Friday, May 30, 2008

K'neesheshawna By Any Other Name

I like names, and find it interesting that people say “a name tells a lot about a person,” since the person carrying the name had nothing whatever to do with choosing it. There are books written on the meaning of names. Roger, for example, means “the spear carrier,” though I haven’t a clue as to how that came about. Granted I do a lot of windmill-tilting, but don’t think I’ve ever held let alone carried a spear.

First names, like dog breeds, tend to surge and ebb in popularity. Would you care to make a guess as to how many cribs and playpens full of "Brittany" there are out there at the moment as the "Ashleys" flood our school system? Boys names are a little less trend-driven, but consider “Lance”. Ethnic groups favor ethnic names. It used-to-was that just hearing a name revealed ethnicity. Rastus, Hymie, Sol, Reginald, Gino, Francis. But that has faded over time. Only, it seems, African Americans seem to go out of their way to give their children names which may well reflect their parents’ pride in being black, but may very well tend to haunt the kid for the rest of his or (most specifically, her) life if they have any hope of blending into the mainstream. Of course, Condoleezza Rice hasn’t done too badly for herself, but I do feel, overall, that in-your-face ethnic names are more detrimental than helpful over the long haul. (I am seriously curious as to how many of these names are based in history, and how many simply made up because they sounded exotic. I think of one of our insured when I worked for an insurance company: “Placenta Palmer”.)

For a confirmed Agnostic, I’m very fond of Biblical names and use them frequently for names of characters in my books…especially, I was rather surprised to realize, those beginning with “J”: Jonathan, Joshua, Jared, Jake (the only abbreviated Biblical ”J” name I am comfortable with, since I just can’t picture calling him “Jacob.”) I find I seem to prefer full names to contractions or nicknames, though obviously the first name of my main protagonist in the Dick Hardesty mysteries is a nickname for Richard. I have a good friend I’ve known for more than 50 years whom I…nor anyone else…would ever dream of calling anything but Franklin. The protagonist of my new Elliott Smith mysteries only allows one person to use anything but his full first name.

There’s not much one can do with “Roger”, though some people do occasionally call me “Roge” and I’m okay with that. Both my step-grandmother Anne and my dear friend Uncle Bob always called me “Roggie” and were the only people in my life to do so, I think. To my Uncle Buck, I was “Guggenheimer,” to my mom, I was “Punkin’” or “Beaner.” My dad infrequently called me “Butch”....probably a case of wishful thinking.

Many people use their nicknames throughout life: Chuck, Bob, Brad, Clif, Jack, Frank, Dick, Phil, Don, Rob, Rich, Tom, Mike—though I often tend to prefer the full name: Thomas, Michael, Robert . Most are variations on or contractions of their given name, but some, like my cousins Fat and Cork (Charles and Donald, somewhere in childhood picked up nicknames having no relation to their real names, and carry them through life.

In our egalitarian society where everyone seems to be on a first-name basis, it has reached the point where people who in fact prefer their full name to a contraction or variation or nickname—who prefer to be called “Benjamin” instead of “Ben”, for example—are considered a bit odd, or elitist. So I suppose it is not so much a case of what our names do for us, as what we do with our names.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

No comments: