Friday, February 14, 2014

What's In a Name

     Recently, I sat in my dentist's waiting room biding time until summoned for my checkup. Side tables were topped by magazines and newspapers for complimentary reading. One table had the White Pages telephone book. I picked it up and let it fall open. Then I read the roll of names.
     I read telephone books for fun, but it's also an occupational hazard. I read these books when I dry up on names to christen new characters, or to re-christen others. I log them into my iPad for future reference. The possibilities and combinations are endless; their histories more so if I do some digging.
     Some surnames are just that––the last name of a family carried for generations differentiating one family or neighbor from another. Time, distance, and generations of marriages have lost the attachment of meaning or symbolism to names. Time changes much, and that reflects the bulk of family names. The richness of generation after generation carrying a family name has been diluted.
     Many surnames convey a legacy of trades or crafts, and many of those names stuck like logs. Historical or genealogical records are sometimes needed to deduce those occupations, but not always. I once knew a family in Georgia whose neighbor came from a long line of crop farmers. The elder's name was Sam Cabbagehead. In the online version of History Today, I found an interesting article by C. M. Matthews titled Surnames of Occupation. Check it out.
     Then there are family names that hint of a future, but time and hindsight are needed here. To wit, I personally know a librarian named Connie Brain and an arborist named Ken Roundtree. A recent newspaper article discussed breakthroughs in fusion power involving high-speed physics. The name of the lead author in the study is Omar Hurricane. Today's issue of The Wall Street Journal, featured a piece about a Miami landscape architect who "dreams up dense, thickly forested canopies ... for high rises and million-dollar residences." His name––Raymond Jungles.
     Combining first and last names for the sake of a laugh, however, smacks of what-were-they-thinking––fodder for the comics or humor writers. Legalized name changes would be in order for some of them. Names like Vinny Smooz, Bea Bee, or Chan See. I'm not sure how real these people are, and many names defy reality, but you can judge for yourself by looking into The Anomalous List of Unusual Names. You will chuckle for sure.
     However, if you want to give meat and bones to newly-found characters' surnames, to the stuff of your daydreams, seek out reference dictionaries of surnames. All cover origins and meanings with several giving detailed information on name-forms and how they have changed over time. I list a few for starters: A Dictionary of SurnamesPenguin Dictionary of Surnames, and American Family Names.

So what's in a name? As you can see, a lot. 
If you haven't done so, pick up the White Pages and skim the names, even addresses. You might find inspiration at best. At the least, you'll be fascinated by the variety of names or their derivatives. You might also want to know more of their histories for the building of your own characters.