What’s in a Name?

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BabyFor those of you who have children, do you remember the excitement (and perhaps the anxiety) that filled you as you began selecting names? It’s a weighty responsibility, knowing your child will be saddled with whatever you choose for the length of his/her life. No pressure. Ha!

Names are so important. We want our girls’ names to be beautiful and our boys’ names to be strong. Yet more than that, we want them to have meaning. Perhaps you chose a name because of the meaning inherent in that name’s origin. Or maybe you selected a name from your ancestry that carries significance for your family.

As an author, I’m faced with the same dilemma when selecting names for my characters. Not only do I want the names to sound good and roll easily off the reader’s tongue, but I love to give extra meaning to the names, perhaps a meaning that no one else will ever pick up on besides me.

TailorMadecover1For example, in my debut novel, my main characters are Jericho Tucker and Hannah Richards. Yes, I love using biblical names. They fit the historical setting perfectly, but in my hero’s case there was extra meaning involved. Jericho’s name was symbolic. Like the biblical city whose walls came tumbling down, Jericho or “J.T.” had built walls around his heart that needed to come down in order for him to open himself to the heroine’s love. And Hannah Richards? Well, her name had personal significance to me. You see, my dad died when I was only 16, and I wanted to honor him in some subtle way in my first published novel. His name was Richard, and it seemed fitting to let my heroine carry his name.head in the clouds

Gideon Westcott and Adelaide Proctor from Head in the Clouds had some play on their names that probably only I cared about, but they helped me relate to the characters as I wrote. Gideon Westcott was a British nobleman who came to Texas to run a sheep ranch. Gideon from the Bible used a sheep’s fleece to ask God for confimation of his mission. Adelaide Proctor was a teacher and teacher is often synonymous with the term proctor.

Short-Straw Bride CoverStealing The PreacherOf course, the Archer brothers from Short-Straw Bride and Stealing the Preacher were named for heroes from the Alamo – Travis, Crockett, Bowie (who went by Jim), and Neill. I had fun tying those into Texas history since my books are all set in Texas. But did anyone notice that the heroine who paired up with Crockett – Joanna Robbins – had a play on her name as well? Her father was an ex-outlaw who robbed stage coaches and trains. (Yes, I see your eyes rolling.)

One of my favorite sources for names is the Social Security website. You can search the most popular names by year as far back 1880 – ideal for a historical writer. You’ll find timeless names like Charles and Michael, Elizabeth and Mary. But then there are the names that make you wince like Elmer and Rufus, or Gertrude and Bertha (yes, all these made the top 100 in 1880). But what is really interesting from a historical perspective are the popularity of cross-gender names. Now, girls have worn boys’ names proudly for years, but back in the day, it’s a little scary how how popular girls’ names were for boys.

Here’s a few from the 1880-1885 lists – remember these are boy’s names:

Marion    Leslie    Pearl    Lynn    Pink    Mary    Loren    Madison    Cary    Fay    Allie    Sandy    Dee    Jean    Jules    Anna    Clair    Minnie    Kelly    Shirley.

Now, just because a name is historically accurate, does not mean it would make a great character name. I just can’t imagine naming my rugged cowboy hero Minnie or Shirley. And calling him Anna or Mary would just leave readers scratching their heads. Especially if the heroine was named Lou or Johnnie (popular female names during that time). Although . . . I have dear friends named Lacy and Jaye. Lacy is a very masculine Texas game warden while Jaye is his lovely wife. When they were first introduced at church, however, it took me weeks to get their names sorted out.

What kind of names do you enjoy most when you are reading novels?

What weird names have you run across in books or real life that make you cringe?

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

39 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. I enjoy characters that have unusual, uncommon, names – I think it calls attention to them & makes them stand out in the story.

    Interesting post, Karen, wasn’t aware of the available name search by year through social security.


  2. Like you mentioned, a name that rolls off your tongue is always good. I don’t mind an unusual name as long as it rolls off the tongue. I can’t remember the names that I have read that every time I come across it, I would have to stop and think for a minute. I don’t like those names because it makes you stop and slow down when you’re reading at a good pace.

  3. Hi, Bonnie. I agree about using uncommon names. I usually try to find names that a slightly unusual but so far out there that readers can’t connect. It’s a delicate balance. When I started reading the reviews for Stealing the Preacher, it was amazing to me how many people commented on Crockett’s name. Some absolutely loved it. Others complained that it was too weird. Just goes to show how subjective these things can be.

  4. Janine – That rolling off the tongue factor is a big deal to me. I read a lot of Scotish highlander stories, and most of the time they choose names I can pronounce, maybe with an alternate spelling. But sometimes I pick up a book that uses such a Celtic spelling that I have no idea how to pronounce it. I just can’t get into a story when I can’t figure out how to “hear” the hero or heroine’s name.

    Until Harry Patter became so popular, I had no idea had to pronounce Hermione. I kept trying to make it hair-moyn. Whenever I read a regency romance with this heroine’s name, it would drive me batty.

    Because of my own personal frustration, I always strive to choose names that readers will be able to “hear” in their mind and won’t cause them to mentally stumble every time they come across it.

  5. Karen, I am like you with the masculine names for men. Fluffy mens names just don’t fit the bill at all. As a young girl I heard a name when I was visiting family in New Orleans and said if I ever had a little girl I was giving her that name. Well, sure enough, I stuck to my guns and my Britney is now a beautiful mother of three.

  6. Hi, Melanie. Britney is a lovely name, and it’s so fun that you stuck with that for years. I didn’t do that with a child, but my second heroine – Adelaide Proctor – her name came about because I had read the name Adelaide in a classic book eons ago when I was in high school English. I fell in love with it. I can’t remember the name of the book or what it was about, but that name stuck with me. I couldn’t resist using it myself once I got the chance. 🙂

  7. Had a good laugh when I saw my own name listed in the men’s names (although my full name is Allison).

    When naming my own daughter (who is turning one in just a few days) I wanted to go classic. I named her Charlotte Grace. I like names that have survived the generations.

    I have a particularly hard time with names that are trendy or that are spelled so “uniquely” that they are unrecognizable.

    P.S.I love the Archer boy’s names!

  8. Hi, Allie. Those boys’ names are something else, aren’t they? I wonder if they were given feminine names to honor a mother or grandmother or with the hope of toughening them up to compensate for their “sissified” name. Seems kind of cruel to set you kids up for a life of teasing and fighting.

    I LOVE Charlotte Grace. It’s beautiful. Excellent choice.

  9. After reading to Win Her Heart I’m in love with the name Eden! I’ve always loved the name Levi too 🙂 It seems most of the names I like have literary roots- my favorite from the time I was a young girl has been Laura from the Little House books. I was so bummed when my husband didn’t like it. So we agreed on Emily for our daughter’s name- which I love from the Emily of New Moon books by LM Montgomery.

  10. Two of my favorite childhood series, Heidi! Very fun.

    I seem to have a leaning toward biblical places as names. Jericho. Eden. My daughter’s name is Bethany. I guess it’s just one more little twist to make the names a touch more unique.

  11. I rummage through the family names from the wonderful genealogy books my mother put together. Some of the names are horrific like Mahitable, but some are great and after I found them thought they would have been fun for my daughters. Of course, they never agreed. 🙂 The one thing about names that makes me insane is names I cannot figure out how to pronounce. They look pretty and have some historic value way back when BUT it throws me out of the story and I stop each time to try to figure out the pronunciation. I read a lot of the Scottish stories and those Gaelic names are killers to pronounce.

  12. So fun to hear the stories behind the names! 🙂 Thank you for sharing! I’m one of those that loved the name Crockett. It really fits his personality, too.

    My little sis is about to have her first baby, and she unfortunately wants to name him Bosephus (not even sure how to spell that, but pronounced Bo-See-Fiss), despite our protestations that the poor child will be teased mercilessly. Not to mention no one knows how to say it or spell it. Or have even heard of it, haha. Everyone we tell says, “What?” and then precedes to try and find it on their phone, haha.

    But since my sis is immovable on the subject, the rest of the family has settled on simply calling him “Bo.” Maybe that way no one else will have to know. 😉

  13. I am usually happy with any name as long as I can pronounce it. Hard names just pull me out of the story. I spend the whole time changing my mind and it drives me crazy. The name can be different and even if I don’t care for it at first, it does become the character in no time at all. Just like people.

  14. Hi Karen, I enjoyed this. First, when I won your “Short Straw Bride” I thought it was your debut book. Am I wrong? As to the names. I have known men with names that sounded like girls names, that long ago they may have been men’s names, for many girls are named for their daddy. I do know that the spelling has been changed in some for the girl. Like my brother, Marion and a niece named after him is Marian. Had a boss named Shirley that was more than 16 years older than me. He never used his second name either.My dad’s name was Thelma now considered a girl name. Now, for my name. Most names as mine have belonged to men. Tho, some are spelled Maxey, most have been with the ie. I had never met another person with my my name until the past few years. Now, have met two. (People always want to call me Maxine. Even some longtime friends, tho I have corrected them. Even received 2 autographed books from 2 of my author friends, tho that is incorrect. My oldest daughter’s middle name is JO after her daddy, Joseph. So seeing an article like this was neat. MAXIE mac262(at)me(dot)com

