Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 09/08/2023

Episode 36: The Philosophy of Names

By Florence Tabor Critchlow

From a 1909 issue of "The Editor."

Philosophy implies a systematic body of knowledge from which generalizations may be deduced. Can we discover any definite laws of nomenclature? Among ancient peoples, naming was almost an exact science, whose procedure was determined by rules, partly traditional, but obligatory. The Romans, for instance, bestowed upon daughters, in addition to the feminine form of the family name, only numbers. Thus the only daughter of Marcus Tullius Cicero was Tullia, but a second would have been Tullia Secunda. From this practice there survive, and are now used as personal names, such appellations as Octavia, the eighth-born; and Nona, the ninth. For the naming of flesh and blood children we have, unfortunately, no law, except that of taste, to prevent one from calling his daughter Nona, or Sarsaparilla, or Abracadabra.

Moreover, the fitness of a name at the cradle-age, if it is considered, is no guarantee of its adaptation to the adult. The baby who, for her dainty proportions, is named Fay or Tina, may grow into a circus fatwoman. I know a "Dot" who, at fourteen, weighed two hundred pounds, while "Fern" is more than six feet tall. The Chaldeans believed that the name contained a part of the very essence of the person. In creating our children of the brain we are privileged to make their names essential to their being. A good story may be constructed without this essence, but its flavoring certainly improves the confection. I have just run over twenty-five late magazine stories. An Indian half-breed girl is called Pauline. She is alive, but the name adds nothing to our estimate of her personality. It does not belong especially to her, is not a vital part of her. Felicidad has the atmosphere of the story, and is, to some extent, characteristic of the girl. She is intended to be happiness incarnate; the name helps the conception. Ydo is a Spanish girl, as quaint and mysterious as her name, and it is certainly a relief not to have her dumped among the bunches of "Mercedes" and "Dolores." Marcia, the running mate of Ydo, fills up the name for us with a delicious sense of her charm. With one exception, the other names might be shuffled and thrown at the other heroines, and not even their authors would know the difference. Jane might be Millie, Pansy could be Mabel; the names are mere feminine pegs; any female name will do to let us know that the peg is feminine.

The one exception has a name created expressly for her, which is of the very essence of her being: Lidian. She is a thoroughly sensual creature, an incarnation of the traditional spirit of ancient Lydia. Her name is mentioned but once, and then so casually that you almost mistake it for the adjective, Lydian. Whether the author intended this suggestion I know not, but if he didn't, he was unconsciously inspired to give the girl the one name in all the universe which belongs to her. In some fifty stories, taken one day at random, from the magazines of that month, I found more than thirty pegs named Anne, one girl who bore that name, four tagged Peggy, five Dolly, and six Betty. One Betty, who might have been remembered but for her utterly commonplace name, was really christened Bertha, as her creator let us know, instead of the inevitable Elizabeth, but apparently the author was afraid to call her by her own name.

If you want your heroine to be alive, and to stay alive in the memory of your readers, you must either give her a name all her own, or, if you use a common name, you must make her personality so strong that her ordinary name henceforward can never mean any other personality than hers. The latter is by far the more difficult task. Charlotte Bronte did it with Jane Eyre and Lucy Snow; Scott with Di Vernon and Flora Mclvor, and Ellen Douglas. Shakespeare made every one of his women so identified with her name that we scarcely dare use one of those names for our commonplace creatures. Ophelia once meant a serpent, but now it must always mean the fair, gentle, Danish girl, who dies for love.

On the other hand, and as an example of a name chosen because it is suitable to the character, and will help to set it forth, take Alice Brown's "Electra." She is the very embodiment of the word, hard, cold, brilliant, an incarnate intellect, without sympathetic possibilities. Rose McLeod is likewise an incarnation of the spirit of the flower; the name henceforth has for us its perfect connotation. For every name has its connotation as well as its denotation, and in the balancing of these we evolve the philosophy of names. The denotation, or meaning absolute, is generally dead, and only extraordinary skill can revive it, as in the instance of Rose McLeod. Who remembers that Mary means bitter? but we all picture the Mary that we know, sad or gay, gentle or wild, kind or cruel, blonde or brunette. These are the connotations. What difference does it make that Lucy means light, that Agnes is a lamb, that Stella and Esther are stars? But from the connotations we may derive our rules.

