What’s in a Name?

Things are getting busy as this theatre production gets ready to go up, and I have my hands full. It’s also past time that we start speculating about our next play. Since we usually do Shakespeare in the fall, Romeo and Juliet has been up for consideration.

As usual for me, my mind went off on several tangents.  The one that I’m still thinking about is Juliet’s line, “What’s in a name?” which made me think of an NPR piece I heard a couple of months ago. This piece featured a man named Jamaal who participated in The Race Card Project, in which people submitted six-word descriptions of their feelings on and experiences with race and cultural identity.  Jamaal’s entry was simply, “My name is Jamaal … I’m white.”

Surprised?  I’ll be honest, I was.  Which is good – it made me think about my worldview and why many people are surprised when they finally meet Jamaal.

I spent a good bit of time thinking about this man and his unique perspective, some of which he describes to NPR (a great read), and I’ve revisited that train of thought several times since. This time, though, my thoughts on this merged with another contemplation – what should I name my characters?

Base image via beevolve.com

Base image via beevolve.com

Obviously, this is not where Jamaal and NPR were going with this piece, and I’ll let you explore the cultural implications and philosophical questions that his experiences bring to light on your own time, as I did. I highly recommend reading the article.  But today I’m exploring a tangential, shallower thought.

Every name has connotations.  Some, like Jamaal’s, tend to come with broad cultural assumptions firmly attached. Others are painted by our experiences with people of that name (which is why I am vehemently against shortening my daughter’s name to Lexi). We even gather impressions from media we’ve seen.  Wendy is different from Maria; Linda is different from Madison.

Names can carry age connotations, for instance.  With the exception of some classic names that have remained popular longer, baby names tend to be generational, and we identify this without putting words to it.  Who is younger, Kathy or Emily? Tony or Sawyer? They seem to rotate, too. I remember when Sophie was my great-aunt’s name and part of the elderly generation.  Now Sophia is one of the most popular names for young girls, and I’m aware of a youthful Sophie or two.

We also associate names with expectations.  Who is more likely to be a cheerleader, Madison or Sarah? What about Brandon or Tom?  It doesn’t always make sense, but we do associate names to professions, social classes, and personality types. Some of your connotations are probably quite different from mine, but some are reinforced by media and social trends.

So, maybe it’s not the most important aspect of a story, but names have meanings we don’t always thing about.  It might be worth spending a moment or two considering whether your character’s name represents the right age, at least, or whether people might find it off-putting.  Or, like Jamaal’s parents, you might want to do something a little more unexpected.

Or, like many things, I could be overthinking this. 😀

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