What’s in a name?

Do you reckon you’d feel different if you’d been called something else? I mean, if you’d been called Benedict instead of Brian, or Mary instead of Andromeda? Do you think that a different name would make you see the world through different eyes?

Names always mean something but those meanings are moveable feasts. For my Scottish parents, Colin was a good Scottish name, Gaelic for Nicholas, but in England, where we lived, it was the name chosen in television dramas for the witless simpleton who worked in a warehouse. People call me Col in Australia, where every name has to be shortened. And in France, tins of colin line supermarket shelves and so a French friend insisted on calling me Hake. I never liked my name. When I was young, I rather fancied being called Justin, or Dominic, and I wonder how that might’ve been.

Do names really matter?

They do to novelists. Getting the names of your characters right is very important. Would you believe an Oxford academic called Taylee-Maree or a factory worker called Octavius unless there was a pretty compelling backstory to explain those choices? The main character in a thriller or a crime novel needs the right-sounding name. They tend to be rather blunt – think of Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Jason Bourne, even Nancy Drew. My friend Victoria Blake’s feisty private investigator is called Sam Falconer, a name with strong consonants and an image of hunting down prey.  There are exceptions, of course. Would someone call their private dick Ellery Queen today except with a knowing wink? Or Sherlock Holmes? Names are no less important in other genres. Iris Murdoch, for instance, gave her solid, dependable women names like Hilda and Harriet.

Memorable characters tend to have great names: Heathcliff; Mr Pickwick; Anna Madrigal; Holden Caulfield; Scout. I defy anyone to say Jean Brodie without rolling that rrrr. Sheridan did a fabulous job with Sneerwell, Snake and Backbite but while that worked a treat in the eighteenth century, it’s a rather tired device today. My heart sinks when I open a novel and find characters with absurd names. If someone is called Bumfutter then there’s a good chance the book they’re appearing in is going to be pretty dire. A ‘comical’ name in a book is as delusional as the person who tells you they’ve got a really good sense of humour. Films do it, too, like ‘Meet the Fockers’.

There are exceptions but they’re probably personal. Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry of Rawlinson End and Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, still makes me laugh. And then that genteel comedy duo, Flanders and Swann, came up with the perfect English name: Emily Butter. How wholesome and sweet and pure she sounds. But wouldn’t a novelist have fun exploring her dark side (as nutty as burnt butter)!

In ‘Not Always To Plan’ I wrote about a family spurred into action by a surprise legacy. They’d been pottering along, a little lost, not really thinking of where life was headed. So I called them the Dormans, thinking of dormice (small world, fast asleep for half the year). I wanted them to be relatable, rather ordinary middle-class folk, and so I chose unremarkable names. Hence Ruth was married to Tom, and they had two children, Ryan and Natasha (I thought Ruth, an avid reader, would have fallen for the romantic connotations of something like Natasha). The names encapsulated the kind of people I was writing about – stolid Ruth, dependable Tom, that kind of thing. Other names were chosen because they were names I heard regularly, and as the novel was set in the suburb in which I live, I knew what sounded right.

With ‘Loving Le Corbusier’, I didn’t have to worry about names because every character except one was based on a real-life person. And yet it took a while to decide on the name for this exception, who was Yvonne Le Corbusier’s pal when she first arrived in Paris in 1918. I went through lists of the most popular names in France at the beginning of the 20th century and ended up with Lisette, because it sounded as pert as I’d imagined this down-to-earth beauty to be. But what if I’d called her Clothilde or Hortense instead? Would it have mattered? Perhaps not, except to a French reader who might attach different meaning to those names.

In researching the life of Le Corbusier, it was fascinating to discover just how many people had changed their name in the early twentieth century. Of course I knew that Le Corbusier’s real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, but even his wife Yvonne had been born Jeanne and changed it at some point. Jean Badovici had Italianised his name from the Romanian, Badoviso.  I kept tripping over others of the period who had done the same thing, too.

We think nothing of film stars changing their names although it’s charming to discover Diane Keaton’s real surname is Hall.  Vin Diesel sounds much more macho than Mark Sinclair, who sounds more like a software designer than an action hero. As kids we laughed our heads off when we discovered John Wayne’s real name was Marion. In the past, many changed their surname to fit in, to sound less alien, and in some cases less Jewish, like Samuel  Gelbfisz (Goldfish) becoming Sam Goldwyn, and Ralph Lifshitz becoming Ralph Lauren. And of course singers are always changing their names, although some, like Madonna and Kylie, have managed to turn their own into something like a trademark.

