Autobiography of a Name Nerd
My love affair with names began in elementary school when I selected a book about the meaning behind names from the monthly book order catalog. I enjoyed it so much I asked my parents to buy me a second name book. I picked up the original Beyond Jennifer and Jason, and highlighted it within inches of its life. I loved the way names sounded in my head and how Pamela and Linda took thinking about names a step further than most books. They gave them new meanings and classifications and offered insight into how names might be perceived by other people at all stages of someone’s life. It fascinated me and thus, a name nerd was born.
For years, I scribbled stories here and there but my favorite part of the process was always naming the characters. I labored over who would get which moniker, many times to the detriment of the story. I’d have two full pages of characters with spectacular names and one page of actual story completed before I gave up and started something new.
I’ve always kept lists of names I like and names I despise. If there’s an internet quiz that will tell me what my name should be, I’ll take it. If a friend or family member wants to talk about what to name their children, count me in for the discussion. New book coming out talking about the power names have on employment or college admissions? I’ve preordered it. When a celebrity is pregnant, I’m usually stalking gossip sites to find out what name he or she chose. When my husband and I dug into our ancestry several years ago, I was more interested in the family names than their stories.
Once I even researched how I might create a career working with names. I searched the internet and emailed college professors to find out what they had majored in and what kinds of things I might do to prepare. The consensus was that there are many paths to a career in onomastics, the study of names. It combines linguistics, anthropology, sociology and psychology, history, and so much more.
So where did this preoccupation with names lead me? Back to writing of course. I could never have enough children of my own to use all the names I love, so I save them for my characters. I write contemporary young adult novels and I have a very specific process when beginning to name my characters.
I must have a physical and emotional picture of the character in my head. I think about the kind of name he or she might have. Short and sassy? Old-fashioned and conservative? Nickname or formal? I decide if the meaning of a name is going to be important for the character, or not. Sometimes the right choice comes to me quickly and other times I try a name out only to change it later. If I don’t choose to use something from my running list of favorites, I seek out a couple of trusted resources.
All of my stories, currently, are set in the US, so my first stop is always the Social Security Administration’s website to see what the Top 1000 names were for the birth year of my character. I consider this data because I’m writing teens and their families set today. For example, I probably wouldn’t give a sixteen-year-old girl, born in the late 1990’s, a midcentury favorite like Carol or Diane, unless there was a specific reason in the plot.
Once I’ve got some possibilities on trends, I search other websites – most frequently Nameberry – to find a name that fits not only the year but the character’s personality. When I write a character who calls for a name from a specific country or culture, I usually turn to my trusty search engine and try to follow the same steps as above, but for that country. Wikipedia happens to keeps lists of top male and female names for recent years for many countries worldwide and I have used those lists frequently. I tend to stick to names that aren’t super-trendy, but definitely reflect the time.
Choosing a name, for me, almost always signifies the beginning of something – the birth of a child, the start of a new book, the launch of a company, the foundation of a team. Names can express values, emotions, and culture. While it may have started decades ago, my passion for names has grown and I’m grateful to have found a place I can put that passion to good use. I’m more than proud to call myself a name nerd.
Christina June writes young adult contemporary fiction when she’s not writing college recommendation letters during her day job as a school counselor. She loves the little moments in life that help someone discover who they’re meant to become – whether it’s her students or her characters. Christina is a voracious reader, loves to travel, eats too many cupcakes, and hopes to one day be bicoastal – the east coast of the US and the east coast of Scotland. She lives just outside Washington DC with her husband and the world’s most rambunctious four-year-old.
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on April 22nd, 2015 at 1:44 pm
Okay, have you been eavesdropping on my life? I laughed out loud about your pages of names but no story. Me, too. I didn’t become a writer but I’ve suggested 4 baby first names and 3 baby middle names, all girls and its my claim to fame. Thanks so much for the article. We name nerds should stick together!
on June 28th, 2015 at 4:10 pm
I loved your story! As a retiree, I’m not knitting or gardening or crafting… I play Sims 2. Don’t laugh…
I think my main goal is naming my characters… they have lots of babies so I can name them. It’s funny
how they evolved. I started with the surname “Tanner” and wanted something cute with it… don’t know
how I came up with “Tempe”. But when Tempe had kids with Nathan Montgomery, they were all named
after Arizona towns: Winslow, Prescott, Page… it was such fun. Character-naming is fun because your kid
doesn’t have to live with any consequences!
I think my first interest in naming was when I was a kid in the ’50s, I was taken by a movie heroine,
Phyllis Holmes. I loved the way it sounded and how it was spelled. I pretended I was her. As a teen, I
dreamed of having a daughter named “Valerie”. My mother said she chose her firstborn’s name after she
heard a mother calling her young girl, “Helga”. Interesting, and it went well with our very ethnic name.
When I was 20 I took a dance class and the younger kids practiced before us… a little girl’s name, “Carla”
always stuck with me, so gently soft-sounding. I wanted to name my daughter Carla many years later,
but it doesn’t go with our last name. I still regret it – my daughter says, “I am SO a ‘Carla’!” Naming
still intrigues me. I thought the sound of “Evander Holifield” was so lovely! I envy people who can
come up with beautiful and unusual names.
Our niece just had a baby and named her “Margaret”. I never liked that name, thinking it fuddy-duddy.
But it’s growing on me. Little Margaret. One thing I’ve learned… it’s not the name itself, it’s who’s wearing it.
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