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The Poetry of Names

Naming our characters can be one of the best parts of writing fantasy, or even contemporary fiction. Many writers choose their characters’ names with as much love and care as they would give to choosing their own children’s names. Poring over baby name sites, foreign language dictionaries, studying mythologies and genealogies, they finally arrive at the perfect name, or so they think. The reality is, there is one aspect of naming that is often forgotten by writers, particularly white English speaking writers, and that aspect is cultural naming conventions.

Recently a friend, knowing that I’m a Chinese speaker who has more or less married into the culture, asked me for some feedback about a name she’d chosen for a Beijing-based Chinese character in her upcoming urban fantasy. The name struck me as a bit odd, and I asked my friend how she’d chosen it. She went on to explain that the name was the name of a Chinese goddess, and that she’d chosen it because of the characteristics the goddess embodied. This was nice idea, but, as it turned out, an entirely inappropriate approach to Chinese names.


I explained to my friend that while in English speaking naming culture we certainly name people after gods, goddesses, mythical characters, folk heroes and the like, in China it was just not done. Whereas in the English speaking world you can name a child Diana, Athena, Barrack, or even Arya, in China it is not socially acceptable name your child Wukong after the Monkey King, Guanyin after the goddess of mercy, or Zedong after Chairman Mao. Chinese cultural naming conventions dictate parents sholudn’t even name children after family members (especially dead family members), much less easily recognizable mythical figure.

Naming conventions are deeply rooted in our cultures, and ways that sometimes it is hard even for the culture’s natives to understand or articulate. While the English-speaking world may have relatively flexible naming practices compared to some cultures, there are still rules aplenty. Many of my former students unknowingly blundered their way into unfortunate English names by through mistaken assumptions about naming conventions. My favorite example is the name Yan 燕 in Chinese. I’ve had to take several students aside and quietly tell them that “Swallow” is not really the best choice for an English name. And yet, it is a ridiculously easy mistake to make — we have perfectly acceptable bird-based names in English, names like Robin, Paloma, Wren, and Lark, so why not Swallow? Perhaps the number one naming convention of the English speaking world? Don’t set your child up for a lifetime of name-based taunts. Forever conscious of all of the terrible ways a simple name can be transformed into something filthy, Americans recognize the horrible potential of the name Swallow almost immediately.

For some cultures, however, names are more serious business. I asked my critique partner, Bruce, who is heavily involved in the promotion and growth of First Nations artists in his region, about the naming practices of the northern First Nations such as the Haida and the Tsimshian, who are native to British Colombia. He explained that for the Haida, there are different kinds of names — use names, hereditary names, and bestowed names. There are pools of names that should only be used within a family, and adoptees would be given names outside of this pool of names. Some names are only used with certain titles, and some names are titles. Use names, or the names used to refer to a person on a daily basis, are never said out loud once the owner of the name has died. Needless to say, the naming conventions of the Haida are complex, and it would be incredibly easy for someone whose research only went as far as a cursory Google search to make offensive mistakes when naming characters.
When we chose my daughter’s name, my husband lamented the fact that we could not name her Wang Cuiqiao 王翠翘. We were stuck with the character Cui 翠 because it was her generational name, and there aren’t many original options that go with Cui 翠. Wang Cuiqiao, he said, was really a very nice name, but there was just one problem — Wang Cuiqiao was the name of a famous Ming Dynasty prostitute. Now, I have more than a passing familiarity with Chinese history, but this, I would not have known. Imagine if I’d been going through characters to match Cui on my own and hand stumbled upon this character Qiao? Luckily my husband was in charge of Chinese names and he ultimately chose the very lovely character shi 诗 to go with her name, so my daughter is called Wang Cuishi 王翠诗, an unusual but not outlandish name.

And as for my friend, the one with the Chinese character in her urban fantasy? I turned to my husband as well, and told him what sort of feeling my friend wanted to evoke with the character’s name, and he came up with something pretty great — something unique, a bit unconventional, but still socially acceptable.

W.H. Auden once said, “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” Sometimes, it isn’t enough to be familiar with a culture or to speak a language. I lived in China for fifteen years and speak the language fluently, but when naming Chinese characters I always defer to a native speaker (usually my husband). The would-be-Swallows were competent English speakers after all, and me being a more than competent Chinese speaker is not enough for me to be able to wield the subtle cultural and historical knowledge required to choose perfect Chinese names. Writers should, equally, use caution when naming characters outside of their own culture. No matter how much of an expert you consider yourself to be, or how much research you’ve done, names are tricky. They’re tricker than the language itself, carrying with them an entire cultural history that often goes back beyond living memory. At the most basic level, names are the most visible representations of the culture itself, and as such, the writer has an absolute obligation to get them right.

 

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