Friday, November 24, 2006

What's in a name?

As it turns out, in the case of the novel I just attempted, an awful lot.

On a Highland Shore came highly recommended by friends, and Givens has a reputation for historical accuracy. In terms of historical detail - events, places, and so forth - this seems to be true. But... the heroine's best friend, a secondary character who plays a big role in the first 50 pages, is named Fiona. The novel's set in Scotland in 1263. This is a problem, because the name Fiona - very popular in Scotland nowadays - was a 19th century, or maybe 18th century, invention. Some background: it was popularized by Scots novelist/poet William Sharp, who chose "Fiona MacLeod" as his pseudonym beginning in 1893, and likely first used by James McPherson, supposed "translator" of the Ossian Cycle, in his poem "Fingal" circa 1762.

More details on the origins of "Fiona" here. The literature seems clear that it's not a medieval name; it's never been documented as such.

Am I being pedantic? You tell me, but I'd be lying if I denied that every time I saw the name, it pulled me out of the story. I would have quibbled just as much if a medieval English heroine was named Pamela. The story itself was engaging, and the heroine appealing (if a bit too modern in her actions), but I'm also not a fan of accents written out phonetically in dialogue. I understand that we're in Scotland, but don't need to be hit over the head with it every time someone speaks. (Diana Gabaldon, however, does this well.)

Chacun à son goût and all that, but for me, the novel's been reshelved - maybe to be picked up at another time.

This got me thinking about first names invented by authors. Surely all names were used first by someone, but not all can be documented. Sir Philip Sidney not only invented "Pamela" for his 1590 poem "Arcadia," but also - if you believe this page (whose data comes from a variety of name dictionaries) - the name "Stella." Samuel Richardson named the heroine of his novel Pamela after Sidney's character, and the name grew in popularity after that. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare is credited with inventing many female names: Jessica, Olivia, Viola, Miranda, Cordelia.

These days, of course, anything goes. Apple, Sailor, Moon Unit, anyone? I was also greatly amused by last night's episode of Ugly Betty, in which our intrepid heroine plans for a photo shoot for the celebrity infant known as "baby Chutney."

20 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:37 PM

    Fun post! I really need to watch "Ugly Betty" one of these days; I hear it's good.

    Worst baby-naming trend I've heard of is the parents who name their child after brand names: Lexus, for example. And what if poor Lexus gets stuck driving a beat-up Chevy?

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  2. Interesting about the "Fiona" name. I had no idea it was of modern origin. I can't even read a historical novel that has anachronistic, modern names and attitudes inserted into it!

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  3. Anonymous2:27 PM

    Names can throw me, too.

    Sometimes it can be very tricky. I don't think many readers will find fault with the Roman names in a book I didn't finish. Ok, it was not only the names, it also was the way the female MC acted. So, one is more likely to find the mistakes in times ones knows about - I don't think I'd have caught Fiona though I would not have picked it for a Mediaeval Scottish female character myself. :)

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  4. "Ugly Betty" is very funny. I even got my husband watching it.

    I know little about medieval Scotland aside from the basics (and things I learned after reading Nigel Tranter's novels, and researching the background) but the history of "Fiona" was one of those pieces of useless trivia I happened to know.

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  5. Anonymous2:23 AM

    I don't think you're being pedantic at all, Sarah - I totally agree. Anachronistic names pull me out of a story, too.

    There was a story in the British media recently about really bad baby names. I can't find it now, unfortunately, but some of the names were brand names, as Susan mentioned. There's a TV series called Footballers' Wives, where one of the characters was called Chardonnay, as a joke - but quite a few parents have picked up on the name and chosen it for their daughters!

    In Germany, there are strict rules about what you can call your child - the brand names and other silly names that you often hear in the UK and US simply aren't allowed.

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  6. Anonymous8:34 AM

    I remember hearing something about that German law--in some cases, I'm sure the kids wish there was such a law here! At least in the US, it's easy for an adult to change his or her name.

    I once had a female classmate named Bambi. In spite of her name, she was quite smart.

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  7. Yes, I used the name Pamela for a character who would have been born in the late 1790s.

    And Margaret Mitchell is supposed to have invented the name "Scarlett"

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  8. Look what blog I just found: http://www.celebritybabynamesblog.com

    That's fascinating, Alianore, I hadn't heard about that German law.

    As was pointed out to me by a reviewer (my dad, actually), there's a newish historical mystery out with a male character named Bambi, Kathleen Hills' Hunter's Dance. Yikes.

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  9. Anonymous10:43 AM

    I've had a few Germans tell me about friends or relatives of theirs, who went to register their child's name and got a definite 'No, that's not acceptable. You have to change it.' Some people have said, though, that they think the law has been relaxed somewhat - that names that used not to be acceptable would be allowed these days. Wish I could remember some examples! (Maybe Gabriele has some?)

