Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Dandelion by one particular other name . . .

. . . is "pee-the-bed".  Something that didn't occur to me until after I'd called my new series detective Dandelion (aka Dandy) Gilver, because her parents were devotees of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the type who'd think a wildflower was a wonderful thing.

Gilver, Dandy's name since she married Hugh Murdoch Cathellen Gilver, is believably Scottish (I know McGilvers and Gilverys) but not actionable, since I made it up out of GIL (Scots for servant) and VER (Latin for truth).  So she's a dandy servant of truth i.e. good detective.

Be assured I don't go into that much depth and cunning for everyone.  Ordinarily, I love naming characters precisely because flashy results for little effort are the best bit of writing.

So for the first names - what Dandy in Scotland in the 1920s would call Christian names - I use Naming Baby by Eugene Stone, a fine little volume inherited from my grandmother after she used it (presumably) to come up with James,Walter, Peter, Annie and Minnie.

For what I call second names, US speakers call last names and Dandy would call surnames, I used to flip through the weekly Galloway News.  There was much fun to be had with McSporrans and McHaggises, McGurks and McGoggs and McGilihooleys.  I couldn't use them all, obviously; that many micks and macks would send readers cross-eyed, so the second names in the books are never an accurate reflection of what a batch of Scottish names would actually be.  (Think California towns starting with San or Santa and you'll get the idea). 

A related - if irrelevant - problem is that if I buy an address book outside Scotland it never has enough space under the Ms and I have to steal some of the N pages to cram in clan McPherson, clan-in-law McRoberts and all my McKenzie, McKie, McLean, MacDougall, MacKay and McKinnon pals.  It must be the same in Ireland with Os.

These days I do it online.  There are no fewer daft Scottish names but there is always the danger of finding yourself, two hours later, deep in the bowels of Youtube, watching a cat stuck in an urn.

The most fun I ever had naming characters was in a circus setting for The Winter Ground: Topsy Turvey the acrobat, Tiny Truman the dwarf clown and the flying Prebrezhenskys, a Risley act. 
Tiny Truman was named after what was called, at the head of a paragraph on the Finger Lakes in the Rough Guide to New York State, Tiny Trumansburg.  I know the town was named after the president and the guide was commenting on its size, but I loved the idea of a big town named after someone called Tiny.

The most frustrating bit of naming characters is that, in being realistic, you have to ignore endless real-life examples just too outlandish to appear in fiction: I used to have a colleague called Zip Dominion; a mature student whose parents, in the 1950s, saw no reason not to call her Gay Cocks (but get these feminist credentials - she didn't change it when she married!); the local indie bookshop in Davis is run by the magnificently monikered Alzeda Knickerbocker; or what about Madison Bumgarner of the Giants?  (I'll tell you what about him - Go, As!)  And I'll never forget the day I learned of Diana Ross's decision to grace her beautiful little girl with the fragrant . . . Chudney.  Oy.

Let's finish off back in fiction; Chudney couldn't happen there.

My favourite fictional name of recent times is the hero of Daniel Friedman's stellar debut Don't Ever Get Old.  He's a curmudgeonly octogenerian Memphis Jewish ex-detective and his name is Buck Shatz, which makes me laugh every time I see it.  I'm just sophisticated that way.


Meredith Cole said...

Love hearing about how everyone chooses names for their characters--what fun! Still laughing about all those "M's".

Oh--and I just realized I need to write my post for tomorrow...

Alan Orloff said...

You crack me up. I spend a lot of time trying to name my characters. I think I need more Scottish names. (I'm glad to be sharing Thursdays with you!)

Daisy Bateman said...

I knew a boy in college whose loving parents blessed him with the name "Harry Cao." He had a pretty good sense of humor about it, all things considered.

(p.s. Go A's!)