Names have power. They can amuse, embarrass, infuriate, placate and cause all flavours of angst and frustration following that traditional question: What are we going to call it?
Most of all, names can hurt.
Choosing names has been on my mind of late for various reasons, far beyond the stresses of picking one for the new baby, or new kitten. The currently fractious state of global politics is bubbling with name-calling, the COVID crisis has added a whole new layer of vitriolic terminology, the COVID variants themselves now have a naming scheme all of their own to head off the aggression of calling them by geography. Names have power, and like any true power, they have no allegiance, no affiliation with good or bad, but depend entirely on how we use them.
I got started on this train of thought because picking names is one of those great challenges for a writer. You want a good name for your character, something that feels right, that the reader can bond with, that has that thrill of perhaps being a little bit exotic, without being anything more unusual than the style of the writing can tolerate. From there, my mind took one of its frequent sideways rambles into the general business of names, the ones we are given, the ones we give others, and the ones we choose for ourselves.
Join any online forum or social media and the first thing you have to do is choose a name for yourself. Personally, I am utterly lazy about this and do that strange thing of using my own name. I’m sorry if that seems shocking, when most people seem to pick anything but. That laziness does mean I opt for variations on a theme of MarkHJ, because the only thing I in any way dislike about my name is just how long it takes to write. I can only think of one place I have ever deviated from this, where I called myself Biskit, which is sort of a given name, just not given to me by my parents.
It’s simple really. I lived and worked in Reading for a number of years, home to Huntley & Palmer biscuit makers. So I was given the name Biscuit, or Biskit as I deliberately misspelled it.
As nicknames go, it was one I was happy to use, which is a relief because some of the names we give people are mean, if not downright cruel. You only have to read the newspaper headlines to see a fine collection go past. After all, our prime minister is prominently referred to as Bozo the Clown by one newspaper, which is not kindly meant by any stretch of the imagination.
The thing that strikes me the most is that I have taken to using “Bozo” in conversation, which feels hugely childish in hindsight, and it’s not the first time. Looking back over the years, I have bestowed unkind names on people who have annoyed me, or adopted existing cruel monikers, because those names have a fearsome power to grant a sense of victory, superiority or just being a part of the crowd.
Names are a pain. When I started writing this, I had a bundle of ideas in my head for an amusing, frothy piece about choosing character names. I’ll probably write that article one day, but for now, it’s raining, and chilly, in the middle of summer, and my mind drifted down into the darkness of names.
Perhaps the next time I give someone a name, I will be more considerate, take into account the hurt I might cause, but probably not, which annoys me no end. Names have power, a dangerous power, and I use it as carelessly or maliciously as anyone else.
Editor’s note: I was tempted to use “Biskit” for the byline of this article, but my inner adult won that argument. If I can’t think of a name for a character or place when I’m writing a story, I use a placeholder of a letter and a digit, so that I can do a global search and replace with the real name later without fear of accidentally changing any other text.
OMP Admin Note: Mark Huntley-James writes science fiction and fantasy on a small farm in Cornwall, where he lives with his partner and a menagerie of cats, poultry and sheep.
He has two urban fantasy novels out on Kindle – “Hell Of A Deal” (http://relinks.me/B01N94VXBC ) and “The Road To Hell” (relinks.me/B07BJLKFSS ) – and is working on a third. His contribution to the One Million Project: Fantasy anthology is While We Were Sleeping.
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