I know a few people whose names would be perfect in novels. Some, like mine, will only ever see the cover and never the contents.

What are your favourite names from novels?

Categories: Other, WritingTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. A thought-provoking article, Colin (incidentally, I wouldn’t dream of calling you Col!). I’m Erzsébet (the Hungarian name for Elizabeth), named after both my grandmothers. Being a wee child, I wasn’t able to say my name properly, so my family called me Bozsika, shortened even further to Bozsi. Over the years, I’ve been called Liz, Lizzy, Libby, Lilibet, Lisbeth and Elizabeth. For a time, I thought Samone/Simone/Symmone was lovely and I christened one of my dolls with that name. Favourites from novels? Hmmm. Demelza and Morwenna from Winston Graham’s Poldark books; and Geillis from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander spring to mind. Say them with the appropriate accent and they are delightful.

    • I really like Bozsika. You have such an adaptable name you can be anyone you want! Yes, those Cornish names are great. Not familiar with Geillis at all. I wonder if it’s rather like those Irish names that are always pronounced so differently from how they look. Thanks for the comment, Bozsi!

  2. Right as always. Miss Marple, always my favourite, for the warmness of her character concealing razor-sharp thought processes.

  3. I was christened Joseph Henry Monroe (to be called Harry). There were a number of Henry’s (or should that have been Henries?) In my paternal background, but none on my maternal side.

    In the history of Ireland in the 1770s an ancestor of mine, after whom I was reputedly named, was hanged for his political views. He was a good and well-respected chap who wanted Irishmen to be united, Protestant, Catholic, rich, poor, and on both sides of the political fence.

    I was proud of this connection between history and me, but this fact of the hanging was also well-known to my teachers. So even the slightest deviation from the path of studying and obedience to a teacher was met with….’Monroe, should you continue to behave in such a fashion, you will end up like your ancestor….at the end of a rope!’

    And so my pride in my kindly and conscientious ancestor was dashed for ever.

    ………and I have always hated the name Jo Monroe, when called-out in a doctor’s surgery!

    Maybe Brian, or David, or even James (after the American President) might have been preferable. However I have managed for the last 72 years, and a few years longer will not make any great difference…..so I am stuck with it!

  4. Names are a biggie, when you are younger at least.
    I heartily disliked mine (Gillian) but it was worse for my sister who was, incomprehensibly, given the kind of outdated, maiden-aunt style moniker that still stops people in their tracks. She hopes to grow into it at around eighty.

    • You’re right, we are sensitive about our names when we’re young. I could barely mention my middle name – Douglas – out of embarrassment when I was at school. Now, I wouldn’t care if it was my usual name. Of course you’ve left me intrigued by your sister’s name – I’m thinking Violet or Maud or Primrose, all of which are now rather trendy!

  5. Ah, you named one of my favourites, Colin: Anna Madrigal. But my all-time best loved name for a character in a novel is Ignatius J. Reilly. Names are so important, especially to us writers. Always hated my given name: Mary Ellen. Which may explain why I morphed into Mel. 😉

    • How did I know you’d be a Madrigal fan. Which just goes to show that you’re a true Mel and never a Mary Ellen (wasn’t she one of the kids in The Waltons?). I would happily claim Ignatius if I could. And the middle initial is so popular in North America, isn’t it, but I draw the line at Junior…

  6. Someone said the words “jaunty bunting” to me the other day and I instantly thought Enid Blyton should have made that a name for one of her characters!

  7. Thanks for the reference to Sam, Colin. I love what you say about hunting down prey one which I never really thought about having based the name on the film of The Maltese Falcon – one of my favourites! But it fits very well for what she does. I’m writing something set in the seventeenth century at the moment and having fun with names like Obadiah – good solid old testament names are fun for a writer. I’ve decided on Tobias for my main character. I’m called Victoria because Dad was writing his book on Disraeli and she was the Queen on the throne at the time. If I’d been a boy I’d have been called Benjamin after Dizzie himself. That would have been confusing because my grandfather always named his black labradors Ben! I’m not sure how I feel about my name – OKish I suppose. It’s not a very popular name or it wasn’t when I was at school. As far as names in books go Dickens is fantastic, isn’t he – Uriah Heep for example. Obadiah Slope the smarmy ambitious prelate in Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles is another favourite.