    One thing I do remember - the name has to be obviously 'gendered', so you can't choose a unisex name, or give a boy's name to a girl. I guess that would exclude 'surname names' like Taylor or Mckenzie (or rather, the German equivalents)

    AFAIK, if you're of non-German origin, you can choose a name that's traditional to your country - you don't have to choose only German names. But you still wouldn't be allowed to call your child something like Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow) or Bambi! ;)

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  10. Anonymous10:56 AM

    I suppose Fiona might have been around as an undocumented name based on Gaelic 'fionn' (fair), which turns up in place names and as far as I know has been around for a while. But I personally wouldn't use it in a medieval context. I have the same reaction whenever I see an 'Anglo-Saxon' character called Cedric - Sir Walter Scott is supposed to have invented that name for Ivanhoe in about 1815, and it always irritates me when I see it in a novel set in the 10th or 14th century. Again, I suppose it could be an undocumented compound of a recorded name like Cedd, but if there are documented names from the right period why on earth not use them?

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  11. Carla, this page from medievalscotland.org goes into the possibility of "Fiona" being formed from "Fionn" in medieval Gaelic, and discounts it for morphological reasons. I find this very interesting in a historical linguistic sense. There apparently were related names that existed back then - Finnguala, Finnabair.

    This larger page on the Problem Names Project is also fun to read. I've seen many of these "problem names" in historical novels. I'm sure I've seen Cedric before, too, besides in Ivanhoe. I wonder if it's believed to be ancient because the spelling is so similar to Cerdic?

    Alianore, these days "Taylor" and "McKenzie" sound almost normal! I'm remembering Mackenzie Phillips from One Day at a Time back in the 1970s (TV show). Mackenzie wasn't her true first name, but people quickly adopted it as one.

    In this review of On a Highland Shore, I found these comments enlightening (and not in a good way):

    [Linda: I think that sometimes authors should forego historical accuracy to give us names that are not off-putting. Plus there are men's names like Hugh that have been used forever.

    Cheryl: Exactly. If I find myself tripping over a name every time I read it, it really starts to annoy me and takes away from the story. I don't know why this is hard for some authors to understand. An annoyed reader is not a happy reader....

    Linda: Exactly, if I'm trying to figure out how to pronounce a name like Iphigenia, it pulls me out of the story.]

    To each her own, again.

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  12. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Alianore,
    the most famous case was the parents who wanted to call their son Pumuckl after a TV series comic hero and got a no even from the Bundesgerichtshof (High Court of Justice) in Karlsruhe.

    As long as you can prove a name is considered a name in some culture, you can use it, but that doesn't include the American celebrity child names recently popping up, they're not considered part of a culture. :)

    If you pick something exotic, like an Anfrican name, you may be obliged to add a more traditional second name so the kid can pick later on. I'm Nadyeshda Gabriele Brigitte because the first one was a tad out of scope in the 60ies.

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  13. Anonymous1:08 PM

    Oh, and the name I was called by was always Gabriele, so I kept it. Though I like Nadyeshda.

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  14. Anonymous4:38 AM

    Thanks for those links, Sarah. I wonder why they don't mention Rhianmellt in their discussion of Rhian- names? As far as I know she's as well documented as one could expect for a figure from the 630s or 640s (wife of Oswy of Northumbria, daughter of Royth son of Rhun son of Urien Rheged). I must look uo exactly ehich sources she appears in and see if there's a good reason to consider them unreliable.

    The delicious irony of using Cedric as an English name on the strength of Cerdic is that Cerdic looks like a Brittonic name - it's a variant spelling of Ceretic=Caradoc=Caratacus and so about as honourable a British name as one could imagine. I sometimes wonder if Sir Walter Scott picked it as a practical joke and is still chortling about it.

    I disagree with the sentiments in that exchange, but then I find misplaced modern names far more annoying than unfamiliar historical ones. To each her own, as you say. I just hope that both approaches will be allowed to exist, as I really don't want to read novels containing people called Red, Stan, Jade, Jewel, Jezebel, Blaze, Fiona etc.

    Gabriele - what a sensible system that sounds! If you don't mind my asking, what's the origin of Nadyeshda?

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  15. Carla, I'd be interested if you find out in what source Rhianmellt is mentioned. After reading Kathleen Herbert's Queen of the Lightning a while back, I looked for her in various places but didn't see her mentioned by name.

    I like the name Nadyeshda.

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  16. Anonymous9:22 AM

    She's mentioned in Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius), full-text translation online here, scroll down to Genealogy of the Kings of Bernicia, where it says "But Oswy had two wives, Riemmelth, the daughter of Royth, son of Rum; and Eanfied, the daughter of Edwin, son of Alla". Eanflaed is attested by Bede, so I don't think there's any reason to assume that HB hasn't got the first part of the sentence right as well. I'd take this reference as about as much 'proof' as one ever gets of anything in early medieval Britain.

    She is apparently also mentioned in the Durham Liber Vitae, in the right place in its list of Northumbrian queens. I haven't verified that as although there's a university project to put the full text online it doesn't appear to be available yet.

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  17. Anonymous9:57 AM

    Sarah:

    That's why I use medieval English rolls to pull names from. There are a lot more names than you'd think, too...my favorite for one of my characters is "Godwina". It fits her perfectly.

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  18. Anonymous9:51 AM

    Carla,
    it's a Russian name. My mother liked Russian writers - something I've inherited from her. :)

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  19. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Gabriele - many thanks. I wondered if it might be Russian but wasn't sure.

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