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Writerly thoughts upon nomenclature. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
Writerly thoughts upon nomenclature.

I’ve been remiss of late in reading and commenting, particularly in fests; for various reasons, I’ve been spending a goodish deal of time in London.  In May.  Of 1940.  I shall get back to all that, but I did wish to make these few notes that may be of use to others.

 

Sometime in this decade, I imagine, if it’s not happened already, in an oldish house surrounded by family or in a rather superior care home, the last Charmian shall die.  Within the next generation, I rather think, we shall run very low on Gemmas.

 

Names are curious things.

 

There are very few Mauds now, or Adas, or Alexandras, and – as has happened before to other names – these have gone down the scale from duchesses to charwomen and tweenies – are there any between maids left? – rather as such masculine counterparts as Bertram and Albert and Alfred have long since done.  I cannot imagine we shall see many more Gertrudes, let alone Grisels.

 

Names – here, particularly, prænomina – evoke, set in context, characterise.  Writers want to attend to names.

 

I am just old enough, and just Scots enough, to remember Æneas for Angus, and the connotations of a Flora and an Archibald (generally Liberal Unionist, free-trading, sober, earnest, and quite often rather grand).  Duncan and Torquil, as names, conjure certain expectations, and there are fine and meaningful shades of distinction amongst Alexanders and Alasdairs and Alistairs and all the rest.  There are Johns and Ians and Euans and Jocks.  And the differences in Marjory, Marjorie, and Margery should be worth a DPhil study.

 

Names matter.

 

Alun, say, or Fiona, Elspeth, Garrett, Valentine: these say a good deal about who the person is and whence they are sprung.  Alpheus is a good, interesting one also.  Florence has recently been revived, as a girl’s name, by Prime Minister Baldwin Cameron.

 

As was true of Roman prænomina, there is as well the way in which certain names seem almost to be reserved wholly to the use of certain families, and are kept alive by them.  So long as there breathes a member of the Markham-Pelham-Holles connexion (running as far afield as the occasional Pitt-Rivers, indeed), there will be a Gervase to hand, or a Denzil.  And of course there are names that are increasingly disused, sometimes explicitly so by the families that are most associated with them: almost no one wishes to be an Adolph(us) now, and, to the second point, there may be Joes and Austens in various Chamberlain families, but one cannot imagine that anyone of that surname, related to the Brummagem lot or not, wishing to christen a son ‘Neville’ nowadays.

 

Names judge us and we are judged by them.

 

Names speak of a place and a time, and, whether we like it or not, of a social class.  Montague and Algernon, say.  Sometimes, the class issue is dependent upon place and time, as with Alfred and Albert, Augustus and Wilfred, and sometimes it is wholly deceitful: notoriously, Marmaduke is not at all an impossible Christian name for a Yorkshire farm labourer.

 

And sometimes, of course, names are a permanent and impermeable barrier, particularly – whether we like it or not – in terms of class.  Jade is highly unlikely ever to find favour with the upper-middle classes and above.  Don’t even bother about Chantelle, Kylie, Dwayne, or Wayne, or any of that sort of thing.  As for Segna, well....

 

Names may be destiny, far too often.  In the real world, that can be unfortunate and indeed unfair and wicked.  In the writer’s world, that fact is worth exploring, subverting if you like, confronting, and in any event using: Dickens was by no means alone in popularising as a device the concept of nominative determinism, and God He knoweth how sedulously La Rowling has followed in Dickens’ steps.

 

Whether one approves these facts or not, however, one may as well use them.  Take Alpheus, or Alphæus: is he American?  Or is he the son of the manse or a very, very Low rectory?  Or, again, is he the son of a Classics don?  Some names have multiple connotations, allowing one to play with pleasing ambiguities.  Or again, what of a Valentine or an Archibald, a Flora or a Margery: what might one do with such names, emphasising their essential source character – here, in order, Anglo-Irish, Lowlands, Highlands and Isles, Bruce-and-Stewart – or subverting it (the Ascendancy adherent of Irish nationalism, say, for a Valentine)?  What may one do?  Ask rather what one mayn’t do.  A loutish Torquil, an unsteady and un-stolid Gervase, a chavette Gemma....

 

Names matter.  Attend to them, with un-Dickensian subtlety and discretion, and what sharpness your writing shall attain.

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Comments
blamebrampton From: blamebrampton Date: October 19th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I hope it's not so grim as that -- I knew several Gemmas at school, and one Charmain. When last hunted down, all were well. Had I a daughter, Gemma or Emma would have been her name, as I have never known a bad one of either. Occasionally dim, in one case selfish, but that was the family, not the name.

And you're right at the end. An Elizabeth can be anything, and anyone, from an Eliza to a Betty, but a Caramello can only be a very angry young woman waiting to change her name by deed poll as soon as the laws allow (she ended up a very wealthy merchant banker as her rebellion, so the story has a happy ending. Regardless of their education and background, no one who has turned to hippiedom should be allowed to name their own child without strict supervision!)

wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 19th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well. Well, well, well.

Indeed, God bless my soul.

