Monday, May 9, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
NICKNAMES AND THE ANTIQUITY OF NAMES
If there is one subject I am loath to discuss publicly, it is personal names.
Like you, I find some names intolerable. I wonder why parents would ever call their daughter @#$*$%, because the name sounds like something befitting a hooker or striptease artist. Why lumber a boy with %$@*$@ when it immediately conjures up the image of a thick-eared oaf? And as for @!~(&^ and &*^%@#, surely the parents had the brains to see that everyone would immediately make negative assumptions about their children.
But I always restrain myself from expressing these views outside private conversation because I am fully aware that @#$*$% and %$@*$@ and @!~(&^ and
&*^%@# did not choose their own names, are probably perfectly decent people who don’t deserve to be pilloried for their names and were named by their parents with the best of intentions.
On the other hand, there are three issues about personal names about which I am quite willing to sound off.
I think a nickname (Middle English = “eke-name” = “also name”) is a very fine thing to have, as well as a given name. I’m happy to be called “Nick” by friends – though I do think it’s slightly rude when complete strangers begin a written communication with “Hi Nick” rather than “Dear Nicholas”. It’s one of the habits of our instant-communication, e-mail and Facebook age. You should move to the nickname stage only when you are really familiar with somebody. Still, it’s good to have a nickname, which can be used in unbuttoned situations as opposed to formal ones.
But I am not impressed by parents who make a nickname their child’s given name. My father was called John but was happy to be addressed as “Jack” by his friends. In giving him the option to have both a formal name and a nickname, his parents were doing him a service. A nickname is something you accept (or reject) by choice. If you want to, you can even adopt it as your formal name, as many authors have done. But for parents to give a child the name Maggie rather than Margaret, Bill rather than William or Jack rather than John is to impose informality on the child and leave no other options.
Of course, some people may not be aware of what is or is not the informal form of a given name. My wife and I remember once living next door to a couple who had two daughters called Sarah and Sally. They were apparently unaware that one name was the diminutive of the other. They also left us wondering how hard they’d thought over naming their daughters, what with all the names there are to choose from.
So (in a perfectly polite and non-dogmatic way, of course), I am opposed to parents registering their children with nicknames rather than formal names.
As a second point – I think it’s odd when parents give their children, as first names, names that are really surnames or family names. I’m not being prescriptive about this, but should I encounter somebody called McGregor Jones, my first assumption will be that McGregor must have been the family name of a loved relative of the child. Yet I once met a woman with a son so named [I am making up this particular name to protect the innocent etc.] When I asked her if McGregor was the family name of a relative, she said “No – I just wanted our boy to have a strong first name.” I’m blowed if I can see how a family name, unrelated to your own family, is in any way “stronger” than a good given name. My suspicion is that the habit of making family surnames – unrelated to your own family – your children’s first names is in imitation of the number of American media stars who have such names.
My final matter concerning names is more a matter of amusement than of rebuke.
It’s the difficulty some people have in accepting that their personal names are quite recent coinings and “made up”, rather than being ancient in culture and story.
Of course in some sense ALL names are “made up”. Hundreds (or thousands) of years ago, there had to be somebody who first used any given name that we now regard as both formal and ancient. I’m also aware that many names now seen as formal began as nicknames.
Even so, there is a category of names which are much more recent in origin than some people realise.
To give some obvious examples. Cedric in NOT an ancient Saxon name. It came into being just over 200 years ago when Walter Scott, in writing Ivanhoe (1812), misspelt the ancient Wessex name Cerdic (or Ceretic) and decided he preferred the misspelling. Ironically it is now a most respectable name, often bestowed by parents who think it is very ancient.
Vanessa and Wendy were both names made up by authors within the last 300 years. There were no Vanessa-s until Jonathan Swift, in the early 18th century, concocted the name as a pet name for Esther Vanhomrigh. Slightly more contentious is Wendy. It is sometimes claimed that Wendy is a diminutive form of Gwendolyn, but really the name has been used on its own only since J.M.Barrie created Wendy Darling for his play Peter Pan in 1904, and he probably thought of the name when he heard the daughter of a friend talking about having a “friendy-wendy”.
I don’t think any Cedric, Vanessa or Wendy will be upset to know this, but I have heard of people getting quite put out to hear the origins of Fiona. I think it is because the name is assumed to be an ancient Celtic one, and people call their daughters Fiona to connect them to a legendary past. In fact the name Fiona was invented by the Scottish writer William Sharp (1855-1902) in the late nineteenth century. It was intended as a playful feminine equivalent of the ancient male Celtic name Fionn (or Finn, if you’re Irish). There were genuine Celtic feminine equivalents of this name, such as Finnguala, Finnabair and Finnmaith. But Fiona was not one of them. It is strictly a modern coining, and was formed in a non-Celtic way anyway (only in Latin languages do you make a name feminine by adding “a” to it). Do not be fooled by some of those (typically semi-literate) “names-for-baby” manuals, which try to pretend that the name Fiona was used before Sharp made it up. It wasn’t.
Not that it really matters when a name was made up, or whether it was invented by some author. We like the name Imogen enough to have bestowed it on one of our daughters. The name was probably (but not definitely) made up either by Shakespeare or by his printers. Imogen first appeared in print as a character in Cymbeline. The theory is that this was a misprint for the genuinely ancient and pre-existing name Innogen.
I do have only one problem with this lovely name. It is sometimes mangled and mispronounced (especially by Americans) as “Im-oh-GENE”. But if I got onto the matter of the pronunciation of names, I would take up far more pages than I have already done.