  15. I like real masculine names like Maverick or Dallas,,my son just named his son Giovanni ,,they live in Tennessee,his wife is Italian,but good grief,,most of the ppl here cant say it or spell it,,they wanted him to know his Italian heritage,,ok,,im part Cherokee Indian,,they are expecting again an im going to request they name this boy Running Buck,,lmao,,he will be running right after Giovanni when the kids are teasing him about his name,,it just kills me but I have to be silent an say nothing,but the running buck part I am going to request,just to get a rise,,,,,,,,,,,lol

  16. Paisley – How wonderful to have a geneology book for names from your family. That’s a wonderful way to find meaningful names. Both my husband and his brother have middle names that were surnames from granmothers in their family. And one of my son’s has the same name as my Grandmother’s maiden name – Wyatt. Of course, when we picked that, I was thinking more of Wyatt Earp than fmaily names. But it turned into an extremely meaningful coincidence.

  17. Hi, Lizzie. Bosephus? Where did she come up with that? Does it have some cool ancient meaning? I remember a historian named Josephus who recorded history during the time of Christ, but I’ve never heard of the name with a B. I’d be interested to learn more about it.

    I have a good friend whose name is Habakkuk (a biblical name I don’t think I would be tempted to use), yet he goes by Hab, and it seems kind of cool. Bo would be a great compromise. (Poor kid.) 🙂

  18. Catslady – I agree about names I can’t pronounce pulling me out of the story. Sometimes when I’m browsing, I’ll not buy a book strictly because the names are too hard and distracting. I figure if I would do that, other readers might, too. Keeps me motivated to choose my characters’ names carefully.

  19. Hi, Maxie! What fabulous examples of male names that have become known more as female names right within your family. And your own name having that masculine flair. I love it! Thanks for sharing those with us!

    Short-Straw Bride was actually my 4th book. It’s sort of been my breakout novel, though, so don’t feel bad about thinking it was my debut. A Tailor-Made Bride was my first, then Head in the Clouds, then To Win Her Heart – all before those Archer brothers came around. 🙂

  20. Hey, Vickie. Giovanni will definitely be a challenge. Maybe they can call him “G” like Christ O’Donnell’s character on NCIS Los Angeles. That might sounds a little tougher. You’re cracking me up with the Running Buck idea. It sure might make them stop and think. Although Buck on it’s own is pretty cool. Sounds very masculine.

  21. I worked with a lady who had two children, Jordan and Casey.. It was weeks before I realized that they were daughters. I’m glad I am not a teacher.. the wild spellings and gender nutural names would drive me nuts!

  22. You’re so right, CateS. We have an abundance of gender neutral names in our own era, don’t we? I’ve learned to be careful with pronouns when I talk to parents on the phone, afraid I’m going to say “he” when their child is actually a “she”. At least teachers get to see the students. Hopefully gender becomes more obvious that way. 🙂

  23. Topanga is a name that makes me cringe, Gertrude would be another. My niece is named Skyler and it was used as a boys name and still is. My boys are all biblical; Joshua, Caleb, Elijah and Silas.

  24. Hi, Jennifer. I’m cringing with you ove Topanga. Can’t say I’ve ever heard that one before. Love your biblical boys’ names! I had a Silas in Stealing the Preacher. He was an ornery old cuss, but he came around in the end. 🙂

  25. Names can be such a problem whether naming characters or your children.

    I am likely to change the name of a character in a book if I find it difficult to pronounce, even mentally. Never has stopped me from reading the book though!

    Our children’s names were not especially difficult. While we discussed names during my first pregnancy, hubby wanted Jennifer for a girl. I wanted Angela. We both had reason to dislike the others choices. Because I was sure I was having a boy, I told him he could name it if it were a girl. Remember this was before the ultrasounds. Our eldest is Brian. Number two was going to be Kirsten, but when she was born she had loads of black hair and did not look like a Kirsten so she is Angela who was blonde by the time she was 6 months. Number three is Jennifer( see we both mellowed by then) and the youngest is Eric. And they all have just the right name!

  26. I hear you, Connie. My hubby let me choose our daughter’s name on the condition that he could choose the name for our second daughter. I wanted Bethany Rose, he wanted Sarah Grace. Poor guy. After Bethany we had two boys. I might have to name a character Sarah for him one of these days.

  27. I love this post, Karen. I like to use family names for secondary characters when I can, e.g. Albert and Ida, but somehow the hero just has got to transcend whatever went on in his actual time period 🙂 The family tree also produced a lot of Oscars and Walters which will never do LOL. I love that the old family name “Ella” has become fashionable once again, but I do not like Alex for girls…that name is all male to me. Daddy.

    Hubby grew up with a neighborhood chum named Sandy. Whose sister was also named SANDY! Go figure that one, sheesh.

