On Naming Vol. 4: Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?

by Brenda W. Clough

Romeo_and_juliet_brown Shakespeare mavens know that the question in the blog title does not mean, “Where are you, Romeo?” (Clue: there is no comma between ‘thou’ and ‘Romeo’.) Juliet is asking, “Why are you Romeo?” Why is a person or a character named what he is named?

Names, even in real life, tell us far more than you would expect. Have a look at this: a study in which scientists can use your name to, possibly, determine your age, your job, what state you live in, even your political leanings. Some fascinating bubble charts here, showing the popularity of certain names over time!

Does this mean that your Republican hero from Decatur, Georgia really has to be named Duane Bailey? Oh, I hope not. Remember what Juliet tells us in the very next line: that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. People are amazingly sensitive about names, although IMO these people have taken it too far — Heaven ordained nicknames for just their situation. And I would never in a thousand years do this. A contest to name the protagonist? A character with whom I am going to be spending the next year of my mental life, whose every dream, digestive upset, sexual encounter and trauma from birth to grave I am going to invent out of whole cloth? I would never hand over such power to anyone; I shall reign like Alexander, and I shall reign alone.

You can’t pick the name for your hero off a list. (More football coaches are named Michael than Gordon. But not every football coach is named Michael, and there’s probably a Coach Gordon on a gridiron somewhere.) You should think about it. Ponder all the implications well, because now the big data researchers can tell you precisely why it’s not convincing when you change Romeo’s name to Duane.

The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe. And it is available now in an audio book edition which is read by Bronson Pinchot!

How Like a God, by Brenda W. CloughMy newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

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On Naming Vol. 4: Wherefore Art Thou Romeo? — 16 Comments

  1. My mother claimed that there were 7 baby girls born the same week I was in the same hospital. 6 of them were given the name Susan. Even the night nurse was named Susan. So when at the age of six I asked why I didn’t have a “pretty” name like Susan, she said I was Phyllis Irene so I’d stand out in a crowd. Only ran into 1 other Phyllis all through public school.

  2. On the naming contest (author of Beyond the Mist here):

    Before anyone asks, nobody else suggested to me that I do this, I have been planning it for more than six months and first suggested the idea to the editor of the journal three months ago. He gave the go-ahead, and here we are.

    It is a risk, and I wouldn’t do it for any other venue, but I have faith in the intelligence of Sci Phi Journal‘s readership (a journal dedicated to philosophy and science fiction is going to attract intelligent readers). My faith seems to be justified- I had a placeholder name in mind, but the very first (and currently winning) entry suggested a name that I would happily use instead.

    I expect most of the entries will come in after Issue 6 is out, and if someone can come up with something better, great.

    • Oh, that was you! I still cannot envision it, but for me a name is a thing of power. I am not letting you pick up my sword.
      Although there are people who even crowdsource naming their baby, so clearly it can be done. (And even when the parents don’t ask, there is often massive input from the general public. Poor Prince William and Kate, they have such tsouris naming their kids. Maybe that’s why the Queen always keeps dogs, because nobody hassles her about what to name them.)

      • I agree that it is a thing of power, and I would never normally do this. I will allow the winning name to influence his future attitudes, since the act of choosing his name is an act of self-definition that the protagonist will agonize over and put a great deal of thought into, which I hope all the contest entrants will do as well.

        I saw this as an opportunity to do something rare and raise the profile of the journal, since it was the venue that gave me my first paid commission, the concept of the journal is something I am very much in favour of, and the editor has treated me (and all his other authors) very well.

        • I think that is a pretty cool challenge, actually. Let the name come first, and discover what kind of character fits into it–and then let him loose into the story. Sounds like a fun experiment!

          • I am clearly too power-mad and domineering to do any such thing. My heart could never brook a rival on my throne. Let us know how it works out!

            • Well, the contest is now over and I’m very happy with the winning name, which has now been incorporated into future installments, helping to mould several scenes, adding additional layers to others, having more and more impact the further along we go. Artistically, it’s been a great success. Whether it ends up being a marketing success remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful.

