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"Poetry in the Raw"

Do you have children? If so, you have been awarded the delicate task of naming a human being. This seems so simple to middle school girls; they can discuss the names of their future sons and daughters for hours. In the fifth grade, my daughter was to be named Abigail. I had three chances to use that name and it never happened.

One thing little girls forget is that their child will have a father, who may not have sat around his boy scout campfire comparing names with his buds, but who has definite ideas about the names of his own children. And sadly, he does have a say.

For better or worse, people have impressions about who you are as soon as they hear your name. As a kid, I once lamented to my mother that no famous person had my name, Mary Beth.

“Oh yes,” she said. “There was an actress named Mary Beth Hughes. But she didn’t fit the name.”

Mary Beth Hughes:
the Anti-Me

Me: “What do you mean?”

Mom: “She was very glamorous.”

Thanks, Mom.

According to Confucius, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” So I guess my Plain Jane name is in accordance with the truth of things. Sigh.

A quote from W.H. Auden: “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” I like that, too. It emphasizes the important task one has when naming someone.

It is not trivial, then, to consider the names of the characters of your novel. This chosen name will carry a piece of their personality to the reader. There are blogs and websites galore to help authors choose the perfect name, and an entire book (Character Naming Sourcebook) on the matter. When I googled it, I got over twelve million hits.

So I took it very seriously last week when a member of my critique group questioned the name of one of my main characters, Margaret or Marg with a hard G. It sounds too close to her antagonist, Maeve, for one, and the female lead should have a softer sounding name, for two.

I brought this up to my husband, who said, “I never liked that name.” Oh.

I first went to Ancestry.Com to look through the names of my paternal ancestors, almost all of whom were Irish. I came up with Ann. My husband vetoed that. Too plain, he said. The part he did like about Marg was that it was not ordinary.

Next, I googled “Irish girl names” and found This is a very marvelous site. Not only do they have lists of girls’ and boys’ names, they have the Gaelic version (with far too many consonants. sorry.), as well as the English versions, and their meanings. As a really cool bonus, they have Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, read each name so you can get the actual pronunciation. I love it!

My husband and I agreed that, of my short-list names, the best is Eveleen (pronounced Ay-Vleen). It is not too strange since Evelyn is another version of it, but has enough of the exotic to be, as Auden says, poetry. And it has no hard sounds; it is soft and melodious. So Marg becomes Eveleen. Um, it also has the benefit of being close to the name of my sister, Evelyn, and I owe her. But that’s a story for another day.

4 thoughts on “"Poetry in the Raw"

  1. It's walking a fine line. My two novels are set in Germany and Russia; it's hard to find easy names for characters in those two places.

  2. I can imagine. My son-in-law's family is Russian, so maybe they can be of assistance. They're very enthusiastic about their heritage.

  3. Perhaps we should be thankful. My wife and I just visited some Mayan ruins in Yucatan; their names really ARE unpronounceable.

  4. Ha ha. I remember how I mangled them when I taught middle school history. It sounds like a great trip.

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