What’s (lurking) in a Name?

My last post got me thinking about the effects of a name, or a nickname, on one’s personality… or relationships… or earning potential… or future criminal record.

Take number 3, on the Serial Killers I Have Known list: Will B. Nerdly. It’s pretty obvious, and for obvious reasons, that Nerdly was not Will’s real last name. Will’s real last name was the kind of name that (unlike every living thing that ever breathed, however briefly) should have been drowned at birth. It was a name that couldn’t possibly have failed to bring out the devil in every single adolescent boy Will ever met. He must have been teased mercilessly, for years and years and years. And if just one mean girl jumped on that bully train, just once, at just the right time in Will’s development, what might have snapped in his budding unconscious mind? And could it ever be un-snapped?

Writers know the value of a name. A name can be heroic (but name your child Hercules, and see what happens), or ironic (if you want a snarky, wise-ass kid), or studious (guaranteed to keep little Milton’s bloodied nose stuck in a book). So writers, like parents, must be careful when naming their kids. Every name shapes its owner. Every name tells a story of its own.

Shakespeare and Dickens, the past masters of “telling” names, knew that every name comes with baggage as heavy as the chains on Marley’s ghost. A name can crown a character, or bury her in a shroud; it can pelt him with tomatoes or leave him gasping in a pool of his own vomit. It can elicit admiration or derision or apathy from other characters, but it will always elicit something. And that something shaped those characters all their imaginary lives, long before they ever jumped into a book, or a TV sitcom, or a film made from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling — one present master of names.

Writers should also remember that a distinctive name, given to an iconic character, could break free of the confines of his little book and join the vernacular. It’s happened before. (I’m stingy; I’m such a “Scrooge.” Wish I knew someone with the “Midas” touch.)

But it’s not just people who need names. What about streets, and home towns? One of my favorite episodes of “Gilmore Girls” (season 6, episode 6, “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) is the one where tyrannical Town Selectman, Taylor Doose, decides to rename all the streets with their original names. A charming idea, thinks Lorelei, until she learns that the original name of the Dragonfly Inn’s street was “Sores and Boils Alley.”

Then there are pets. Names given to real or imaginary pets don’t necessarily tell much about the animal, but they do tell a lot about the name-giver. One kind of character shakes a bargain bag of kibble and shouts, “Get the fuck in here, Rat Bastard!” out the screen door every night — the kind that lives on Dreary Lane in Lowlyville. A very different character would name her beloved real rats “Pest-o” and “Vermin-celli.” She lives on Cardigan Lane, in the tiny hamlet of “Humbleton.”

So, note to self:

Don’t forget what’s (lurking) in a name.

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2 responses

  1. So true! Picking names always have to come with a hidden meaning.

  2. Readers! Follow Jeyna’s link to find a character named “Slubgob.” Just think of the hidden (slimy) meaning in that one!

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