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The Written Word July 2008



What's in a Name?



Choosing a name: Try to select names that are easy to remember, avoiding those that sound alike or start with the same letter. If your characters are Ron and Don, or Mary, Marian, Martha and Margot, the story will be confusing. 


The Internet is a great source for names. Need a name for a boy born in New York about 1920? Query Names, American, 1920. You can also search by nationality.  Query famous Iranians or famous Russians, for example, and mix and match first and last names.


Does that name belong in your timeline? Some given names have been with us since Roman times, going in and out of fashion. Samantha and Tabitha existed long before Bewitched.  Wendy, once a nickname for Gwendolyn, comes back every time there's a new production of Peter Pan.  Terrance, a Latin name meaning calm, has been around for centuries. The shortened form, Terry is acceptable for a man, but women weren't named Teri until the twentieth century.  Amy, another name from Latin, has been with us for ages, but any one of its modern spellings might be jarring in the wrong setting. 


Tiffany comes from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and didn't come into vogue until the movie was released.  (Tiffany's was actually a jewelry store, not a girl.)  Amber is the heroine's name in Forever Amber (1947) and would be out of place for a story set early in the last century. Traci and Stacey are modern names, connected with the Barbie doll (1950s) and would be inappropriate in an historical novel.


Sometimes a name switches genders over time.  Girls are named Ashley (Gone With the Wind, 1939 although Ashley in the movie was a man. Now it's fashionable to give girls masculine names, but that's a recent phenomenon.  A protagonist named Jordan would be out-of-place anywhere but the near future or the here-and-now.


Be careful about geographical names like Paris, which were not common a few years ago. Our ancestors chose biblical names, the names of historical figures, or family members.  


Does it match the character? A tough cowboy might be called Red, Tex or Buck, but probably not Reginald.  While Julie would be a good choice for a spritely young woman, Beulah would not. 


Next time: We'll look at homonyms, words that confuse because they sound alike, but have different meanings.