What’s in a Name?

My parents thought they were doing me a favor when they named me Jane. My dad felt that “Lindskold” was enough of a name to saddle any kid with and suggested short first names. (Dad and his sisters were Ruth, John, and Mary, so I suspect he was following his own parents’ feeling in this).

As I understand it, Dad also favored naming his first kid for himself. Out of all the possible feminine forms of “John,” he and Mom chose “Jane” in honor of two of Mom’s close friends.

However, probably like most kids, I wasn’t crazy about my name. I was called “plain Jane,” taunted with “Hey, Jane, having fun with Dick?” (A taunt that took on a sexual edge once I realized what “dick” might be). I was repeatedly asked “Hey, Jane. Where’s Tarzan?” This last was always followed with howling and chest-thumping in the best movie Tarzan tradition.

When I was in school, I longed for a cool nickname. No luck. When I was in high school, I started spelling my name “Jayne” – as if that would make a difference. (I kept doing this through college, but began to drop the practice, except for friends, once I was publishing – my first publications were academic and pen names weren’t part of the picture).

I thought about the impact of names the other day while I was working on a project, digging through baby books, dictionaries, and other sources, looking for just the right names for several characters. There are various guidelines I have set for myself.

Names should be relatively easy to pronounce. If names have a meaning, I should be aware of it. If I’m using a “cute” variant spelling, I need to know why the character’s parents chose it.

I try not to have too many character names start with the same few letters to avoid confusing fast readers who tend to skim and read by shape. (As I myself do.) Sometimes I don’t follow this last rule. In Five Odd Honors, you’ll meet a character named “Parnell.” This name is close in “shape” to “Pearl,” but I liked both names and decided they were different enough I could live with the similarity of that initial P and final L.

Names can shape a character. Gaheris Morris in Thirteen Orphans was originally “Garrett.” My friend Chris Krohn came to a reading from the unfinished novel (oddly, this is something I rarely do). Afterwards, Chris told me there was a comedian with a very similar name. The general sound of the name was already in my head, so I didn’t want to change it too much. I came up with Gaheris. Then I had to ask myself what sort of mother would name her child after a knight of the Round Table. So a complex character background was born – one with consequences for Gaheris’s daughter, Brenda.

Sometimes characters’ personal histories will shape the name I give them. Firekeeper’s “baby name” was “Little Two-legs” because, to the wolves who raised her the fact that she walked on two legs was her most distinguishing feature. The fact that she qualified for the “adult name” of Firekeeper says a lot about how the wolves viewed their human foster child – despite Firekeeper’s own insecurities regarding how weak, “nose dead,” and otherwise inferior she is to the wolves.

It’s all great fun.

You know, now that I think about it, my parents did do me a favor naming me “Jane.” Not only did I spend a lot of time thinking about names, but also those taunts led me to reading books I might not otherwise have discovered. One day at a flea market when I was in about sixth grade, I came across a box of yellowed Tarzan novels.

After initially flinching to find my nemesis here as well, I was tempted. I bought a couple books for a nickel apiece. I loved them. Next time someone said, “Hey, Jane. Where’s Tarzan?” I began babbling about did they know that Tarzan was an English lord, that he could talk to animals, that he had this really big knife? That he was so cool.

Funny. The teasing stopped. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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11 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Names are funny things. Take mine for instance — Alan Robson. Simple, straightforward, easy to say, easy to write.

    Well it seems not.

    I get called Allen Robertson and Allan Robinson but almost never Alan Robson. I have no idea why.

    Once I got a phone call from a telemarketer.

    “Can I speak to Mr Robertson?”

    “There’s nobody here of that name,” I said. “But there is someone with a similar name. If you get his name right, I’m sure he’d love to speak with you. Would you care to try again?”

    “Oh. Can I speak to Mr Rob…”

    Long pause.

    “…son?”

    “That’s me,” I said.

    “Hello Mr Robinson, I’m calling from…”

    “No thank you,” I said and hung up.


    -Alan Robson
    (See? I said it was easy to write!)

