What’s In a Name?

By any other word would smell as sweet.

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,

 Retain that dear perfection .….”

(Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II)


In this world famous quote, Juliet argues that it doesn’t matter to her that Romeo is from her family’s rival house of Montague, as to her his name is irrelevant. She would love him all the same.

This may be true from the point of view of the attraction between star crossed lovers, but if Romeo was not from the house Montague, then Juliet’s family would have no issue with him marrying their daughter and maybe they would have lived happily ever after.

So, in answer to the question posed, dear reader, of ‘what’s in a name?’ the answer is everything and nothing. It all depends on how you are viewing it.

I have just finished watching a mini-series called the Hatfields and McCoys, which is based on a true story of a rift between two Southern families in the mid to late 1800s in America, a rift that still raged on until recently when I truce was signed by circa 60 members of the families. This illustrates perfectly the power that a name can have over a person’s destiny.

Hatfields and McCoys hated each other and were forbidden from mixing. Despite this, Johnse Hatfield fell in love with Roseanna McCoy and asked for her hand in marriage. So deep was the hatred between the families that Randall McCoy disowned his daughter and Anderson Hatfield gave his son a choice – to stay with his family or leave with Roseanna and never come back. Johnse chose to stay, abandoning Roseanna to a life alone, carrying a child he wasn’t aware of.

This is a real life example of how a name takes precedence over the person inside.

If you think about it, dear reader, a name is the first piece of information we receive about a person and, from this name, we subconsciously make a judgement about who the person is and how we will interact with them. Introducing yourself to a McCoy as a Hatfield (and vice versa) will instantly make you the enemy, regardless of who you are.

How many of you have formed judgements on people based on a Christian name, for example?

TV and film can be blamed for a lot of this name prejudice, in my view. We cannot help but associate names with the personas of these fictional characters. For example, Harry Enfield created Wayne and Waynetta, a couple who were dirty, unkempt and not very bright. He also created Kevin and Perry, two slovenly teenagers also lacking in brain cells. I defy you not to think of these personas when you meet someone called Wayne or Kevin.

It’s the same at the other end of the spectrum too. Think of the names Alistair, Hugo and Charles, for example. What images do they conjure up? Those of wealth and privilege I would suggest.

There are many other examples and these all help to add weight to the importance of names and the image that a name projects. The old adage of “never judge a book by its cover” applies to names and people too, but we are only human and we can’t help it.

Names are a part of every culture and, when you think about it, are hugely important to both the individual and to society.

Names are given in many different ways by different cultures. Those with a keen sense of ancestry will hand names down through the generations, largely on the male side. Some base names on events that have happened during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Others divine names through incantation and magic.

In some cultures, the name given at birth is the first of many the individual will receive throughout life, with new names marking important milestones or being used to ward off evil spirits, by tricking them into thinking the person with the old name has disappeared.

Many cultures mark the giving of a name with an elaborate ritual, the christenings we are familiar with being on the less elaborate side!

When a person is given their name, they are given an identity and a place in society. It is almost like a symbolic contract has been made between society and the individual. Society confirms the individual’s existence and acknowledges its responsibilities towards that individual. The individual, in turn, implicitly accepts membership in society and agrees to follows its rules and customs.

In many cultures, a birth certificate can be said to mark that contract, as it provides a passport to the services offered by society. Also, especially in the US, the giving of a prison number, instead of using a name, symbolises the breaking of this contract by the individual and hence the loss of their identity and the benefits it holds.

Most, if not all names, have significance and the task of choosing a name for a baby in today’s world is a serious occupation. New parents become obsessed with the meaning behind the name that they give their child. But why? They have no idea whether their child will grow up to represent the true meaning of their name. So, is it more a belief that by gifting a child a particular name, they will also gift said child with the meaning behind that name?

My name, for example, is the French version of Mary. It is a very royal name with several European queens bearing it, for example, Marie Antoinette. Its usage is more as a middle name, but even this is becoming rare. Its meaning is “wished for child, rebellion and bitter”.

Now, I asked my parents whether they considered the meaning of Marie before they gave it to me and they said they hadn’t. Yet, I am the oldest child and hence usually the wished for one. Some may say I am rebellious, although I would prefer the term driven. As to bitter, well, I think we can all admit to being a bit like this at certain points in our lives.

You’re probably wondering why I was named the way I was. The simple answer is that my parents wanted our initials (my siblings too) to create a nickname; one that we wouldn’t be bullied for.

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;

’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed.”

(Othello, Act III, Scene III)

Your name becomes a representation of who you are to others and establishes the beginning of a reputation you are responsible for creating. It is worthless to others, but is everything to you.

You may be wondering why I am writing a rather tame blog about names. Well, dear reader, one critical part of creating believable characters, dark or otherwise, lies in the names that you give them.

When creating names, whether real or fictional, keep them simple. There is nothing less memorable then a complex name. There is nothing more adept at failing to create an image of a character in the reader’s mind than a complicated name.

So, dear reader, make them simple, make them easy to pronounce and, thus, make your characters unforgettable.

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

Til next time.