What’s in a Name?

Names are elemental for British (and French) men. They get to keep their surnames all their lives – and then they pass them on to their children. But us women traditionally slough our surnames like worn skins. What a waste! Unless we marry when we’re 99 years old (in which case there may be a few wrinkles), our surnames are still fresh, elastic and full of promise.

So I was delighted when I checked out my genealogy and discovered that my wily women ancestors have overcome this unfair custom. They pass on their first names. There are Harriets hanging from every branch of my family tree.

GrandmaChickOften the name is handed down discreetly, hidden between a first name and the temporary surname. The stern lady in the photo is my great-great grandmother, Susan Harriet. She didn’t mess about with disguises: she boldly gave her daughter the name Harriet in first position.

There’s no doubt a question of fashion in the selection of names. Harriet isn’t the most innovative name. By slipping a Harriet into the invisible middle name position, my generation can give our children a modern first name – thereby avoiding school playground teasing – and still anchor them to their roots.

I wonder how this link to our female ancestors affects the way we grow up. Imagine you have just discovered you were named after the austere lady in the photograph. Did your parents name you after her because they thought you’d resemble her? Or because they wanted you to be like her? Was there something special in her character or life story? And why were you, rather than your siblings, given her name?

It’s interesting to imagine how you’d react to your legacy. Would you take more interest in your family history – or would you feel oppressed, abbreviate your name and rebel against your predecessor?

This is beginning to sound like a writing exercise. Well, why not? We’re here to play, after all. Create a story character who discovers she’s the lucky – or not so lucky – bearer of a family first name. Tell me how she feels about her heritage. You can click on ‘Leave a Reply’ to share your words with us.

Names are important. My protagonists’ names always have a meaning. This tells us something about them, even if it’s subconscious. In my novel ‘Red Cat Girl Gone’ (yes, this title has beaten all previous records and lasted a whole week) my 17-year-old protagonist is desperate to escape her childhood home. She feels constricted in her river valley village. Her name is Heather, which evokes heaths, moorland and open spaces for me. Then there’s Martin, the village simpleton, who follows his geese around the countryside all day. His name comes from the legend of St.Martin of Tours (fascinating: you should read it). And Odis – well, you’ll have to wait until the story is published to understand the significance of his name.

The christening of my minor characters is less laborious. I’m a big fan of the telephone directory. In France, where families are still strongly linked to their birthplaces, the surnames are often typical of an area. I search for surnames that have different rhythms, a different number of syllables, and that begin with a different letter. There’s nothing worse than mixing up characters because their names are too similar. It’s a bit like Western films: the men all look the same to me in their cowboy hats and sandy shades of brown clothes – but that’s probably just me! I’ll be sorry when my directory no longer arrives in my letterbox with its promise of random, realistic surnames.

How do you play with names in your own work? If you’ve been handed down a family first name, what effect has it had on you? There’s lots of room in the comments box when you click on ‘Leave a Reply’.


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