Initial names

When I was a preteen, I was verifiably obsessed with initial names, for both sexes. I thought they were the absolute coolest, and gave so many to my own characters—main, secondary, and minor. D.J. (Donald Joseph), M.J. (Michael Joseph), R.J. (Ronald Joseph), T.J. (Tina Jasmine), R.R. (Ralph Roger), B.B. (Bonny Barbie), J.J. (Jade Jacqueline), L.C. (Lisa Clarice), S.J. (Suzanna Jane), E.J. (Emma Jane), V.J. (Victoria Jane), N.J., Z.C. (Zinnia Constance), just so many!

I may have gotten the idea from the junky teen shows I watched and the youth pulp fiction I read in the early Nineties, or perhaps I thought it was cool on my own. Either way, they seemed the ultimate in cool to my preteen self.

I could be wrong, but going by initials instead of a full name seems largely a trend in the Anglophone world. Sure there are many people who professionally go by initials, but I doubt they’re called by initials in private life.

The most popular seem to be any first initial with J, and J with any second initial. For some guys in the former category, J stands for Junior instead of their actual middle name. They also seem more common on males than females.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not a huge fan of pre-planning nicknames; e.g., naming a girl Arabella so she can be called Ella. Many parents say children name themselves, even when they were set on another name or nickname. Planning a full name around a nickname or not bending from a particular nickname is unnecessarily rigid.

Maybe Natalie Josephine will think N.J. sounds really fun and cool, or maybe she’ll grow to prefer her middle name or the nickname Nat, Talie, or Natasha. Zachary Bruno might love the name Z.B., or he might prefer his full name Zachary or the nickname Zach. But they’re less likely to make those decisions if their parents have already decided they’re to be called N.J. and Z.B. We tend to live what we know, which includes not questioning the nicknames given to us before we could remember.

And what kind of nickname can you give someone who already goes by initials? Some already sound like names in their own right, like Z.Z., L.C., and K.D., and some names with J as the second initial can be shortened to, e.g., Dej (DEEJ), Tej (TEEJ), or Ej (EEJ). However, not all of them have nickname options.

I believe people should be able to choose their own nicknames, even if that means rejecting a nickname selected by parents. Some initial names do sound cool, like G.K., Z.B., and H.S. One of my characters, Urma Christine Laura Anderson, is also called UCLA because her parents thought it was the funniest thing when they realised her full name spells out the abbreviation of a college.

My greatest concern with initials is making sure they don’t spell anything negative (e.g., Katherine Karla Kumiega, Arthur Samson Sokolnikov), not choosing certain initials on purpose so I can call a kid S.J. or L.Z.

A unique namesake idea

Not everyone names children after relatives or friends. Some take inspiration from literature, film, music, and popular culture.

And some people make the presumably rather uncommon decision to name a baby after a much-loved doll or stuffed animal from childhood.

While some kids don’t like stuffed toys very much and strongly prefer things like model cars, science kits, and kites, I think it’s safe to assume most kids have at least one special doll or stuffed animal. Boys as well as girls can also enjoy and love dolls, just as some girls always prefer stuffed animals to dolls.

If a child acquires this cuddly friend at a very young age, that doll or stuffed animal will become a major part of their life growing up. Sometimes a special toy is the one constant in a very difficult childhood.

There are so many touching stories about cuddly friends who were with children all during wars, civil upheavals, totalitarian dictatorships, abusive childhoods, poverty, orphanage upbringings, long journeys to a new country, etc.

When it comes time to have children, that doll or stuffed animal’s name may spring to mind as the most natural, perfect namesake. Obviously, this presumes it’s a normal name that works on a human in that language, not something like Precious, Gumdrop, or Babykins!

It also seems more meaningful if it’s a name the child chose, instead of the name the toy came with or a name bestowed by someone else. Even if you give a child a doll or stuffed animal at a very young age, you should leave it unnamed so the child can select the name later.

My character Tatyana Tvardovskaya-Koneva names her firstborn Kira after her first doll, a ragdoll with brown braids, whom her father braved the influenza pandemic to buy when she was a few days old. When she was six weeks old, he finally gave it to her.

That doll was with her all during the terror and uncertainty of the Russian Civil War, including several very close escapes from being killed. Tatyana also made the long journey to America with her dear doll, and it remained her dearest toy during her family’s difficult life in a tenement.

When she was probably about four years old, Tatyana named her Kira. No other name felt just right for her first child.

