Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Words About Words: Naming Yesterday and Tomorrow

"Commander Lyons!" a red-faced, portly man boomed, grabbing his limp hand. "I am Abner Connaught, elected President of the World-State, in your absence. In the name of the peoples of Earth, I welcome you."
- H.L. Gold, "Hero" (1939)

People have known throughout history that names have power. The right name can inspire confidence, open doors to success, and clear the pathways to a charmed life. While names have become another method of personal or individual expression in the West today - witness the obsession some people have with coming up with "unique" or "original" names for their children - that doesn't mean they're any less important, or any less worth of careful consideration. This holds true for authors just as much as it does for prospective parents.

Character naming is an important step in the world-building process, and I think it should be done carefully - rather than just jam together the first personal name and surname that come to mind, I find it's worthwhile to take the extra time to figure out a name that works. I like names that have a resonance to my ear, carrying subtle meanings if I feel like putting down another layer, and which are either common or nonexistent on a web search. It's a reward of its own, putting together a name that no one else has.

Not all names are created equal, though. While some, such as John, Sarah, Andrew, or Mary, have been relatively popular and fashionable for centuries, there are others that are deeply associated with a particular time period. Take, for example, the quote leading off this post. The concept of a World-State is something that's always been a hallmark of an enlightened futuristic setting, but there it's set off by its leader being named Abner - a name which was prominent in the late nineteenth century, but unheard of today. The same is true of names like Horace and Mabel, Percy or Mildred - names which suffered a precipitous decline in popularity around the turn of the century, to the extent that they're almost entirely associated with the elderly segment of society. In 1939 it was a different story, sure, but seventy years later it's just another datum that dates the work.

Science fiction tends to be forward-looking and preoccupied with the future. That is, after all, one of its prime goals. It follows, then, that the names of people who inhabit these futures are important in setting the stage, and authors who want to avoid tying their future to a particular era overly tightly would do well to look at history, and the nature of how the popularity of names waxes and wanes. After all, what name sounds more believable for the square-jawed 21st- or 22nd-century science fiction hero, Peter or Cuthbert?

Of course, societies change. By 2100, "Peter" and "Cuthbert" could be equally out of fashion. If you're dealing with characters coming from a Western background, however, one potential source of names that have an "otherworldly" flair without historical baggage is the ultimate source for Peter and Abner both - the Bible. Though many popular names in Western cultures have Biblical roots, not all Biblical names are currently popular. Nehemiah, for instance, seems to have been at least somewhat obscure when Robert A. Heinlein chose it for President Nehemiah Scudder, the architect of a 21st-century American theocracy, in 1940's If This Goes On—. Rizpah, a feminine Biblical name, doesn't yet seem to have gained much popularity, but is one that could plausibly come into greater use in the future.

Names have been known to rebound, as well. Phoebe, for example, steadily declined in popularity over the course of the 20th century, only to spike with a vengeance in the 1990s, presumably due to the success of Friends. In a few more decades, many "old peoples' names" may have lost their current connotations and find newfound popularity - all it takes, after all, is one sufficiently high-profile character or celebrity baby to kick-start a name's rise or renaissance.

Ultimately, it comes down to how the author wants the audience of the day to react to the world. If the story's set in, say, 2095, and the author wants it to come across as conservative and past-oriented in mindset, a good way to cement that feeling might be to populate it with Horaces and Ednas, Berthas and Wilburs.

Name popularity curve information in this post was derived from NameVoyager at the Baby Name Wizard, a tool which graphically represents the highs and lows of name popularity from the 1880s to 2008, presumably within the United States. It's pretty cool; you should totally check it out.

Earlier Words About Words:

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