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By Clare Bristow

If you’ve read a book by the great Toni Morrison, chances are you’ll remember some of her characters’ names. From vivid nicknames to evocative biblical names, it’s easy to believe there’s a story behind each one.

Morrison’s novels tell of African-American communities, from the time of slavery to the present. One of the issues she explores is the loss of African Americans’ identities and heritage, and how to reclaim them. Names play a huge part in this, as you might expect.

Change a person’s name, as slave owners did, and you take away their identity and cut them off from their ancestors. Once that connection is lost, how do free African Americans get it back? Should they accept the names they have been given, or choose their own names and forge a new heritage?

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Newsy Names: Charmian, Colin & Gene

newsy names

By John Kelly

This past September, we paid our respects to some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and marveled at a visionary’s dreams of the stars. Let’s have a look back at some of the big names in the news – and a look into what the origins of their names can illuminate about them.

Teresa

Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a Catholic saint this month. St. Teresa was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxihu. Anjezë is the Albanian form of Agnes, anticipated her spiritual calling: It’s Greek for “holy” or “pure.” St. Teresa chose her religious name after the 19th-century French nun Thérèse de Lisieux.

Some think Teresa comes from the Greek for “harvest” or “huntress.” Others think it is from the Greek Thera, the name of some volcanic islands in the Mediterranean. The story goes that the wife of St. Paulinus of Nola (354-431 AD) was born on one of those islands and so took her name from them. The origin is unclear, but Teresa is a well-traveled name – fitting for St. Teresa, who made her impact far and wide.

Colin

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made headlines by protesting the pre-game National Anthem over racial inequality. Many athletes have followed suit, which some consider a victory for Colin’s cause. Victory indeed: Colin is a French pet name for Nicholas, a Greek name that literally means “victory-people.” The Greek word for – and goddess of – “victory” is nike, which lives on in the athletic brand.

Gene

Acting legend Gene Wilder sadly passed away this month. Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder took Gene, a short for Eugene, after Eugene Gant, a character in a Thomas Wolfe novel, and Wilder after writer Thornton Wilder. Eugene is from the Greek Eugenios, “well-born” or “noble.” Jerome, meanwhile, is from the Greek Hieornymos, “holy name.” Gene Wilder came from a humble background, but as many remembrances made clear, he was a class-act as an artist and person. And his name will surely be long “worshiped” by his many fans.

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My Name is Gay

gay2

By Gay Cioffi

As the youngest in my family of five, I am the only one who was not named for a grandparent or beloved aunt or uncle. As it happened, I was named for a fondly remembered childhood acquaintance of my mother.

While not only was breaking from that family tradition the cause of a bit of a stir, and it wasn’t a saint’s name to boot (also an expected practice) nothing prepared my parents or me for the fallout to come as I grew up with the name “Gay” in the fifties and sixties.

I remember hearing my mother’s account of the reaction she got from family members regarding her disregard for how children in the family were traditionally named. I also recall that she wavered a bit between the names Gay and Joy, but again the real controversy began in my later teens when the word “gay”, came to represent more than a synonym for happy or carefree.

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secret animal names

By John Kelly

The name Fox has cracked into the UK’s 1000 most popular names, while Kate Winslet and Alicia Silverstone are both raising children named Bear. But if you’re not quite up for naming your baby directly after an animal, consider the many names that have some majestic and inspiring animals hiding in their origins.

A Pack of Canines

The X-FilesFox Mulder sounds snappier than Todd Mulder, doesn’t it? And yet, the name Todd actually does mean “fox.” Todd began as a nickname, of obscure origin, in northern England dialect.

Caleb, 2015’s 37th most popular boy name, might literally mean “dog,” from the Hebrew keleb, with a sense of “devotion.”

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Naming Book Characters: 3 Easy Steps

Naming characters

By Ellen Smith

I’m a name nerd.

True story: In college, I spent hours compiling data for a study on the attractiveness of male and female names. Amanda? Very attractive. Mildred? Not so much. Ken was more attractive than Keith, while Liam was about as attractive as Levi. By the end of the study, I had an Iliad-length research paper and a major caramel-macchiato addiction.

Ah, youth.

Believe it or not, even after all of that research, I still get excited to dream up the perfect names for the characters in my books. Finding just the right character name actually helps a story start to take shape in my mind. Since I have a tendency to get stuck on finding the perfect name (Maura or Mara? Lila or Lily?), I try to break the process down into just three steps.

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