“Yes, exactly like my doll. I never forgot how you braved the flu pandemic to buy me my first doll, and how you kept her with you for six weeks until you gave her to me. That doll represents all the love you’ve always had for me, though you’re not my blood father. Now you have your own Kira to share with me, and you’ll be able to love her just as much as I loved my first Kira growing up.”

My character Inga Savvina likewise names her firstborn child after her dear doll Dotnara, whom her unjustly imprisoned mother made and gave to her as a fifth birthday present. Dotnara comes along with her when a high school graduation present vacation to Vladivostok in 1942 turns into a defection to Shanghai and eventually a journey to America to meet the father who has no idea Inga exists.

Dotnara is the one constant in Inga’s life through so much upheaval and uprooting, her one friend left from home whom she’ll never have to say goodbye to. She’s also particularly special because she came from Inga’s missing mother.

Again, no other name fits just right when Inga becomes a mother herself.

Would you ever consider naming a child after a particularly beloved doll or stuffed animal? Do you know anyone named after one? What’s the name of your dearest childhood cuddly buddy?

The pronunciation guide is up

In early April 2015, I began working on a pronunciation guide, but quickly put it in my drafts folder because it was so exhausting. Though it’s not meant as a comprehensive guide, there are so many letters, both vowels and consonants, with so many different diacritical marks, to keep track of! I also had to provide analogous sounds for each.

I’m sure I omitted some letters by mistake or didn’t accurately describe their sounds. If you see a mistake, please let me know so I can make the correction! You can also let me know if I left any important letters out.

Since it’s a page, not a post, it’s pinned under the blog header. I hope it’s of use to readers.

The importance of researching character names

Choosing a name for a fictional character should entail as much time, care, thought, and attention as naming a child. Though you can always change it later if you grow to dislike it or discover it’s inaccurate, it can be very difficult to suddenly start thinking of that character by an entirely new name.

For perhaps a year or so after I finally officially changed the name of my character Amy to Lyubov (Lyuba), I mentally couldn’t help but still think of her as Amy. I created her as a preteen, began writing the first book in earnest at thirteen, and knew her as Amy till I was 31. The Russian translation of Amy was serendipitously perfect for her, however.

What kinds of things should be taken into consideration?

1. Birth year. This applies to contemporary fiction as well as historical. You can’t assume the names you’re familiar with always existed, or were common on girls vs. boys. It’s one thing for a few characters born in the early 20th century to have names like Amanda, Jason, and Jessica, but when you give the entire cast names like that, it smacks of predating naming trends.

Awhile ago, I read a photo essay about birth in each decade from the 1900s till today, with the hypothetical mom given the #1 female name of those decades. The writers didn’t realise they should’ve gone back 20-30 years for those names; e.g., the 1970s mom would much more likely be Linda or Barbara than Jennifer, the 1990s mom would be Jennifer instead of Hannah, and the 21st century mom would be Jessica instead of Sophia.

If you’ve never encountered or heard of anyone with that name in that age range, it’s probably anachronistic. Always check to make sure it existed, and work in a line or two about how unusual it is.

2. Linguistic accuracy. It was so embarrassing to read a short story with a Japanese character who had the surname Wang. Was he adopted by Chinese parents?

As upsetting as it was to be raked over the coals by people on a writing message board in 2011 re: the Western names I gave my Russian characters, it helped me to realise I needed to change them. “Translating” names is culturally arrogant and severely outdated.

Leon Uris was also guilty of this in Mila 18, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I don’t understand how he could do so much historical research yet give all these Polish characters non-Polish names! Andrei should be Andrzej; Alexander should be Aleksander, nickname Alek; Paul should be Paweł; Ana should have two Ns; Stephan should be Stefan; Sylvia should be Sylwia; Susan should be Zuzanna; and Simon should be Szymon. I also doubt anyone in Poland uses the spelling Rachael. And Rachael and Deborah’s surname should be Bronska, not Bronski.

3. Overall name trends among that demographic. The type of names chosen by wealthy old money families in 1900 won’t be the same as those preferred by poor farmsteaders in the Ozarks in 1880.

4. Many names currently popular for girls were once exclusively male. Ashley, Taylor, Jordan, Courtney, Evelyn, Alexis, et al.

5. People in the past tended to be much more conservative with names. It was quite surprising to find one branch of my family tree where the kids were given names like Oliver, Albert, Lavinia, Cornelia, and Rebecca, instead of John, Mary, Elizabeth, William, and Anne.

6. Don’t make symbolism too obvious. E.g., instead of the surname Goodfellow or Bonhomme, why not find a name whose meaning includes the word “good,” “friend,” or “help”?