    • I like the name Ben, suitable for both man and dog. But those Biblical names, well, I always feel they should be accompanied by a crashing chord and a bit of meaningful mist. “Here’s (ba-boom, swirl) Obadiah!” Slope is simply wonderful (not least because it was the first time I ever saw Alan Rickman in the TV adaptation) but the name Trollope isn’t exactly shy, is it? Dickens is perhaps the master of names and yet I have to whisper the fact that I’ve never got through a whole Dickens, apart from those abridged versions we had at junior school. (Playing Mr Bumble in the school’s Oliver! doesn’t count, does it?)

      • I think it should count. I played Scrooge at the age of ten or so with a pair of my father’s underpants as a night hat. I can still remember bits of the script especially the bit about sticking a piece of holly in someone’s heart. Dickens takes a bit of getting into because like Ken’s moustache it’s very lush so to speak. I go in phases with it. My father used to read and re-read. Alan Rickman was so wonderful as Slope, perfect casting.

      • I shall reclaim my Beadledom (but never get out of my mind the image of you with your father’s pants on your head)!

  8. I’m a Pauline, a more fitting name for my Irish predecessors, I think. People frequently say that I’m younger face to face than they expected, which annoys me because I realise that I seem older to people remotely. And – which is worse – that there will come a time when people no longer say that I’m younger in person than they expected. I can’t win, so it’s a blessing that I am generally known as ‘P’, not a great single letter to be known by, but infinitely better than the full version, nonetheless

    • I can remember the first time I mentioned my age and there was just a nod, when previously people ALWAYS said, “Gosh, really, you look younger.” The time will come. You couldn’t be called P here in Australia because they like to shorten every name and that would leave them with nowhere to go but have to call you by the sound of silence. Anyway, you’re always Posh to me.

  9. I love this post! So much to think about, thank you, Colin.
    In answer to your questions:
    I would never, ever change my name – I love it, and certainly had no intention of changing it when I got married. Though I have to say that having Francesca as a name in the 60s and 70s meant that no-one could ever pronounce it or spell it. And I had a myriad of nicknames, the best being Frankie at school as my surname is Howard. It took me til my 40s before I could introduce myself with my full name.
    I find it difficult to remember someone’s name if I don’t think it suits them.
    I think fictional names are incredibly important. If I dare mention JK, I think the Harry Potter names are inspired.
    I think you get your character names spot on. I especially like ‘Lisette’. Why did Corb change his name – I rather like his given one.
    Oh, and weren’t we at uni with a Dorman?

    • Ah, you’re one of the few people I know who actively likes her name, and it is a good one (although I found it mildly unsettling when your mother called you Cess… )Yes, there was a Dorman at uni but I was able to keep her out of my thinking with my fictional family… JK has such a fertile mind and yet who could imagine that a name as simple as Harry Potter would become so famous. Although I think Potter has a nice ring to it… I’m hopeless at remembering names, and do my best to avoid saying them. If it makes you feel better, I always see people as animals but I’m guessing that some sort of syndrome like seeing music as colour…

      • Something I never knew about you! What animal am I?
        Yes, very lucky with my name.
        I think Harry Potter has a very English, school pudding feel to it.
        I do know someone who sees names as colours. Much as I love colour, I’m not sure I’d want that gift …

      • To be honest, not every person is an animal to me. But you, well, of course you’re a… No, I’ll leave that for another time. You’re dead right about Harry Potter. I will now think of a plate of steaming Harry Potter with custard…

  10. I was nearly a Ceinwen or Mifanwy and Windsor if I was a boy. Either way I would have changed it!

    • Oh, I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of charm in those now (well, possibly not in Windsor…) but that’s changing times for you. Growing up in South Wales, Mifanwy was always a bit of a joke name for someone old and not very bright but now, well, it’s like Arthur and Cyril coming back into fashion and a whole new generation of people seeing them as quite appealing. Odd, eh.

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