Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Rose by Any Other Name

I've had names on the brain lately. Maybe it's because I just wrote a short story where the main character's name is Maisy. Maybe it's because names are something I struggle with (but you already guessed that when you read what I named my poor MC).

Whatever the reason, it seems I'm not alone in my struggle with the name game. In the last two weeks I've read no less than four different blog posts about people struggling to name both babies and characters.

My name is the subject of rampant mispronuciation. A colleague and friend of mine once called me YoHannah for an entire year before I corrected her.

"You know it's actually Johanna, like Joe and hanna put together," I said after she'd used the Swedish version once too often in casual conversation.

"No," she gasped. "I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I always thought you were joking."

And this little exchange underscores the problem with names. Too exotic and you risk sentencing your child or main character to a lifetime of correcting people's pronunciation. Too boring and you risk them having to differentiate themselves with a last initial.

But back to the intial thought. Why is it so difficult to pick names and how important is a name.

Or more precisely, does the person make the name or does the name make the person? Watching Madonna perform in the Superbowl this weekend, I realized that until she stepped into the spotlight with her lace gloves and crosses, the only other Madonna I knew was the religious variety.

Would Madonna, as we know her, have become an icon if she'd chosen a different name?

I think the answer is yes.

Maybe the true power of a name doesn't lie in its combination of verbs and consonants but in the person behind it. I'll take comfort in that thought every time my daughter rolls her eyes at her own name (so carefully selected, so clearly despised).

And on a final side note to the many, many slightly stoned men in bars who have asked me whether I'm familiar with the Bob Dylan song that features my name in a title role.

Yes, I do know that song.

But wait! Just because I know it and was, in fact, named after it doesn't give me automatic hippie cred. If you're looking for someone to hit on you should probably go find my mother. After all, she's the one who picked the name in the first place. 


Beylit said...

No such thing as a safe name. My name is Megan, which is fairly generic in my mind, but you would not believe the frustration my name has brought me (despite the fact that I love it).

I think as long as you are comfortable with your name it will serve you well. If you feel you can't accomplish your goals being named Glenn and you think your middle name of Corwin is a better choice, go for it. If your mom named you Chad after your dad and you hate it so much you would rather go by the family middle name of Kelley, good for you.

Names don't make the people, people make the names.

Of course that doesn't mean you shouldn't be a little prudent in picking babies names. Which is why my husband will have minimal input into our childrens names. He thinks it is alright to name a girl Fancy. Lets just put a stripper pole in her crib and be done with it.

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

I like Maisy! :)

Copyboy said...

Darn. I thought you were a hippie chick. haha

Copyboy said...

Oh and maisy is cool.

T. L. Cooper said...

Names always bring up a sticky point for me. My first name falls into that so common a last initial is often needed. Even that is often not enough. And, to top it off, even my full name leaves little distinction except for the slightly unusual spelling of my middle name.
All that said, I write under my maiden name because so few people can pronounce, spell, or otherwise convey my married name in even a reasonable facsimile to what it is. Besides, it often tends to bring out people's prejudices, but that's a different topic all together.
I'm very careful with names of my characters though they often tell me their names before they tell me their stories. :-)
I know another woman who is named Johanna, but she pronounces it with a silence 'H'. Yes, that's right she's pronounced Jo Anna! Go figure!
Oh, names! They are so tricky...

Dianne K. Salerni said...

If I can name a love interest "Micajah", then I think you can get away with "Maisy!" As you saw on my post today, my characters pick their own names.

There's a character named Johanna in my WIP, by the way. She's an antagonist for my MC and not very nice. (sorry about that) She was originally named something else in my planning, but she rejected it and picked her own name. I don't even remember what I called her before!

Johanna Garth said...

Beylit, LOL a stripper pole in the crib!

Thanks Rachel.

Copyboy, I rebelled by being a sorority girl ;)

TL, I think that's actually the more common least that's how most people seem to pronounce my name.

Dianne, you have such strong-willed characters! Can't wait to read the 'mean' Johanna!

Megan Dolan said...

I agree that there are no safe names- my name is also Megan and weirdly it gets mispronounced and spelled incorrectly all the time, although this only started happening after I was an adult. As a child, everyone got Megan just fine. I love character names and baby names and luckily my husband is very fun to bounce things off of.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Madonna is her actual given name. But I don't know whether that changes your hypothesis or not.


Botanist said...

Names are important to me. If I have an un-named character, I can only get so far, then I come to a screeching halt until I can find a name that embodies them for me.

And I can have fun giving my characters names that I'd never inflict on a real person :)

Glynis Peters said...

Interesting post. I renamed my main character from Avril to Elle. Elle suits her so much better. As soon as her name changed so did she. Her personality perked up and she had me writing for hours. I never have too much bother with character names, I love finding them.

I like the name, Maisy.

S. L. Hennessy said...

I agree - sometimes I think naming is really, really important. It's weird in real life how sometimes people's personalities are so very different from what their name would suggest, but I feel like in novels you need to pick a name that really reflects the who your character is. If only parents were better at that, right?

Misha Gerrick said...

Yeah... my name is Misha, spelt and pronounced phonetically. And... no one gets either right.


Scarlett said...

One might think my name, Scarlett (as in Scarlett O'Hara... Gone With The Wind... Rhett But-ler Scarlett) would not be easily mispronounced, misunderstood, or even mistaken for something else, for instance, Crystal. I have been referred to as Crystal at least a handful of times in my life by people I've met more than on one occasion. Not sure why.

Our third born is a, Fred. Yep, we named him after my husband's father, the one and only to do so out of 18 of Fred's grandchildren. We call him Freddy, as I will continue to do so until he is grey and carrying ME around.

I think it's true... the person carries the name, more than the name carries the person.