Fear in Writing: What's in a name?*

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What's in a name?*

Warwickshire.  Kirkby-in-Ashfield.  Maryport.  Much Wenlock.  Gloucestershire.  Needham Market.  Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.  Ottery St. Mary.  Saffron Walden.  Shepton Mallet.  Thornbury.  Wells-next-the-Sea.  Nottinghamshire.

As you may have guessed, these are towns and counties in England.  They are simple names, but they are very specific to the location in which they exist.  With the exception of those former colonies of HRH, only in GB could these very British names take hold.  This without even getting into the names of historic properties and estates!

Say some of these words aloud...Gloucestershire.  Thornbury.  Warwickshire.  Your mouth probably stretches a bit more than usual, your tongue getting more use and your mouth forced to really enunciate.

But, aside from the difference in speech, you probably feel something when saying these words.  Does Wells-next-the-Sea make you think of a matter-of-fact group of people in a beautiful ocean setting?  Honest fishermen, perhaps, in straight-up cottages the wind whips through morning, noon, and night.  How about Shepton Mallet?  Must be a country village with a busy former trade life and hardworking townfolk.  Warwickshire?  I see landed gentry and acres upon acres of working lower classes, beautiful pastures divided only by estate homes and historic buildings.

These assumptions are not correct.  Wells-next-the-Sea is a beautiful, oceanside town, but established as a port and famous for the nearby birthplace of Lord Nelson.  Warwickshire is a county--so not defined by just one description.  It, too, is famous for those it has born: Shakespeare, George Eliot, and poet Rupert Brooke.  Shepton Mallet?  I was right on!  See what a name can say!

The point is that words can make you feel.  They can make you imagine and therefore should be used wisely.  They are dangerous in the wrong hands and inspiring in the right ones.  Name your places well.  Call your people only words that invoke the right character.  Call out for geography with the titles of towns and houses.

How do you name your places and characters?  Do you try to invoke a feeling?  Do you search the history of a name or the meanings behind it in different cultures?  Do you say it out loud and feel it roll off your tongue?

* In the manner of my good blogging friend, Margot Kinberg, the title comes from another source.  This one is from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, (II, ii, 1-2).  The full line, spoken by Juliet, goes as such: 
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name; And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo and Juliet, Annie Liebovitz, for Vogue 2008


  1. Such a good point, Michele. I have a new town for the new series and I spent a total of 1 1/2 hours just playing around with different names for it. Came up with Dappled Hills, which is exactly what I was looking for and evokes the sleepy mountain town I was creating. Names really can set a mood.

  2. Makes me think of sleepy evenings when the sun is just setting...beautiful rolling greenery with lots of secrets hidden under the foliage. Great name, Elizabeth!

  3. Names often describe a place or thing better than a narrative.
    Thanks to this post I realize wt was bugging me in my wip. The village name says nothing. Thanks again.

  4. Really dig English town names!
    My character's names are much shorter - and simple. They are all military and since their names are a bit alien as well, it's almost like call names for fighter pilots.

  5. Mary- So exciting I could help! It can really make a difference in the feeling of a setting.

    Alex- I dig 'em, too. And I'm sure the militaristic aspect contributes to the mood in Cassastar. Wouldn't be the same with names like Pip and Bootsie. :P