The Name of the Game of the Name

Genesis 2:20 refers to Adam’s naming of the creatures of his world, and while that was some time back, we all have our Adamic moments, naming the creatures of our world. Our children, our pets, bands, personified possessions — naming things is part of what we do. In my own life, the reasons for the names I have given things vary – Mrs. M and I named the Spawn in part for what we saw as a melodious quality, and in part as a reference to one of our favorite places. The Berries were named both for our hometown and for the late surf rocker, Jan Berry. I had a cat named Phydeaux because… well, because I have a perverse sense of humor. An old Chevy I drove was called the Monte Karloff because it was big, green, and scary looking. And so on.

As a fiction writer, I have to create names for characters, and sometimes that’s harder to do than others. My default is typically to blend the names of people I know, but that isn’t always the case. In the case of Broken Glass Waltzes (Did I mention I have a book coming out?), I defaulted on the names of minor characters — names of friends and former bandmates show up fairly often. But as for my two lead characters, I operated on what sounded right in my head, rather than for any larger effect. I was looking for a name for a guy who plays drums in a hard rock cover band, and has worked fairly menial jobs along the way, and the name Kenny seemed to fit in a way that, say, Wellington didn’t. His last name — Rockford, came from the stage name I had given him for his low-level showbiz persona. What the heck — stage names are sometimes adaptations of birth names (Ask Richard Starkey, for example.), so I could reverse engineer one, and “Robbie Rock” could easily be Kenny Rockford when he’s offstage. The female lead, Jean Cassidy, I chose… well, because it just sounded right. I may have played with another name, but I don’t remember what it was, and I remember it didn’t seem right. I just knew I wanted a kind of vanilla name, and I may have picked Jean because Jennifer is a common name in my generation, but Jenny didn’t sound right.

So why am I going on about this? Well, there’s a new book out by Alastair Fowler called Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature. (And indeed, if your name is Alastair Fowler, can you do anything but write a book on literary nomenclature?) There’s a review of the book at the London Review of Books, and we discover that while characters can have names from the allegorical (Spenser’s Una, Sam Spade (who digs up the truth), Mike Hammer (a malleus maleficarum if ever there was one)) to the slyly referential (Borges’s Runeberg in “Three Versions of Judas” produces mountains of work that are climbed with difficulty, or the echoes of chivalry in Parker’s Spenser) to the nearly invisible/everyday names preferred by many realist authors. And of course, there are Dickens, Bradbury, and other practitioners of nomenclature as character. (Indeed, the first president of Mondoville College had the decidedly Dickensian name of the Rev. Theophilus Stork.) Colin Burrow’s review is great fun and worth your attention, and I suspect Fowler’s book may be as well.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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