ranching across to the USA. Dogies and Spreidhs, and other such Scottish cattle culture words can be found in Rob Gibson’s Plaids and Bandanas, one of a whole genre of books about the Highlanders, in which some interesting origins of English words (also not in my OED) can be found.
Another name from my childhood was Hole, a surname deed-poll-changed by its owner to De Laney, which implies a story all on its own. If names work by suggestion, subtley influencing the reader’s reaction to characters, and to stories, they must also operate on the subconscious of the writer. They evoke associations we are not conscioulsy aware of. I recently wrote a story with a protagonist called Wynwright. I was well aware that the name was a slightly skewed version of the more common ‘Wainright’, and that it held elements that sounded like ‘win’ and ‘right’, but I had entirely overlooked the famous writer of mountain guides. Yet, the story begins with my character putting on his walking boots! I often recall that opening line of Moby Dick: Call me Ishmael, but I can’t remember any other mention of the name throughout that long novel. Stories are often named after their heroes, or villains, and have been since antiquity, for the Greeks gave us the word for the practice: eponymous.
Surprisingly perhaps, the absence of names can be as potent as their presence. Without names we have to find some other way of identifying our characters: labels, in effect. My Wynwright interacts with a character described as ‘the man’, or ‘the stranger’. In another story I have ‘the peanut headed man’. In this story the four central characters exchange names – though the reader does not hear them all, and the protagonist, who is named, resents the cultural imperialism of being subjected to the practice. In Lord of the Rings, the rather formal Peregrine (from peregrination, a circular journey, there and back again) and Meriadoc, are reduced to Pippin (a type of apple), and Merry (a state of mind valued more for its innocence that its intelligence). In a section I couldn’t track down to cite, I seem to recall, perhaps Gandalf, saying how he would hate to see the hobbitry subject to tyranny – but the adjectives he usesto describe that hobbitry are astonishingly patronising.
I remember a Rhodesian who had fled his homeland, losing almost all his possessions, in the late nineteen seventies. Telling me of his ‘bleks’, he asserted that they were ‘like children’. So they may have been, but that ought not to have been so, and if they were, must surely have been the consequence of the regimes under which they were living, and had lived. In the movies too, labels tell us as much about the labeller as about the labellee: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly springs to mind. Names are a seque away from masks and cloaks, uniforms and badges, whether or not you are a caped crusader. Black hats, and white hats, verbal or visual, explicit or implicit, give off the atmosphere of character, and of story in just the same way as the events that have taken place in a house are said to give off theirs. They manipulate the way we enter, and the carefree or cautious way we move through it.