I had quite thought that Charmians had wholly ceased being christened as such by the Thirties. As for Gemmas, yes, but whilst you remain nine-and-twenty I am fast approaching fifty, and consider that my generation may well be the last in which Gemmas are thick on the ground.

Thank you - for the reading, the response, and the Food for Thought.
blamebrampton From: blamebrampton Date: October 19th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well. Well, well, well.

I suspect my Charmain (late 60s birth) was named for an aunt, but she held to her full name, never turned to Charlie. (It's almost worth adopting just to ensure more Gemmas.)

And you are nearly as bad as my mother, who insists my age is improbably low. While this helps her with her cause, it takes me from well preserved at my actual vintage, to quite unfortunate at the revised.

I am meant to be writing Something Else, and want to be reading an excellent story on narrow boats. Sadly, I am actually finishing up a story on coastal plantings. Thank you for the diversion!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 19th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

Coastal plantings!

My dear, I shd read you even on manure.
blamebrampton From: blamebrampton Date: October 19th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Coastal plantings!

You will not be surprised to learn I have written extensively on this very topic. Blessed are the herbivores, for they shall be easily composted.
serriadh From: serriadh Date: October 19th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well. Well, well, well.

I'm only just turned 26 and I know a handful of Gemmas.

But I'm a Sheenagh, chosen purely because my parents liked the name and haven't yet met another. (I know of Sheenagh Pugh, the poet, for example).



(I always wanted Eleanor and Rose for my (hypothetical) daughters, which I suspect will either be almost unknown or experiencing a revival, when and if I come to use them)
From: seneska Date: October 19th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
My mum has said before that she gave me the name Charlotte because it would set me right for life. I am appreciative of the fact that my name isn't something like Mercedes, but when you're nine years old and still none of your friends can spell your name it does feel like the end of the world.

Teaching at the university here in Edinburgh I am happily surprised by the number of names I consider to be Scottish that pass through. We have Douglases, Calums, Camrans, Ewans, Dougals and Duncans. There are Archies and Alastairs of all variety. Girls names less so. There are the occasional Ailidh and Morag but they are few and far between.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 19th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Och, mphm, aye, hen.

And quite right, too.
el_staplador From: el_staplador Date: October 19th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
As it happens, I have a cousin Gemma (two months younger than I am). I did have a (distant) cousin Charmian, who died a couple of years ago in (I think) her late sixties.

I am the only Kathleen I know in her mid-twenties. From my extensive experience with e.g. medical records, there are plenty around in their eighties, their fifties, and a handful of pre-teens, but I'm the only one that I've come across in my generation. (On this side of the Irish Sea, anyway. No doubt Ireland and America would tell a different story.) Meanwhile, the supply of C/Kathe/arines is pretty steady. It makes sense when one considers that I was named after a great-aunt born in c. 1902.

I came across (in the Journal of Saw It Somewhere Studies) a hypothesis that names go on a rotation of three generations. One is unlikely to name one's offspring after oneself, slightly more likely to name it after one's parents, but very likely to name it after one's grandparents. This, I think, explains the current crop of Mollies, Alfies, etc. The difference is that, while Granny and Grandpa were christened Mary and Alfred, and simply addressed as Molly and Alf, today's parents go straight for the diminutives. (And I'm aware that my whingeing too much about that would be the pot calling the kettle black. I'll simply note that, had I wished to shorten my name, I had a wide choice. Leena, Katie and Kitty are only the ones I use - or, rather, those that others use to and of me.)

I'd disagree with you on Alexandra, though. While I wouldn't say they were two a penny, I've met a fair few of my age or younger.
femmequixotic From: femmequixotic Date: October 19th, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I always hated my (as you know) unusual (and unnicknameable) first name. When i was 9, I begged my parents to let me go by my middle name (the oh so prosaic Elizabeth), which they tried to accommodate, except I'd forget to answer to it. Alas.

Still, people make certain assumptions about me before they actually met me because of it. And since it's often a male name and my last name is also often a male first name, you'd be surprised how many people, particularly older generations, assume I'm a man. Whoops. *g* (The US government tried to make me register for the draft...) And everyone curiously seems to think I'm blonde. Go figure. :)

I like to think my name's influenced who I am though. I wouldn't be quite the same as an Elizabeth.
taradiane From: taradiane Date: October 20th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC) (Link)
When I was young, I also hated my name because no one else had it. On the one single occasion where I can remember encountering an older girl on the elementary playground who was also named Tara, I was enamoured of her simply because of that simple commonality.

My family has quite a few unusual names that are reflective of their background. My maternal grandmother was named Kawanah, an American Indian name, despite the fact that we aren't aware of any such ancestry on her side of the family tree. She went on to name my aunt Leah, which was unusual for the time.

My first and last name together only contain 4 different letters, and sounds very curt - they come out like short bursts of a somewhat harsh sound when said aloud, which is sometimes very indicative of my personality. ;-)

I've grown to rather like my name, and am pleased that it has never been in the top ten lists. Also, tis very Irish, which is purely coincidence as we do have a fair amount of that in our bloodline. My mother simply liked it after hearing it on a TV show she was watching in hospital shortly after I was born - essentially, I was named after a whore (omg mom!!) on some cheesy daytime soap opera from 1975.
femmequixotic From: femmequixotic Date: October 20th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I was enamoured of her simply because of that simple commonality.

Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I never encountered anyone until I was well into adulthood who had my name. Now, every so often I'll hear someone say it in passing and almost always it's a parent of a young girl. It makes me automatically like the kid. :D

I've got some odd names in my family too...nothing as lovely as Kawanah, alas. But my favourite great-aunt was named Mertice. (We all called her Mert though. She hated that. *g*)
pathology_doc From: pathology_doc Date: October 19th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have known or met an Elspeth who I think is now in her early 30s (and who looked every inch an Elspeth), a Rose now in her late teens, an Ethel now in her mid 20s, a Philippa about 20, and one mid-30s Roslyn (which - although this one was female - used to be a male name, and indeed the particular male Roslyn I am thinking of might conceivably be one of your ancestors...).

I think it will be a very long time before we see male Evelyns again, though.
17catherines From: 17catherines Date: October 19th, 2010 11:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I know at least one Gemma and a couple of Alexes (short for Alexandra) in my age group (mid-thirties) - and there are Fionas everywhere, too, so I don't think those names are dying out quite yet, at least in Australia.

Though names are an interesting regional thing in its own right - when I was at school in Victoria, my class was full of Catherines, Katherines, Kathryns, Katrinas, etc (12 in my year level, I believe), along with dozens of Susans and Rebeccas and Vanessas and a fair number of Rachaels. When I moved to Adelaide, I was the only Catherine of any spelling type in the school, and there were no Susans, Rebeccas, Vanessas or Rachaels, either - instead we had Patricias, Emmas, Margarets and Megs. Both were private schools of Scots Presbyterian origin (though the school in Adelaide was more self-consciously Scottish).

I seem to remember the parents of one of my classmates saying she chose the name Catherine because she thought it was a nice normal name that nobody seemed to call their children anymore - obviously there was something in the zeitgeist that made a lot of people think the same thing. Currently, the girls' name of choice around Melbourne seems to be Isabelle or Isabella.
pathology_doc From: pathology_doc Date: October 19th, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
though the school in Adelaide was more self-consciously Scottish

Was this perchance the one at the top end of Portrush Road with the tartan uniform? I used to know a Catherine who went to that school (in the mid-late 1980s).
17catherines From: 17catherines Date: October 20th, 2010 01:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Aren't all girls' winter uniforms tartan?

No, I don't think it was that one. At least, I don't recall Portrush Road, and in any case I only started at the school in 1989.

ETA: On the other hand, I did work at the Flinders Medical Library during 1994 - could we have met then?

Edited at 2010-10-20 01:20 am (UTC)
pathology_doc From: pathology_doc Date: October 20th, 2010 01:37 am (UTC) (Link)
We could well have met then, but if you'd like to discuss the matter further please PM me as I like to keep my RL identity out of the spotlight.
17catherines From: 17catherines Date: October 20th, 2010 01:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Fair enough!
magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: October 23rd, 2010 10:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
My name is sufficiently uncommon in the white English population that I have never run across someone else with the name. However, go into the Asian community - particularly those with an Indian background and there's dozens of them! So yeah. I think my paternal grandparents had given up on my dad at that point and wasn't going to push me not getting a family name.
mayfly_78 From: mayfly_78 Date: November 12th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
The importance of names and the naming of things is something I find very interesting, but I am sufficiently un-academic not to follow up on my interest with the sufficient research and reading.

I always felt rather lucky that by knowing greek (and enough ancient greek to get around), I could easily find the meaning of most complicated western words (latin, please! just a poor cousin). And that always interested me, the etymology and roots of words, and how words are lent and then borrowed back, changed almost beyong recognision.

I haven't been as sidetracked from your original post as much as you might think. Because christian (as if we are all christians any more!) names, are words like any others, only they name people instead of things. And they still have roots and meanings behind them.

Names are fascinating in a country like mine (Greece) where the vast majority of children are still named after grandparents. So we get precious few "Chandelles and Dwights". (None I should think.) Actually most men - especially - seem to share the same five names in this country. What is interesting is how people take their names and change them to suit the way they see themselves. Maria becomes Mary or Mara or Maro. Anastasia can become Sasha or Nantia. Panagiota can turn into Giota or Tota or even Penny. The possibilities are staggering. Some times the new name one has chosen for oneself is so strange and original there is no way of telling what name one was actually christened with.

And what's more, when you choose your own name, it means you can change it as you get older and you feel it no longer suits you or expresses the persona you want to project. I have met people who have done that. I have done it myself.

Which brings me to the fact that the name you are given, or you choose for yourself, often shapes who you become, because it affects the way you see yourself. Obviously an Evaggelia who has become a Litsa will grow into a different person from an Evaggelia who became an Eva, or even more a Persephone.

Hmm, I can go on, but I have already rambled for too long.
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