7. While many people defy their names’ associations, it’s sensible to chose something that conveys a certain image. E.g., you probably associate different kinds of names with studious people, popular kids, artists, and poor people in the Ozarks. You don’t have to use a clichéd, stereotyped name to do this.

8. Don’t gut-load your cast with Top 100 names. In real life, families and friends tend to have a mix of popular, trendy, classic, unusual, and old-fashioned names. If everyone has a super-popular name, your story will date very quickly.

9. Don’t get too obscure or difficult to pronounce. Using lots of tongue-twisting, rare names seems like showing off your research or how passionate you are about that culture. You can also find nicknames. E.g., my character Mieczysław goes by Mieszko.

And speaking of, I’m long overdue to get back to the pronunciation guide I started a few years ago and put into my drafts folder! It explains how to pronounce letters with diacritical marks in various languages, and combination letters like the Russian ZH, the Hungarian CS, and the Polish SZ.

10. Nothing wrong with simple, common names, but I prefer names that are more than just “there” for important characters. Readers are more likely to remember a distinctive name like Octavia, Ammiel, Justine, or Leopold than Casey, Terry, El, or Bob.

Should religious and secular names match?

Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Neopaganism all have the tradition of using a distinct name for religious life, a name which doesn’t always match one’s legal name. Depending on how religious one is, that other name may be used almost exclusively, with the name on the birth certificate only being used on things like legal documents and during customs checks at airports.

Other people, on the flip side, are so completely secular and assimilated they rarely, if ever, use the religious name. At most, they might have that name on their gravestone. I’ve been at more than a few services where people called to the Torah genuinely didn’t know their own Hebrew names, or those of their parents.

Regardless of where one falls on the religious spectrum, should these names be direct translations of one another or have similar sounds? Should they be one and the same, or is it okay if they’re radically different? These considerations can be applied to naming fictional characters, naming a baby or adopted child, renaming yourself, taking a confirmation name, and adopting a new name upon joining a religious order.

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Historically, a baptismal name was required to be a saint’s name, often different from the given name even if it were already a saint’s name. Some priests permitted non-saint names so long as a saint’s name was added to the existing name. In modern times, things have been relaxed quite a bit, with the only stipulation being that a name not be “foreign to a Christian mentality.”

It goes without saying that one’s confirmation name be a saint’s name, as well as the name adopted when taking religious vows. Though many nuns, priests, and monks often had no choice in the past, today they can choose their own new names. Many modern postulants continue using their original baptismal names.

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For much of Jewish history, one’s Hebrew and everyday names were one and the same. Having a secular name from the host country’s language wasn’t even considered until legal emancipation arrived, and with it increased cultural assimilation.

Some countries, like Hungary, demanded all legal names be from the country’s national language, with relatively few approved names being translations of Hebrew names. In places without legal emancipation, like the Russian Empire, people were forbidden to give their kids vernacular names or change their own names.

Yet another example of how I was that kid who read too much and understood too little: For years, I gave my Jewish characters native Dutch, Polish, German, Italian, Romanian, etc., first and last names. The names of Biblical origin were fairly common names outside the Jewish community.

I’d obviously heard Jewish surnames like Goldman, Rosenberg, and Cohen, but I didn’t put two and two together. I was genuinely surprised when I discovered how different Russian–Jewish history was from the mainstream Russian history I was so familiar with, and how they had no love lost with their native land!

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Some people prefer a religious name be a translation of the legal name, or one and the same. Other times, it might start with the same letter or have a similar sound if there’s no equivalent. There are also some names which have lovely meanings or inspiring history but are too much of a mouthful or sound heavy and old-fashioned.

If you’re naming yourself or a character, you’re free of the family pressure which often comes with naming a baby. Many families make parents feel compelled to only and always name after dead relatives instead of using original names they truly love. I’ve spoken before about how ridiculous I think it is to claim a single initial counts as a real namesake.

Regardless, the only people who count in real-life naming are the parents or the person oneself. Maybe you love the name Apollonia, Faustina, Qismat, Jerome, Achilles, or Arjuna more than a massively overused name that doesn’t speak to you. Perhaps the translation of your religious name doesn’t appeal to you, or you want them to be worlds apart.

Your friends and relatives aren’t the one who’ll have to live with that name for the rest of their lives. Don’t meekly accept a name out of blind duty or not wanting to disappoint people. That makes for a terrible naming story.

And if you don’t like the name your parents chose for you, you can always change it when you’re an adult. If everyone used the same hundred names over and over again, life would be quite boring.