First, when a name has a plain English meaning, the suggestion of that meaning must not be ignored, unless intentionally, for the purposes of caricature or farce, as when a strapping, six-foot negress is called "Lily" or "Blanche?"

Second, there are in some names certain social suggestions. In the thirteenth century Saint Cecilia was the most aristocratic name-saint in the calendar. In the sixteenth century Cecily had become a literary and social synonym for a coarse, blowsy, high-colored, milkmaid. Lately it has again shown aristocratic tendencies. Dorothy, now so popular, once shared the ignominy of Cecily. At the present day some names are inevitably assumed to belong to the cook, the French maid, and the shop girl. You may bestow individual names upon your literary maid and shop-girl; no one will regret the effort. In a recent novelette the maid is "Armandine." But beware of calling your motor-maid Mamie, unless you would have your readers picture her with a gigantic pompadour, and a gigantic wad of gum, the histrionic properties of the counter-girl. If you are a genius, you can make your Mamie so fascinating that your connotation will supersede ours. But if you can do that, you are able to give her a name of her own.

Third, every name has its personal connotation, the suggestion of some one whom we have known, or of some heroine already established in fiction. The Editor's Editor has told you his conception of Stella. Mine is that of a short, fat, dumpy girl, reading cheap novels, and trying to form her own life on their model; making a ball-gown of tarleton, after the model of one of Mrs. Holmes' heroines, to wear to a village dance. I knew her well; I named a cat after her. Stella always makes me think of that sickly cat. I do not know what your Charlotte is like; mine is a Dutch girl—not German—tall, bony, the opposite of everything typically Dutch, except in her smile, wearing little white aprons, and with always a button or a shoestring missing. If I ever put her in a story, it shall be my endeavor so to make her live in your imagination that henceforward you will think of her instead of your own Charlotte, whenever you hear the name.

Fourth, certain national type names are painfully overworked. If your Spanish girl is that and nothing more, if you have no other quality in your portrait of her than that she is Spanish, then let her be Dolores or Mercedes. It would be a pity to waste any of the lovely Spanish names on a mere national abstraction. But please do not call her Inez. That is Portuguese; the Spanish form of Agnes is Ines. If, however, you have a real girl, who happens to be of Spanish parentage, but whose other qualities are of full as much importance as her nationality, then give her a name, not a type-word. For a heroine who is merely German, you have Gretchen, but for a German girl of character there are numerous characteristic and individualistic Teutonic names. Natalie, Sonia, and Olga are the Russian tags for pegs; Natalie and Stephanie are used to tag the Hungarian pegs; Jean is the Scotch label.

In one of my big blank-books I have pages set apart for male and female names of every nationality. Whenever I read a history, a biography, a book of travels, or a novel by a foreign author, I make a memorandum of every characteristic name. When I want a Russian name, for example, I have only to re-combine these names into a new and harmonious blend. It is not always an easy task. Often my story stops for a whole day, while I try on names, until I find just the right one. Sometimes, however, a name in itself suggests an entire story, which must happen to that name. They belong together.

This brings us to the final law, the regard for phonic qualities. To many, this is the only law ever observed. Others, judging by the results, have never considered it. First, the name, each name, in fact, the surname as well as the given, must be one that easily blends in sentence formation, that is easy to speak. Louise is an exquisite name; it has all sorts of charm; it was once very popular. It is seldom used nowadays, largely, I believe because the final sibilant makes it difficult to use. "Louise is," "Louise says," "Louise said," "Louise's," are hard to manage. One reason for the popularity of Margaret is its perfection of form. The two names, taken together, must also form a cadence, without too great a predominance of either harsh, liquid, or sibilant sounds. But in the search for names that are musical, appropriate, and unique, beware of the bizarre.