          • It will be a challenge for me, I’ll have a month to decide on the winner and smoothly incorporate those changes into the next installment, I’ll be sure to let you know how it turns out.

            By happy coincidence (or higher plan 🙂 ), my planned contest coincided with the editor’s 40th birthday, which he celebrated by offering a 50% discount on the first 4 issues of the journal (my serial beginning in issue 2) for the whole of this month, giving people who have not been reading the journal an ideal chance to catch up and get involved. Hopefully these two things will combine to get a bunch of new readers for the journal and ensure it continues to operate well into the future.

            We’ll see.

          • I’ve found that sorting through names and finally concluding THAT ONE is a very good way to get a grasp on the character.

            • Including issue 6, he will have been acting without a name for 11 chapters, starting with absolutely nothing – no influence, no reference points, no memories, not even solid ground to stand on. Over those 11 chapters, he’s been gradually learning more and more about how the world works and about himself, gaining more ways to interact with his surroundings and more control over what happens to him, at the same time being faced with more and more complex decisions to make until he comes to a point where the options are almost limitless- to choose his own name and define himself. A lot of the story has been building up to this point, this choice, and that’s what I’m offering to the readers.

              As it says in the contest description, the opening chapter can be read for free here, and the first seven chapters are in issues 2-4, all half price this month, so now is a good time for people to take a look and see if this is something that they’ll enjoy.

    • When my daughter was in preschool there were 7 other kids in her class. Three of them were named Michael and the other 4 were named Katherine; they had to refer to them with an added initial. (My daughter, the outlier, is named Diana.) I suggested to the teacher that she name the classroom goldfish Michael and Katherine. Then she could with truth tell each parent that the fish had been named after their darling.

      • When I was a teacher, we had to get creative to tell apart the Jordans (both boys and girls) and the Taylors. The kids would get efficient: “He-Taylor” and “She-Taylor.” Or Jordan A, Jordan S, Jordan L.

        But when the Ashleys came along, the system broke down for about two years.

        • When I gave birth to my son they had me in a semi-private room at the hospital. My room-mate had just given birth to her first baby, a son. She said, “We’re going to give him the most wonderful and unusual name we ever heard of. We’re going to name him Jordan.” I (a second-time mother and a veteran of preschools) knew that there would be dozens of Jordans in that kid’s kindergarten class. But I kept my mouth shut. (She had already filled out the birth certificate info.)

  3. Pingback: Book View Café mentions the Naming Contest (as something they would never do) | The Zwyckyverse

  4. A friend did volunteer work in a hospital, helping new moms fill out birth certificates was one of her jobs. A _very_ young mother said she wanted to name her daughter Femalli. Friend asked her to spell it. F E M A L E. She’d read it somewhere and thought it was pretty.

  5. I forgot, my classic example of naming. For my children, my idea was not to limit their lives in any way. Their names should equally accommodate a career as a rap artist, or as a justice on the Supreme Court. (And, because I am Chinese, it is heavily weighted towards gravitas. People who want to be rap artists can fix on their own noms de rappaliciousness.)
    I was not, for instance, going to name my son Elvis. Instead, before he was born, I fixed upon Jefferson Lawrence Clough. This is extremely full of gravitas, easily envisioned with the prefix “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General” in front of it. The only tiny difficulty with it was that a kid named Jefferson is inevitably going to be Jeff through boyhood. And until he was born I was not sure he could be a Jeff. I wasn’t sure how I would know, but I was certain I would know.
    So he was born. And I took one look at the newborn baby and, damn. He was visibly, clearly, not a Jeff. No way. Even less could he be a Sonny; if I went with Jefferson Lawrence we would have to shift over to the true nickname, and call him something like Jughead or Pooch or (a real nickname! one of my daughter’s classmates!) Booger-butt.
    So instead he became Simon, which fit perfectly and has served him well.