  2. Ann Nalley Says:

    Ah. I agree with everything said. One should try having the middle name “Myrtle.” I felt as if I were hiding a wicked secret through out my childhood years. “Myrtle the turtle,” as we all know,”wears a girdle.” Young friends are not interested in the fact that “myrtle” is the name of two beautiful flowers. I finally found peace in the truth that I was the only grandchild to have been given my grandmother’s name, and that this was a familial honor which bound me to her in a special way. I also learned to be thankful that this was my middle name ~ not my first name. And perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. My interest in names did lead me to write my undergraduate honor’s thesis on patterns of naming in Shakespearean comedy. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

  3. Barbara Lindskold Says:

    Interesting all the things you can learn from your adult children.

    Names are important which is why, old lady that I am, I wonder about folks who name their children with no thought and no reason.

    Yes I am THAT mother.

  4. heteromeles Says:

    I married a wonderful Korean woman, who is the third daughter and middle child of five. When she was born, her father consulted an astrologer to find out what to do so that he would have a son. The astrologer told her father to what her name had to be so that she would have a brother. It worked, too. She has two younger brothers and a very pretty name.

    As is common in Korea, her given name is two words, and it doesn’t have an obvious gender in English (since aside from kim chee and tae kwon do, English hasn’t imported much Korean). You can imagine how many different ways her mail is addressed.

    Actually, all her siblings have two word given names. While my wife has a unique name thanks to the astrologer, her two older sisters have the same first word in their given names, and her two younger brothers have the same first word in their given names. I understand that this isn’t (or wasn’t) uncommon in Korean families. When we were first dating, I had a lot of trouble with their names, until she provided me with a cheat sheet.

  5. Eric Says:

    My name fascinates me, I must say. It’s derived from the Old Norse name meaning ‘ruler.’

    Also, had I been born a girl, I would have been named Laura, which is the name I will give to my daughter, should I ever have one.

    My parents thought about naming me Peter, which would have resulting in numerous instances of name calling, mostly involving Peter Pan, due to my last name being what it is.

    If my father hadn’t changed his last name during his college years, I would be Eric Okoniewski. Try pronouncing that correctly. You should see the job that people have done trying to spell it when I challenge to do so after hearing me say it.

    Just a few of the thoughts I have when you mention names.

  6. Jane Lindskold Says:

    I love hearing people’s Name Stories…

    Whether you love your name, hate it, or have changed it, it’s part of life’s journey.

    I’m sort of sad we belong to a culture where names are inflexible ID Tags.

    Of course, I’ve kept the surname I was born with, instead of changing it with marriage, so who am I to speak?

    On the other hand, I really like Lindskold… Not only the meaning (roughly, ‘bearer of the shield of linden wood’), but also how my Swedish great-grandfather ended up with it.

    And why I have cousins called “Lindshield.”

    Maybe I’ll go into that one of these weeks…

  7. Alan Robson Says:

    By a strange coincidence, I ‘ve just finished reading “Enchanted Glass”, a new novel by Diana Wynne Jones. A major character in the story is called Aiden, and much is made of the fact that the bad guys cannot pronounce his name – they call him Adrian. Only the good guys can say his name properly.

    It’s a Diana Wynne Jones book; what more needs to be said? It’s brilliant and you should all read it immediately.


    -Alan

  8. Jane Lindskold Says:

    I’m a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan myself, so I’ll put this on my reading list.

    Her “Tough Guide to Fantasyland” is on my “must read” list for anyone who wants to avoid writing cliched Fantasy fiction.

  9. Alan Robson Says:

    “Tough Guide To Fantasyland” is at one and the same time hilarious and squirmingly embarassing — particularly if you have ever written or expressed a liking for standard fantasy; the kind of thing that some people refer to as ‘extruded fantasy product’.

    Be warned — you’ll never read a fantasy novel again with the same eyes that you have now once you’ve read this book. Indeed, you’ll (mostly) stop reading fantasy at all…


    -Alan

  10. NinjaMisha Says:

    Gaheris Morris was actually my favorite name in your series . It really seemed to fit the character perfectly and I find it hard to imagine him having any other name!

  11. Chris Krohn Says:

    Glad to help. “OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT: GENERALISSIMO FRANCISCO FRANCO IS STILL DEAD.” –Garrett Morris, SNL

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