    I used to devour Kathleen Woodiwiss books and I thought some of her heroine names got kinda funky and unbelievable. Can’t think of it for sure but Eryienne or something like that was one one. In my head I kept wanting it to be Adrienne or Erin. Ah well, who am I to judge somebody so famous and bestselling LOL??

  28. I happen to be one of those people who like unusual names! I don’t want them to be too funky or anything but I like “different” names! I remember when we named our children, my mother-in-law and father-in-law didn’t know what to think at first because they were not the type of people that “did different”! It took quit a long time to win them over but we figured it was our children and they weren’t “weird names”, but the in-laws were from a different generation! My parents, however, thought they were great! Maybe it’s just me but I happen to look at the names of the two characters of the book FIRST THING before I start! It’s just my “thing”!!!

  29. I always find character names so interesting! My grandmother’s name is Joy Daphine. She was always told that her mother read the name Daphine in a book and loved it. Sadly, we never knew the name of the book and have never seen that name anywhere. When I had my little girl last year, we named her Emma Joy.

  30. I like traditional names, preferably not any that would be confusing for the gender it is attached to.

    My nephew married an irish young lady and all three of their children have irish names: Declan, Siobhan, and Breandan. I had never heard the first 2 before, but now find I hear them more frequently than I would expect.

    It seems odd that they would name a boy Mary, Anna, Fay, or Pearl. I can see most of the other names being used. I have heard of or met men with several of those names.

    I wanted to give as the middle name to our daughter that of a character in CHRISTY: Fairlight. It fit beautifully with her first and last names, but the nurse refused to record it saying it would make the name too long and it wouldn’t fit on the forms. Rebecca Fairlight means so much more than Rebecca Lynn. Lynn being a name that was pulled out of the air. I was too tired after labor and delivery to argue. Wish I had. Oddly enough we were living in Maine at the time and she now lives in North Carolina where the book Christy is set. It really should have been her name.

  31. As a teacher, I’ve had more than my fair share of odd names! Yes, I’ve even had a Topanga…although, I’m not sure that’s the most odd name I’ve had.

    When dear husband and I were thinking of names for our children, I really wanted Biblical names, but I also wanted the children to have a family heritage name. My grandfather was named Cornelius, but my husband vetoed that, so our son became Caleb Don. He shares his initials with dear husband, and “Don” is now in its third generation of usage.

    When our daughter was coming, we looked at the names of our grandmothers: Nola, Bertha, and Mavis…and promptly named our daughter Hannah Joelle. Her family name is tied to my brother, Joel.

    We also wanted to give our children names that meant something that we liked. I always wanted a daughter named Bronwyn, but I believe that means “white breasted,” and I wasn’t sure how the discussion would go in middle school when a classmate asked her what her name meant.

    When making up names for stories or games, I generally stick with names with a “y” in them.

    Karen, loved this article! Thanks!

  32. My grandfather’s middle name was Fayette and he was called Fay. Born in 1890 his name fits with your list of men’s names we now consider female names. I’ve always found the names Shirley and Beverly for boys a bit odd but at one time they were common—wonder when they became female names?

  33. Hi, Tanya. – I love that you use family names in your books. I like to sneak family references to names in when I get the chance.

    Valri – I’m glad you stuck to your guns and went with your more unique names. Names carry so much meaning and they need to be special to you and your children. That way they can take pride in them, even if they are a little “different.” 🙂

  34. Britney – Emma Joy is lovely. I’ve always liked the name Emma. So Jane Austen-y.

    Patricia – I’m so mad at that nurse for bullying you out of that name. Fairlight is gorgeous, and as a fellow Christy fan, I completely agree with you. Too bad you hadn’t been living in North Carolina yourself. I bet those nurses would have been glad to record Fairlight as Rebecca’s middle name.

  35. Heather – I think you made the wise choice regarding Bronwyn. I’m sure your daughter thanks you for saving her from such discussions. If only more parents would think that far ahead. I love that you incorporated family names with your children. Both my boys have middle names that tie back to a different grandfather, and that gives them so much more meaning.

    Hilltop Farm Wife – How fun that your grandfather’s name fits right in with our discussion. I love it. It makes it seem so much more real to know of actual people with those names and not just records on a social security website. Thanks for sharing.

  36. So sorry for the late response!

    Oh, my goodness. Habbakkuk, huh? Yeah, that one might be a little difficult.

    I actually don’t know where she got it, and we’re still in debate as to whether or not it is, in fact, a name. Apparently her boyfriend is the one who came up with the idea, and there is one Country song (don’t know the name) that has it. But I haven’t been able to find it on any baby name registries, which is why I’m not even sure how to spell it.

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