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What’s in a Name?

The naming of the new bells in our parish church inspired my column for the July 2021 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of the bell named John
The bell John, decked out in flowers for the blessing ceremony

The closest I’ve been to a christening for many years is the blessing of St Mary’s new church bells last month, in which each one was given its official name.

Only afterwards did I realise the significant difference between the choice of names for bells and for babies:

  • Bells arrive fully formed and their purpose in life is clear.
  • With babies, it’s all still to play for: how the little bundle will turn out in adulthood is anyone’s guess, although their given name will likely reflect parental aspirations.

Thus, when naming bells, there is no need to consult any baby name books or The Times’ most popular names list for that year. Bells’ names are typically those of apostles and saints, indicating their devotion to the church. St Mary’s are thus Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Mary, Arild and Wulfstan.

The Naming of Characters

As a novelist, I’m in a similar position with my characters: I choose names to suit their traits in adult life, rather than to reflect their parents’ ambitions at their birth.

I do however consult official lists of names popular at their date of birth to ensure I don’t end up with anachronisms. Deborah, for example, has not been in the top five since four years before I was born, and I long ago resigned myself to being my generation’s equivalent to a Gladys in my old age.

Masterful Namers

I’m in awe of masters of the art of naming fictional characters, such as Charles Dickens and P G Wodehouse, even though the cynic might find their choices larger than life.

  • Would Mr and Mrs Squiers, parents of the future cruel headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby really have had the foresight to name their son Wackford?
  • Might Bertie Wooster’s awkward chum Gussie, obsessed with newts, be likely to inherit the surname Fink-Nottle? To my mind, it doesn’t matter – it’s all part of the fun.
photo of two sleeping kittens curled up
We named our kittens Bertie and Bingo after the comical characters in PG Wodehouse’s novels

Nominative Determinism

Whether or not you believe in nominative determinism – the notion that your name anticipates your status in life (Nomen est omen, as the Ancient Romans neatly put it) – it’s hard not to rejoice when you find a real-life example:

Keith Weed, President of the Royal Horticultural Society, I wish you the best of luck.


To find out how the leading characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries got their names, read these posts from my blog archive:

Who Is Sophie Sayers Anyway?

Why I Named the Leading Male Character in “Best Murder in Show” Hector Munro

 

Author:

English author of warm, witty novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Staffroom at St Bride's School series, both set in the Cotswolds. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors and for the children's reading charity, Read for Good. Public speaker for the Type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Names – Parents are very peculiar! And unimaginative. We have to live with our names, but we don’t get to choose them! I was baptised (and registered of course) as Christine. I loathed the name and eventually changed by Deed Poll after my parents were not longer with us. Why did I loathe it? Well one reason was that I felt it tied me without choice to Christianity, second reason that it has a hard brittle sound (like glass?), third that there were hundreds of prettier, more feminine names for girls, forth that ‘Chris’ is such a popular boy’s name… Second name? Mary. My mother’s name. How could I use that? If I was choosing a name today, though, I might choose Zoe. It has an interesting initial letter, is not shortenable, ties you to nothing specific, and means Life. Do you like Debbie? I suspect you don’t mind it!

    1. Gosh, how interesting, I had no idea! I’m not keen on the name Debbie or on Deborah either, although I know someone who has shortened her Deborah to Dorah, which I really do like. However I am too set in my ways now to change my name by deed poll and had never thought of doing that. I can see the appeal of the name Zoe – I have both a sister-in-law and a car called Zoe (the Renault Zoe, that is!) and I like that name too!

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