Posted in Events, Personal life, Reading, Writing

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


Posted in Personal life, Writing

Nominative Determinism, Pope Francis and Other Keywords I Have Loved

Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX – a name that states the obvious (photo: Wikipedia)

So, Pope Francis it is, then.

I love the fact that some religious institutions allow and even encourage their members to change their names. Names are generally chosen as symbols of what the involved parties hope the bearer will become. It’s not so much choosing a name as picking a personality or fate. This notion of nominative determinism is one reason why books of babies’ names continue to be top-sellers, year in, year out. It helps that there are always plenty of new babies to be named. Unlike popes.

I don’t blame the former Argentinian cardinal for choosing a name unprecedented for popes. I don’t think I’d fancy being just the next in a sequence of popes of the same name, like the interminable sequels of a Hollywood blockbuster (Pope Rocky VI, anyone?) I have always been fond of the new pope’s namesake, St Francis, especially since visiting his old stomping-ground, Assisi, as a teenager.

What’s in a Papal Name?

Of course, not all papal names were created equal. I wouldn’t mind being another Pope Boniface, which to me suggests a kindly, rotund, beaming Pope giving and receiving love in all directions. Pope Honorius sounds as trustworthy as you could get. Pope John-Paul was a pretty benign name, too, with a touch of Beatles-esque hip about him  – though I’m not sure Pope George-Ringo would have had the same cachet. And if you think that would have been a wacky name, how about Pope Sixtus III – how confusing is that? He put in 8 years’ service in the 5th century, just to add more numbers to the equation. I’m hoping the equally strangely named Pope Sisinnius had neither a lisp nor a stutter.

If you’re in the mood for more idle musings about papal names, there’s an engaging list on Wikipedia here. It’s the cardinal’s equivalent of the Parent’s Best Book of Babies’ Names.

Twitter Hashtag Fun

And if that isn’t enough to entertain you, pop over to Twitter and search under the hashtag that was the second most popular trending story at the moment the new pope was appointed. Right under the unsurprisingly top hashtag “#NewPope” came “#ReplaceMovieTitleWithPope”. The gems that cropped up here were enough to completely distract this atheist from the white smoke at that point still emerging from the Vatican chimney. Suggestions included “Dude, Where’s My Pope?”, “Jurassic Pope”, “The Pope with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Pope Fiction”, “Gone with the Pope”, “Dr Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Pope”, “The Pope Wears Prada”  and so on – you get the picture.

Of course, I quickly added my own contributions: “Mary Pope”, “Smokey and the Pope”, “The Pope, The Witch and The Wardrobe”,  “Pope Gordon” and “Flash Pope” (the last two in honour of my aggressively atheistic husband Gordon), to name but a few. It’s no wonder I didn’t get much work done that night.

Once A Pope

Pope Gregory XVI made gambling on papal electi...
Pope Gregory XVI made gambling on papal elections punishable by excommunication. Quite right too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, I don’t think it really matters what the Pope is called, any more than it matters what the Queen is called. The title alone is enough to conjure with. Who needs a name when your title is recognised around the globe?

Here’s an example. When my brother was a teenager, he belonged fleetingly to a band. He and his friends chose the band’s name by picking words at random from the dictionary. It is a time-honoured process for the unimaginative which worked a treat for the Wombles (eventually a rival band themselves, of course, as well as a bestselling children’s book). The Wombles used an atlas instead of a dictionary, hence a string of characters with melliflous names such as Orinoco, Tobermory and Great Uncle Bulgaria. What did my brother come up with? “Inedible” – ok, quirky. “Giant” – good, suggests impending megafame. And finally: “Pope”. Put them together: “The Inedible Giant Pope”. Well, band names don’t get more memorable than that.

Wombles Annual 1975
Remember you’re a Pope (Photo credit: Museum of Hartlepool)

So what if I were pope, (and I realise that is about unlikely a proposition as I will ever make on this blog), which name would I choose? Well, based on the principal of nominative determinism, I think I’d follow the new Pope Francis’s example and go for a name that suggested what I wanted to be. Pope Popular, Pope Ethical, Pope 21st Century – all a bit too obvious. But given the fact that by the time anyone becomes pope, their age will feature in both the “weakness” and “threat” sections of a SWOT analysis of their position, I have a simple but elegant solution, so obvious that I suspect you’ve arrived at it ahead of me. After all, what’s not to love about Pope Young? I rest my case.

Long live the Pope!

PS No Popes were harmed in the writing of this blog post. 

PPS I admit this post is something of an experiment, driven by the surprising revelation that “nominative determinism” – a phrase I have always adored – has been one of the most popular keyword phrases in my previous posts. I have absolutely no idea why.