Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Naming Names

About a year ago, I was at a concert with my mom, and I asked her about names. I said, "If you have to name me now, knowing who I am, having met me, blah blah blah, what would you name me?" According to family legend, I was named after a character in a Paul Newman movie, which my parents saw together and made admiring noises at the name. It is, naturally, spelled differently in the film. I think it's required by federal law to have all spellings of Kaitlyn to be distinct from all others.

After thinking for about, oh, three seconds, my mom proposed "Mary." I refused. "Cella?" I pointed out - correctly - that Cella is a totally made up name and frankly, I've had a lifetime of mystified stares at the spelling and pronounciation of my current name. Saddling me with Cella would have been child abuse. (My mom has a history of lusting after unusual names. Had my brother been born a girlchild, he would have the inappropriate-for-kindergarten handle of Anais.) We finally settled on "Scout." Upon hearing this, my sister snorted, "Scout? Fine. Then I want to be called Boo Radley Kochany. That's a bad-ass name." She's not wrong.

The literary highlight of today was reading about Fernando Pessoa, who, according to Harper's, published under 72 different pseudonyms and made up elaborate backstories about all of them. My personal favourite is Alvaro de Campos, a "seafaring, bisexual, naval engineer who wrote Whitmanesque poetry." I mean, please. That leapfrogs right over awesome and into previously undefined areas of total, unadulterated coolness. Pessoa - which translates to "person," which, like, whooo, meta - thought of his alter egos as people who wrote things he, Fernando Pessoa, could not. This is both wonderful and not a little crazy.

I'm jealous of great names. I like collecting them: characters in films, like the fabulous Oseary Drakoulis from The Life Aquatic, or books, like Claudia Kishi. In real life, we have the ridiculously well-named British photographer Rackstraw Downes; also, the Western writer/man's man Cormac McCarthy, who apparently renamed himself Cormac because, presumably, Charles wasn't tough enough. I think my favourite name of all time is Tenzing Norgay, who was Sir Edmund Hillary's sherpa, because it's just fun to say.

Especially for a writer of fiction stories (which I occasionally fancy myself to be), naming characters is a whole crazy kettle of fish. Too insane and you run the risk of making your characters wacky by virtue of their name, which is lazy and trite. Too straight-and-narrow and your brilliant creations feel flat. There are some truly iconic names out there in literature: can you imagine if our childhood classics had been Joanne in Wonderland or Denise of Green Gables or Walter Pan? Yeah, exactly.

Names are important - not as important as good health and shiny hair, but for someone like Mildred Bonk (one of the lesser characters in the Infinite Jest libropolis), it would be hard to argue that a terrible moniker does not beget a terrible life. Fortunately, we rarely confront such a uncontrollably bad name in our real lives - although New Age moms are trying, yo - so most of the time it's just your standard-issue unfortunate name.

Trend names - a tribe to which I belong - are an especial pet peeve of mine, since your children are not going to appreciate being called Tercel and Terrina when they apply for college. Criminal use of "y" (as in Mychael, Kyrsten, Delyla, Lyle, etc.) gets right up my nose; so does the practice of having a child, giving it a stupid name, and then naming its younger sibling something equally brain-injured so that they "match." Socks match. People don't.

Given half a chance - okay, given a baby - I would be flummoxed. I've adored some classic male names for a while (not that you asked, but Henry and Angus, thanks), but am at a total loss for female names. It's hard to be classic without being boring: classic names like Ruth or, let's face it, Mary, don't have a ton of sex appeal. Names should be honest, hard-working and grounded. Name a baby Priscilla and you're just asking for trouble. Pryscylla? I'll just punch you in the mouth. I want earthy, solid names that still convey romance and mystery. Names that evoke classic scenes of adventure, names that don't make a kid lisp, names that would inspire a Jr. or even a III on the end. Above all, names with a total lack of the letter y. Non-negotyable.


  1. Simon's a pretty good name. Or is that Symon?

  2. I have nothing against a good y where a good y belongs (Mary, Meryl, Yvonne ;)), but putting a y where an i should be is somewhat criminal. Having come to the realization that the only reason I might actually want to procreate is so that I can name my offspring, and that having a baby just to name it is not a good reason to have a baby, I have taken to naming my electronics instead. My electronics have names like Cordelia, Serafina, Poppy, Imogen, Veronica, Millicent Ruth... the car's name is Sylvia (another totally okay y!!)... of course, the car and my electronics will never have to deal with the repercussions of my rather fanciful naming preferences.

    I like Henry and Angus. I do not approve of Denise of Green Gables!! Claudia Kishi = WIN.

  3. Oh, please, never Symon. That makes you sound like a lemon-lime drink from 1974.

    Leith, I love the idea of naming things rather than people. Unfortunately, I tend to name similar things with similar names (ie, both my bikes being named Lucy). I also have a hard enough time remembering people's names, let alone the name of my toaster oven. But brava for you, and yes: Claudia Kishi is a definite winner.

  4. a little late, but; Rackstraw Downes is a realist painter not a photographer.